For the 14 students who traveled to Ireland with Professors Suzanne St. Germain and Susan Donnellan, it was more than a trip to the Old Sod. It was an insight into the education system of Ireland, a journey into history and the opportunity to get to know education counterparts in a country that is at the same time similar, yet so foreign.
The trip, part of the course “Psychology of Education- International Perspectives: Ireland” included visits at five educational institutions and a whirlwind tour of sites that are centuries old.
The group visited the Marino Special Education School for ages 3 to 18 that specializes in individualized educational plans for children with disabilities, behavioral issues and learning disabilities. For Jayson Clark, a student on the trip, this was a life-changing event. “The opportunity to visit this school took me out of my comfort zone. Before the visit I was terrified of being in a special needs classroom …would I be able to relate and connect?” he says. “The students in the Marino Special School were so full of excitement and joy that it allowed me to look past my fear and really connect with these amazing talented students and to see that every child’s education can be achieved no matter what their needs are.”
Then the group stopped at Bright Horizons where the children range from infants and toddlers to pre-school and pre-K. “They were very welcoming and the children were very happy in their colorful setting and were well cared for,” says Professor St. Germain.
The students also visited National Schools; public schools that provide underprivileged children the opportunity to get an education, assure they will have a morning meal and after-school programs. “It’s about more than just education,” says St. Germain. “It is about keeping them safe. The children in the national schools have parents that are itinerant. They live in trailers on the side of the highway and are always on the move. The schools do the best they can.”
Some of the facilities, St. Germain adds, are in the suburbs of Dublin, almost a two-hour bus ride away. They also visited the Mary Immaculate Junior National School and Senior National Schools, serving K-5, and grades 6 to high school.
“Our students toured for two hours in each school, which gave them an insight into the Irish educational system and helped us learn what they are doing,” says Professor St. Germain. “The school is the focal point of survival for many of these students. Their life and their safety revolve around them.”
Although the curricula are similar to those in the United States, and the teachers are equally committed, it is a challenge. “The National Schools are teaching the pre-vocational skills that they hope will allow these young people to break the cycle of poverty, violence and drugs.”
The schools are for the most part, funded by the government. “There is an anonymous millionaire who gives money every year to the public schools, but only to the after-school program,” says St. Germain. “He is not donating to the curriculum, but to the after-school programs, because that provides nutrition and keeps the students in a safe environment until 6 pm.”
Another highlight of the week of travel included visits to historic sites including the Irish Emigration Museum that traces the 10 million people who have left the isle of Ireland to land all over the globe and who have changed the world.
“A wonderful moment for us was on a guided tour of Christ Church Cathedral where we climbed into the belfry and got to ring the bells,” says St. Germain. After reaching the heights, they descended into the crypt of that oldest continuously used building in Dublin.
The tour continued with a visit to Trinity College and a viewing of the Book of Kells. The book is Ireland’s greatest treasure and the world’s most famous medieval manuscript. The book from the 9th century is a richly decorated copy of the four Gospels of the life of Christ.
Another amazing moment, says St. Germain was a visit to the Newgrange UNESCO World Heritage Site. This Neolithic monument constructed about 3,200 B.C., is older than Stonehenge and when the winter solstice occurs, the passage lights up. “It is an ancient clock, built with stones that had to be transported over boulders in rivers and by pulleys to create the formation. It is an architectural masterpiece.”
The students also visited the Malahide Castle, stood on the Cliffs of Moher, 702 feet above sea level (about 50 stories) and had a chance to sample local food and do some sightseeing in Galway.
It was a memorable experience, says Professor St. Germain and each student vowed to return.
“This trip will remain in my heart forever and I can’t wait until the day I get to go back and discover more of this beautiful land. The relationships and bonds formed over just a week blew my mind. These people are no longer strangers to me, but family,” says student Brandy Bussiere.
Student Gaylan Garraway says her takeaway was what she learned about her chosen profession. “Being a teacher is so much more than passing on knowledge from one mind to the other. Through this trip, I have gotten the opportunity to learn that to be a teacher you must be willing to be vulnerable to your students in order to help them to open up and grow. You must give them a part of yourself in order to form a bond, and from that bond, inspire them to look at their peers as not only classmates, but friends.”
And Teresa Ball expressed her appreciation for Professors St. Germain and Donnellan, “I can’t even put into words how grateful I am to have these two professors in my life and how much they have changed my outlook on my career, my major and myself.”