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Blog post Part of special issue: Education research: Northern Ireland

Who is your teacher and why does it matter? The lived experiences of history and citizenship teachers in Northern Ireland

Clare McAuley, Lecturer at Ulster University Caitlin Donnelly, Senior Lecturer at Queen's University Belfast

In Northern Ireland, as in other divided and conflict-affected societies, the contribution of education and, particularly, the school curriculum in aiding social cohesion has long been recognised (Worden & Smith, 2017). The Northern Ireland Curriculum, introduced in all post-primary schools from 2007, emphasises education’s social priorities and creates opportunities for young people to explore the causes and consequences of division and difference through the teaching of history and citizenship.  

In order for the socially transformative potential of education to be realised, a systemic synergy between the vision of educational policymakers and the teachers responsible for implementing the curriculum is a prerequisite; yet there is much evidence to suggest that individual teachers’ mediation of policy can lead to a refashioning of requirements to reflect what they feel comfortable with teaching (Ball, 1994). This practice of ‘curriculum by proxy’ occurs in many Northern Irish classrooms as the statutory requirements to teach controversial and contested issues related to ‘the past’, and its legacies, continue to be met with avoidance by some teachers yet embraced by others (Donnelly et al., 2020; Barton & McCully, 2007).  

It could be argued that teacher avoidance of conflict-related issues adds yet another layer of division, in what is an already deeply divided society, by dividing young people into ‘the haves’ and ‘the have nots’ – ‘the haves’ being pupils who receive the curriculum as intended by policymakers, giving them the opportunity to learn about conflict-related issues and thus helping them make sense of growing up in a divided society, and ‘the have nots’ being pupils, of which there are many, who are denied these learning opportunities as a consequence of individual teacher decision-making. This blog post shares some findings from a recent study and offers new understandings related to teacher avoidance. 

This doctoral study is the first research that aimed to deconstruct the lived experiences of eight history and citizenship teachers, examining what they brought with them into the classroom, how they actualised the curriculum, and their approaches to teaching about difference. Multiculturalism and critical pedagogical perspectives provided the theoretical frame of analysis, situating education as a site to explore difference with rich qualitative data gathered from a series of three narrative-style interviews per participant.  

‘The findings reveal that growing up in a divided society has consequences for teachers’ pedagogical positioning and their engagement with “the past” since it is a “past” that is often still part of the everyday.’

The findings reveal that growing up in a divided society has consequences for teachers’ pedagogical positioning and their engagement with ‘the past’ since it is a ‘past’ that is often still part of the everyday. While each teacher had a unique story to tell of growing up in a divided society, a common thread shaping personal identities was the influence of the home and community in which they resided and their educational experiences. These influences were often both hegemonic in terms of constructing knowledge about the conflict, and pernicious, in that ‘knowing’ was often linked to the seepage of partisan information, cultural attitudes and norms towards ‘the other’. In some cases, a conscious culture of political silencing infused these spheres of influence, with teachers growing up knowing that conflict-related issues should not be talked about. 

It was those teachers whose lived experiences meant that information about ‘the past’ was absorbed uncritically, as a silence often shrouded the discussion of politically or historically sensitive topics, who tended to be more susceptible to avoiding controversy in their classrooms. In contrast, teachers who, when growing up, were encouraged to express their opinions, to question and critique the information to which they were exposed, were likely to engage with the contested and conflicted past. 

These findings have theoretical and practical implications for how we understand the transformative potential of curriculum policy in divided societies and the need to better support teachers in carrying out this challenging work. Opportunities should exist for teachers to reflect critically on ‘who they are’ and how their personal biographies have consequences for how they teach. 


References 

Ball, S. J. (1994). Education reform: A critical and post-structural approach. Open University Press.  

Barton, K. C., & McCully, A. W. (2007). Teaching controversial issues… where controversial issues really matter. Teaching History, 127, 13–19. 

Donnelly, C., McAuley, C., Hughes, J., & Blaylock, D. (2020). Teaching about the past in Northern Ireland: Avoidance, neutrality, and criticality. Irish Educational Studies, 40(1), 3–18. 

McAuley, C. (2021). ‘Who your teacher is does matter’: The lived experiences of history and citizenship teachers in Northern Ireland and the consequences for pedagogical practice [EdD thesis, Queen’s University, Belfast].  

Worden, E. A., & Smith, A. (2017). Teaching for democracy in the absence of transitional justice: The case of Northern Ireland. Comparative Education, 53(3), 379–395.

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