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Alexandra College

Staff Spotlight - Stefanie Winn-Sothern

Every Friday we feature a member of our staff in our Staff Spotlight! This week, we spoke to Religious Education teacher Stefanie Winn-Sothern about her teaching career. 


Why did you begin teaching?

I remember very clearly always being told in school that I should become a teacher! I have always had a keen interest in education and working with young people. I think teachers have a very unique opportunity to make a difference in the lives of their students. I had a number of teachers who were very influential when I was in Alex and I am lucky to work alongside some of them still today. They were so encouraging and fostered a love of learning in me. I think that has played a huge part in my career direction. I always enjoyed subjects like History, Religion and English so progressing to study humanities at third level was a natural choice. I ended up studying Religion and Theology at Trinity College where I studied Philosophy, Theology, World Religions, Ethics and Biblical Studies. I even did a semester of learning how to translate New Testament Greek to English! I particularly loved Middle and Near Eastern studies which focused on the Middle Eastern and Jewish civilisations from antiquity to present. I think I surprised a lot of people with my choice of degree! I gained a real appreciation and love for the subject during the four years I was there.  As I approached the end of my studies I decided combining this with working in education was the perfect fit for me.


What do you enjoy most about teaching Religious Education?

I love how diverse Religious Education is. I hope to challenge people’s preconceived notions about the subject. Ireland has an extremely complex relationship with religion and I find there can often be a lack of understanding surrounding what is taught in the classroom during RE class. As an academic discipline, it is a study of the historical and sociological influence of religion on human affairs, behaviours and beliefs. This is so important for understanding the society we live in today. It is a very relevant subject for the 21st century - we need to learn to coexist and collaborate with others in an ever-changing world. Religious Education is one angle to expose ourselves to diversity of thought and ways of living. 

The Religious Education curriculum at both junior and senior-level covers a number of wide-ranging topics including philosophy, ethics, social justice, gender studies, morality, world religions and non-religious worldviews (e.g. Humanism) which mirrors the pluralistic society we are now living in. We have an incredibly diverse student body in Alex and RE helps the students become open-minded individuals and increases their cultural awareness. 

On a practical level, Religious Education helps students gain strong reasoning, writing and critical thinking skills which is essential at third level and beyond. It is a subject that has a lot of cross-curricular links with other humanities subjects like Classics, Politics and Society and History. I love meeting past pupils or hearing that current students are interested in studying Religion in college. I feel like I have opened their minds to think about where the subject can take them as they consider their further education. 


Why did you choose to teach at Alex?

I attended secondary school in Alex and then went on to complete my undergraduate studies at Trinity College. I was very fortunate to be able to return to Alex to complete my teaching practice as part of the Professional Diploma in Education and from there, an opportunity arose for me to teach full time. Alex has continuously provided a broad choice of subjects to students, and was one of the pilot schools for Leaving Cert RE which was first introduced in 2005. The community of Alex and the core values of the school are what speak to me. To be able to teach in an environment where the students can really challenge themselves and recognise their true potential is very special. With Alex’s history of championing women in education, I feel very fortunate to have experienced this as both a student and on the other side as a teacher. 


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

It was a huge learning curve. Alex has a fantastic IT department who were able to make the transition to online learning as smooth as possible. While there were teething problems, utilising apps like Zoom and Google Classroom has been extremely beneficial for communication purposes and they are platforms we are continuing to use as a school. We really had to push ourselves to be innovative and creative online. I think it is admirable and a testament to the students how quickly they adjusted in incredibly challenging circumstances. The human connection side of teaching is what I value and enjoy most and with remote learning, fostering the student-teacher relationship was probably one of the main challenges for teachers. There does seem to be light at the end of the tunnel now which is exciting but I believe the pandemic has changed how we teach and learn in our classrooms, reminding us to always be empathetic, flexible and adaptable.


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

 I have had the opportunity to travel with the school many times, which is always a great experience. In March 2019 I accompanied a group of 5th Year students to Kolkata for the annual trip to see the work the Hope Foundation does in the city. Alex has been fundraising for the Hope Foundation for many years and there are a number of incredible initiatives that we visited during our week there. As well as all the outreach work we saw, to experience the culture and vibrancy of the city was amazing. Alex has a very special relationship with the Hope Foundation which was fostered by the late Gerry Coleman who taught Geography during my time as a student in Alex. While at one of the creches the Hope Foundation supports I saw there was a plaque dedicated to Mr. Coleman in his memory. To see that really felt like a very full-circle moment for me.