Staff Spotlight - Sarah Jane Macken
Every Friday we feature a member of our staff in the Staff Spotlight! This week, Head of Geography Sarah Jane Macken spoke to us about her teaching career.
What interested you in teaching?
I always loved my Geography teacher, Ms Fitzgerald, and I was lucky to have a wonderful role model. She was so enthusiastic, and my 1st Year in secondary school was her first year of doing the HDip in teaching. I remember that I loved the way that she used so many details in her writing and I loved the way she drew diagrams on the overhead projector. It was through her support, interventions and encouragement that Geography became my favourite subject and so when I went to university it was a natural progression to study Geography because I loved the subject through her.
Why is teaching Geography exciting?
I find Geography exciting because it’s the study of the interaction or relationship of humanity with the natural environment; it’s the study of the world around us. It helps us to explore where we live, and it gets students thinking about their village, or town, or city, or country, and even the whole world. It also helps us to understand the way the world is physically, what it looks like; socially, as in the people that live in it and why they live where they do; and of course economically with the flow of money and goods around the world. There are so many skills learned through Geography, like how to read ordnance surveys, aerial photography, reading synoptic charts, weather maps, etc and these skills allow us to understand what’s going on in the world.
Geography also helps us learn to think about how to solve the different problems we may come across in our everyday life. It’s more relevant than ever when you consider issues such as global warming, scarcity of natural resources, pollution, poverty, racism, inequality, loss of habitat and biodiversity, and so many more.
Why did you choose to teach at Alex?
Well I grew up down the road in Rathgar, and I was always aware of the school with its fabulous reputation, both academically and in sport; my paternal grandmother Lillian, her daughter Gene (who became my Godmother) and later my daughter Kate all went to Alex and I remember cycling up Temple Road as a teenager and being in awe of the school, and coming to play hockey on the old grass pitches. When I was in university I was always involved in the Geography society as public relations officer, and secretary, so I was always involved in the subject and when the opportunity came to teach Geography in the school, I jumped at the chance. Gladys Ruddock had been the Deputy Principal in Alex for 9 years, and the year that I joined she became the Principal so I filled her shoes as the Geography teacher. She and Heather Adams, another Geography teacher who taught the physical and regional side of the subject while Gladys had taught the social and economic side, were fabulous mentors to me and gave me wonderful support.
How have you adapted your teaching for Covid-19? Is there anything that you think you’ll continue doing after the pandemic?
While Zoom is no replacement for face to face teaching, it is a wonderful alternative to support students who for whatever reason cannot attend in the classroom. It’s also a wonderful communication and content delivery tool; parent-teacher meetings over Zoom have become so much more accessible to both teachers and parents. We have the opportunity to speak to parents in their own environment and are able to plan to a greater extent than before; it’s absolutely the way to go. The accessibility of Zoom webinars has also been a fantastic change; I’ve been able to attend so many webinars on the new junior cycle and geographical investigation from my dining room table, and it’s just brilliant.
Covid-19 has also highlighted the importance and potential of continuous assessment, especially its role in the accredited grading process when state exams are disrupted.
What has been the highlight of your teaching career so far?
There have been so many over the past 30 years of my time in Alex; a memorable highlight was when I introduced field work in the early 90’s. Field work was an option on the old Leaving Cert exam paper and it guaranteed students 25% of the exam and was a fantastic practical experience for the girls. It involved a considerable amount of planning in terms of choice of location, reconnaissance of the area to be studied and features of observation, logistic issues like travel, accommodation, health and safety, personal equipment, parental consent and staffing requirements. We’ve visited a number of places with the 5th and 6th Years including the River Dargle in Powerscourt, the Lugduff Brook in Glendalough, and more recently down to the River Dodder in Milltown during lockdown.
Another was when we travelled to Iceland with 6th Years, which was an absolutely amazing experience. We saw volcanic plateaus, geysers, glaciers, the Blue Lagoon, lava fields, and the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, all of these geological features and formations, which was just a great experience.
Whilst there have been many highlights and changes during my career in Alex such as people coming and going, teaching daughters of former students, working with 4 different principals, making lifelong friends, memorable and enjoyable sporting and cultural events, working in Alex has been so much more than a job and I look forward to more years climbing the back stairs to the North, North West Geography Room, the infamous Room 29! Alex is all about school community, team spirit, achieving potential and comradeship, which suits me fine. I'm not quite fossilised yet!