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Alexandra College

Staff Spotlight - Caoimhe McDonnell

Every Friday we feature a member of our staff in the Staff Spotlight! This week, Geography and Politics and Society teacher Caoimhe McDonnell spoke to us about her teaching career.

Why did you begin teaching?

To be honest, when I was in school myself, I never thought I wanted to be a teacher. I find people always say that they knew from a young age, but I definitely didn't!! I did know that I wanted a career where I would have a caring role, help people and work with people in a social setting every day. It wasn’t until I went to college and I gained a new understanding and appreciation for the subjects I teach today that I knew teaching was for me. My grandmother was also a Principal in Dublin and my mum also started her career in teaching so that definitely played a part in my decision to become a teacher and they were both incredibly supportive. 

What do you enjoy most about teaching Geography and Politics?

With both Geography and Politics I love that they are so relatable to everyday life. Human geography would be my favourite module to teach on the geography curriculum, since it’s about progress around the world in real time. The students can see what is happening around them outside of the classroom and are able to relate it to discussions in class. Politics and Society is a new Leaving Certificate subject to the Irish curriculum and I started teaching the subject in Alex in 2018. It is such a brilliant subject and I love teaching it. I was delighted to get the opportunity to bring the subject to Alex because I felt that it was so important that the girls had this subject as an option, especially since women are not equally represented in Irish politics and government. Every day is different in a Politics class since there’s constant change happening in the world, and it definitely keeps me on my toes in the classroom. Politics and Society is taught differently to most subjects and requires students to form their own conclusions/opinions on a topic and reflect on their answers rather than being told this is the ‘correct answer, learn it off’. It can be hard for students at the start to grasp this idea because of the way the examinations are designed in Ireland, but it is so rewarding for myself and the girls when they realise that their opinion and ideas matter and they are able to apply them to their answers.

 The subject also has a project component and it really gives the girls the opportunity to carry out research on what they are interested in, from the electoral system to human rights to social injustices in Ireland. Students have had great opportunities to work with different organisations, interview Taoiseachs, Ministers, TDs, Human Rights lawyers and activists.  It's all the work of the girls, and I am literally in awe of them when I come into class and I am told with excitement ‘Ms. McDonnell I have a meeting with this person, I am emailing this politician at the moment, or I am interviewing this Minster tomorrow.’ My favourite was when a student casually walked into the classroom stating how they were currently back and forth emailing Micheál Martin. It's absolutely incredible, the girls work so hard and it gives the girls so many opportunities. It is definitely a great subject that prepares students for college and life after school, no matter what journey the students decide to take after Alex. 

Why did you choose to teach at Alex?

I have been part of the Alex community since 2013 and I was very fortunate to be able to carry out my teaching practice in Alex. I grew up locally so I had friends that went to Alex and when I was younger I always went to the hockey and tennis camps in Alex so I was very familiar with the school. It wasn’t until I was carrying out my Masters in DCU that I realised how instrumental Alexandra College was on the progression of education in Ireland, especially for women. I found it so interesting that I actually decided to focus my thesis on women's access to higher education and the contributions of Alexandra College. As I was working in Alex at the time I had the great opportunity to delve into the Alex archives and retrieve amazing first-hand documents and letters from inspirational women dated back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. The documents in the archives are incredible, the history is amazing and I feel very lucky to be a part of a school that played a huge role in changing not only Irish education, but society as a whole. I have great colleagues and the rapport with the students is amazing. I get up each morning excited to go to work, not a lot of people can say that and it’s all down to the people that make Alex the community that it is. 

How have you adapted your teaching for Covid-19? Is there anything that you think you’ll continue doing after the pandemic?

We were very lucky in Alex to have an online learning programme already set up before the pandemic hit. All the girls had their iPads, we had Google Classroom set up and the teachers were familiar with online apps and programs to aid their teaching and students' learning. We also had great support from Erwin and David in the IT department who constantly sent us videos and tips on how to use different programs and apps, which I found so helpful because I would have been lost otherwise. Obviously teaching from home was definitely tough to adjust to for both teachers and students, and the idea of Zoom was daunting but when you tried it once it was a very easy transition. Now I am not saying it went smoothly all the time - the first time I tried Walking Debates on Zoom was not my finest moment as there was a lot of noise and shouting over one another. I soon realised I had to come up with other ways for students to get their opinions across and listen to one another, but the girls were great and adapted quickly. I will definitely continue to use Google Classroom and learning apps going forward, however it doesn't compare to teaching and learning in a classroom environment. The day we came back into school was amazing and there was such a good atmosphere in the College.

What has been the highlight of your teaching career so far?

Oh gosh, there have been so many. Seeing the girls coming into 1st Year and being a part of their learning experience and growth through the years to suddenly see the girls graduating is definitely a highlight. Introducing Politics and Society to the school is up there as well. I was incredibly nervous, I knew students would be interested in the subject and I felt there was a need for that subject in the school but I had no idea how it was going to go, if students would even pick the subject. Thankfully I had a great uptake in the first year and it is growing every year which is amazing. Alex is known for its wide range of subjects and extra-curricular activities; from Sports, Drama, Public Speaking and Music there is something for everyone, and it was great to feel that we were adding to that by offering Politics and Society. I have met a lot of past pupils that I taught the subject to and a good majority of them have gone on to study Politics, Sociology, Social Justice, Law etc in both Ireland and abroad which is great. There are definitely future politicians in Alex, so watch this space!!