The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag has created much noise on the Internet as Irish people, rightly, are appalled by the shocking coverage coming from America. Some are happy to put black squares as their social media profile to show solidarity and others try to hold a mirror up to themselves to try and be better people. There are a number of teachers in Ireland who are sharing children’s books where the main character comes from a non-white background or challenges children to think about diversity.
However, why do we have almost no diversity in primary school teaching in Ireland? The most recent study of Irish trainee teachers from NUIG in 2018 found that 99% of trainee teachers described themselves as white Irish. 95% described themselves as Catholic. Both these figures are way higher than the national norm. Some say that no enough time has passed to allow minority background teachers from becoming teachers.
I’m no Joycean but I always like this one little piece of Ulysses where the characters are arguing about persecution of Jews in Ireland.
Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
And then the punchline:
—She never let them in
However, this isn’t true of Ireland. Immigration, though definitely outweighed in history by emigration, has been a feature of this country for a long time. For example, my own family migrated to Ireland over 100 years ago from Lithuania. Even more recent immigration during the Celtic Tiger started in the mid-1990s, almost 30 years ago. There is now a generation of adults in Ireland whose parents may have immigrated to Ireland but they were born here, were educated here and are now working here. Why are almost none of them teachers?
Some teachers don’t see that the Irish education system is stacked against minorities. When it is pointed out that 99% of teachers describe themselves as white Irish, many wonder what the problem is. In fact, I was challenged on this very matter yesterday. This was my response. It is written to a white Irish teacher, who I assumed was from a Christian background. I would be surprised if he wasn’t but maybe that’s my own internal bias. Anyway, I wanted to let him know what it’s like to be a teacher from a minority background in the system.
If you think about your daily life as a primary school teacher, there are probably things that you do every day that don’t really bother you all that much. For example, you probably aren’t too bothered about blessing yourself or saying prayers (to Jesus) or going to a church (or furthermore, kneeling in a church or even eating the communion bread.) You probably wouldn’t have any issue taking a sacrament class and you’d probably know what you were doing mostly, because even if you don’t practice all that much, none of it is alien to you. They’re just things you do every day in school.
Also, think back to when you were applying for jobs. It’s fairly likely that you didn’t have to think twice about applying for a job in any school. It’s even possible that a priest was happy enough to give you a reference. In fact, you possibly even said that you were a practicing Catholic (or whatever denomination) in your cover letter or job application. And when you did your interview when they asked you whether you would be willing to uphold the ethos of the school, you probably didn’t have to think that hard about the answer.
I’m not saying any of this to be combative and perhaps you do struggle with the this and I’m only assuming you don’t, because you said you don’t see an issue. All of the things mean that people like me can’t work in over 95% of schools in the country without compromising our conscience. Those of us that do, live with the fact that legally we can be fired from our jobs simply because of the family we happened to be born into.
By no means am I trying to virtuous. I have learned that once you think you are fully inclusive, you need to think again. And keeping thinking. I also have lots of work to do.