What I Learned at School

What I Learned at School

Last week I had to register my middle girl for big school, I struggled.

To make matters worse it’s my old school, have you ever done that? Gone back to your old school?  It’s a time machine, a fast one. As soon as you turn in the gate you’re back there again, the age you were, the way things were.

I’ve been doing it for some years now with my eldest girl and, it gets easier, especially by the time you reach secondary school, but going back to the start is hard.

You tell yourself that things have changed, times have changed and it’s better now but that doesn’t make it easier to do, that doesn’t suddenly give you faith in that 19th century invention developed for industrialisation and unchanged since.

School trains people to be workers not thinkers, it’s unequal in the qualities, in the abilities it values, it prepares our children for a world that doesn’t even exist anymore.

In the TED talk at the end of this post creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we’re educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence. He explains how the huge explosion of population means degrees aren’t enough when they used to guarantee your future..

He says we need to review our view of intelligence and I agree with him. Furthermore in Ireland we may be facing a future where college is once again out of reach for many people making the current system even more redundant and other practical skills and creative thinking vital.

He’s also very entertaining so if you’re in the mood for a good laugh after this post watch it. I promise you’ll smile.

The thing is I believe passionately in education but school…well that’s a different matter isn’t it?

On Wednesday I signed my lovely, happy child up for what was the most miserable time in the most miserable place of my life in the same place remember, the exact same miserable place.

My Saoirse
My Saoirse

The years from age 5 to 12 were the worst but none of it was pleasant aside from a few good friends of course. Hard times good friends make and here’s the thing…

I learned nothing academically in primary school that I couldn’t have learned better at home in a shorter time or done without learning

Here’s a selection of what I learned at school circa 1978 – 1987

Don’t cross the line (the line on the ground in the playground that is)

Warm milk is disgusting

The point of doing things is to get a gold star

Ann & Barry (basic reader)


All about bullying i.e. lots of people are bullies, including adults

2+2 is 4, 4+4 is 8… no wait. I learned my tables from my Dad on a car journey from here to Clare (250 miles) and back again. It was just the two of us. It was a positive experience.

If you answer a nun while you still have food in your mouth you’ll get thumped in the back (even if you are 6)

The favourite children do messages for the teacher

Lunches stink especially on wet days

Best to be invisible and be like everyone else if you can, good luck to you if you can’t

That sinking feeling

How to knit but not how to start a piece or finish it


Reason, sense, justice…kindness, they have no power here

‘The twelve bens lift their rugged heads over low lands of bog and moor in Connemara’…


‘Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum, benedicta tu…’

Violence… Don’t be in the wrong place at the wrong time or you might get beaten round a yard of silently staring faces while an old nun cries quietly in a corner

‘Grace O’ Malley was a child who shaved her head so she could pass for a boy and go to sea with her Dad. The End’

Don’t struggle with a subject. You’ll be openly ridiculed and taunted by the teacher if you do, you’ll fall behind…you’ll stay there.

Dread of Sundays

Sport is king and strictly for people who are good at it


Some days the whole class will cry…that is except the girl who saw it coming and loped off to hide in the toilets and my sister who wouldn’t give the teacher the satisfaction.

In the end it would be far better to copy everything, have it looking perfect and not understand any of it than have to ask a question and risk not ‘getting it‘ right away.

If your homework is wrong you may have your copy thrown at you or be asked to show the class how you did it wrong, on the board.

If the teacher doesn’t like the cover you’ve chosen for your copy she’ll rip it off

If you forget something your dead

‘The shannon rises in the shannon pot in the Cuilcagh mountains in Cavan, it flows for over 100 miles spreading out into lakes in places…’

If your’re great at English you can’t be bad at maths, it’s not possible, your obviously pretending

Just survive

The first school photograph

In the end I never caught up with the maths. In secondary school I was in the ‘good class’ (the honours class) through virtue of the subjects I was good at but I was in no way able for the ‘good’ maths class and the teacher was too good at them himself to help me.  I floated away. My leaving cert wasn’t bad, predictably the maths let me down and I didn’t get enough for my choices.

Free at last I went into modelling before making my own way to college and then to work based on the things I’d always been interested in, always been good at and never had any support, direction or encouragement in at school. I think that makes me one of the lucky ones don’t you?

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we’re educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our school systems, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence

Watch his entertaining TED talk by clicking HERE

Watch another inspiring TED talk on education, Sugata Mitra: Build a School in the Cloud by clicking HERE

TED Talks (Ideas Worth Spreading) bring together the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers, who are challenged to give the talk of their lives (in 18 minutes or less). Click HERE



32 thoughts on “What I Learned at School”

  • I’m shuddering here… but the knitting part… how to knit but not how to start or finish it made me laugh out loud!! I’d have made a whole wardrobe of cosy cardigans for myself by now (if only I know how to start!)

