Staff Spotlight - Sorcha Ryan
Every Friday we feature a member of our staff in the Staff Spotlight! This week, we spoke to French and Italian teacher and JCT Co-ordinator Sorcha Ryan about her teaching career.
Why did you begin teaching?
Teaching is something I was always drawn to. My French and Italian teacher in school was always encouraging me to become a language teacher! That being said, I didn’t start out as a teacher; I had a bit of an interesting and diverse career that led me to teaching. I studied French and Italian in the TSM programme at Trinity College and absolutely loved it. During my time as an undergraduate student, I worked in Nice as a waitress, studied in Lyon, won language scholarships to study in Perugia and Lake Garda and worked as an English teacher in Italy. The opportunities that languages opened up to me were incredible. I then went on to do a postgraduate degree in EU Conference Interpreting at NUI Galway. We learned how to interpret the spoken word from one language to another, both simultaneously and consecutively. I learned to interpret French and Italian into English, my active language. It was a very challenging course but really interesting as well; we would read up on a variety of topics before class such as politics or science and then deliver a speech back in English on that topic. My favourite type of interpreting is simultaneous interpreting, where you interpret what someone is saying in real-time. This requires a lot of concentration as you are receiving input from the speaker in one language and delivering output in another language at the same time. I really enjoyed this and it certainly got the adrenaline going! Consecutive interpreting is where someone delivers a speech and you take notes in shorthand while they are speaking. Once they have finished their speech, you deliver the speech in English. It was really interesting to learn about the different subtleties of interpreting, but it’s also a very competitive industry - interpreters are freelancers. It takes several years and 'concours' or competitions before you can become a full-time staff interpreter at institutions like the European Parliament. That wasn’t for me, and besides, the call of teaching was at that point far too strong to ignore.
After finishing this course I knew in the back of my mind that I would love to teach, but I was also itching to put my languages to work after finishing two degrees, and I wasn’t quite ready to go back to university so soon to complete a two year Masters in teaching. So after finishing the interpreting course, I worked with an Italian firm based in Switzerland, working between the office in Malahide and the office in Ticino. I did a bit of everything in the firm from translating documents, sales and client relations to helping out with the website all while using my Italian and sometimes French and it was a fabulous experience. From there I was offered a job at Google working as technical support for clients using Adwords, the advertising software. For me, it was this multicultural, diverse place to work, and it was a very exciting and innovative place. I knew that at Google I’d be able to use my languages as well as gain some skills in tech and business. I worked in the UK and Ireland market as well as the Italian market, and it was in Google that I found myself gravitating back towards teaching. A part of my role at Google was training Nooglers (New Googlers, it’s a word that’s very much used) on how to use Adwords. I then applied to do a rotation in the People Ops team where I was trained in Instructional Design and then went on to design courses for different areas of Google’s business. At this point, I was ready to pursue teaching and couldn’t shake the thought of how great it would be to teach something that I was truly passionate about full-time, so I went for it! I did some research and applied for the Professional Masters of Education, went for an interview and was accepted onto the course at Trinity College and now here I am, teaching French and Italian!
What languages do you speak, and what language would you like to learn next?
I speak English, French and Italian. I feel at home in these languages when I speak them. I also have Irish and thanks to my knowledge of French and Italian, I know Spanish as all three languages are Romance languages. I absolutely love the Spanish culture and food! I go to Spain almost every year and have done some incredible road trips there with my Extramaduran friend Ana.
I'd love to learn German and when I was eleven and twelve years old my family hosted a Belarusian girl called Anastasia, who was affected by the Chernobyl disaster, during the summer and so I’d love to study both Belarusian and Russian. It was only later that I learned that they were different languages (though Russian is compulsory in Belarusian schools), but my mum gifted me a Lonely Planet Russian-English dictionary, and I would write letters to Anastasia in Russian piecing together the words using my dictionary. She always helped me correct the grammar when she came to visit, which was fantastic.
What do you enjoy most about teaching languages?
There are so many things that I enjoy about teaching languages, but the most rewarding for me is seeing students enjoy the language and enjoying the learning experience of exploring a new culture and way of life. I was always known as the grammar nerd in university- my classmates would come to me for help with assignments! It has always been something that I’m passionate about because it’s almost scientific. Languages have opened so many doors for me. Knowing languages makes the world more colourful. I knew I wanted to be a teacher because I like helping people and explaining things to them. There is no better feeling than when you’ve helped a student understand something and then seeing their confidence grow in their language abilities. Hearing my students speaking back to me and telling me things about themselves in another language is really rewarding.
I also really enjoy using technology as I teach - we’re so lucky now because we have so many apps and programmes for language learning that we didn’t have when I was back in school, and it really helps to add another fun element to the class. It also ties in really well with the Junior Cycle key skills focus on developing students’ digital literacy. Using technology to play games and do activities facilitates a more immersive language learning experience because it’s all done through French or Italian. It helps make lessons even more interactive, developing students’ speaking skills, and it helps make revision classes more memorable. We use apps like Wordwall, Blooket, Quizlet and Kahoot, and I sometimes use these with the interactive whiteboard in the classroom so the girls are able to physically choose the correct answer on the board, which adds that kinesthetic component to learning.
How have you adapted your teaching for Covid-19? Are there changes that you’ve made that you’ll continue after public health restrictions ease?
We used Google Classroom a lot during the pandemic and lockdown to communicate with students, and now while the students are still unable to use their lockers I upload a PDF of each unit of learning in case they forget their book or have any issues with their iPad. We already used a lot of language learning apps before Covid-19 but we really built them into the curriculum during the pandemic and they’ve added a lot of variety to lessons, reinforcing vocabulary and grammar while keeping the girls engaged and having fun. Repetition through digital tools and games as well as group work and pair work is a really fantastic way for our students to learn a language.
Why did you choose to teach at Alex?
Alex is a wonderful school - the culture and ethos of the school of developing independent thinkers, encouraging them to be curious and open to everything are just fantastic. I’m very lucky to teach with a fantastic MFL Department, and we have a great vision for what we want to do as a team for the school. The school is also very diverse; we have girls who come from all over Europe every year. It’s a melting pot of different cultures, which is a great environment to be in. There’s something for everyone here whether it’s music, sport, or drama and you really see that with the girls. They’re so well rounded and open-minded and it feels like a community in Alex. I feel like a part of a family here, and so I love Alex.
What has been the highlight of your teaching career so far?
There are of course many highlights, but one standout is Languages Week, which is a week-long festival of games and languages to celebrate all of the languages studied and spoken by students in Alex that all of the girls get very engaged in! A few years ago we collaborated with the Music Department for Funky Friday, and the students sang Can’t Stop This Feeling by Justin Timberlake in all four languages offered in Alex (French, Spanish, German, and Italian). It was lovely to hear the chorus of girls singing in different languages on Funky Friday! Music is a big part of the pulse of Alex and the opportunity for cross-curricular collaboration and those kinds of things is what makes Alex a really vibrant school.
Another highlight that myself and the MFL Department are really thrilled about is the fact that Italian is becoming more and more popular as a language choice. When I started out at Alex, students could take up Italian as beginners in 4th Year and continue it for their Leaving Certificate. Now students can choose to study it from 1st Year. We're delighted that we now have an Italian class in every year!