    • You mean you’d have made one giant cardigan that isn’t finished yet! I know you relate to this story as well : )

  • This was a hard read along with being to the point. I think your daughter is lucky because you will be on her side if she experiences any of those negative experiences of yours that you shared above.
    I couldn’t agree more that the Irish education system needs to be seriously examined and that education and school aren’t always connected.

    • That’s so interesting you say that Joanna as my first thought when it comes to my children and school is always that I’m on their side and it’s important to me that they know that. From day one I always told Shaylyn that school was an artificial world with no real meaning and no bearing on the real world. Aside from just doing your best and being kind to people I never felt she should buy into or ‘feed the troll’ that is school. She has come through very well thank goodness. To pre-empt bullying or feelings of school as the be all and end all I foster a kind of polite and healthy disrespect if that makes sense and always sympathise with whatever they have to deal with, usually agreeing with their complaint.

      • It does make sense. My parents did the same. They used to say to use that if we ever felt we couldn’t go to school all we had to do was say it. I think that was because my dad had such an awful time at school. We rarely cashed in on this but we always knew our parents were behind us 100%, I think that stood to all six of us.

  • I love that TED talk. It’s eye-opening, and I think every educator should have to watch it. Your description of your school days makes for very uncomfortable reading – I hate to think of a little child being subjected to that.

    • For me too Lisa! From what some teacher friends have told me they would love to do more to foster creativity and individuality but are very tied and restricted in what they can do in the classroom. Even the fact that they feel this way must make a difference, I really believe it does. A good teacher will still find a way to be encouraging at least, even with the restrictions imposed on them by the system. It’s an excellent talk, I LOVE it, he’s great isn’t he, very entertaining

  • Jane, I have been so touched by this.

    I have virtually digested every single word.

    Aside from how I absolutely agree on the need to change our education system, you have voiced so much of my experience in school.

    Even as a 90’s child, where corporal punishment was no longer allowed, that did not protect us from the verbal rath of a teacher in a bad mood.

    My memories of primary school are filled with being yelled at, left out in a dark corridor (because I reached across the table and asked for the crayons when the class was supposed to be quiet) and being absolutely berated for not being able to memorise my times tables.

    I still can’t count right.

    I can do a sum, when given time and piece of paper, but when I need to do a sum in the moment, in my head, I still come out in a sweat- TWENTY years later!!!

    Thanks so much for this post! By far my favourite in a long long time!!!

    • Thanks so much Laura for this heartfelt comment and thanks for sharing on fb too. Sadly it seems so many of us share in this story. All the creative’s perhaps!

  • Jane, we homeschool/Unschool, as you probably know, and funnily enough, that entire post is the reason why, although I have never been able to succinctly articulate it. I just went with my gut, even though I was absolutely terrified we were “doing something wrong/ ruining our kids chances” Hand on heart, it has been The Best Decision we ever made, we all have time to do what we need to do/learn, even me!! I liken it to being that our life is like a slow cooked meal 🙂 I identified with every single line in that post. It just broke my heart.

    • Very interesting Emily, I hadn’t realised until recently that was even an option in this country. Not sure I’d be up to it but very admirable and appealing on many levels and thank you.
      P.s. I edited the ‘me/my’ for you : )

  • Awww Jane you had a rough time in school, like you I loved the education part but the whole school thing I didn’t like at all between bulling and teachers having tehir favourites etc x

  • Oh Jane, that’s so sad. I’m so sorry you had such an experience. My experience was much luckier, but luck is probably all it comes down to: you’re so right that the system doesn’t fit people – they just want people to fit the system. My son loves school right now; my wish for him is that he always does.

  • I was going to ask you if homeschooling is an option in Ireland, but I can see by the comments that some of your friends are doing that. I homeschooled all of my children in Arizona with incredible results. In Arizona we have a huge homeschool community with all sorts of co-ops and great activities for the kids. If you come together with these other moms, you can create that environment and opportunities as well. It can be an amazing option!

    • Thank you Lori, I certainly had noticed your great success in home schooling, you are a brilliant advertisement for it. Not sure it’s for me but I’m certainly open to it and will be checking out some of the resources sugggested here. Thanks for commenting

  • Jane, I am sure you would find kindred spirits in the Home-Ed community and you would be welcomed I know. We are a diverse bunch in how we approach home-ed – some very curriculum-led and along a long spectrum to probably the unschoolers. Some children choose to go to school for a while, and so on. You could have a look at the HEN website – the Home Education Network which is quite open and there are other on-line groups where you might be asked what your interest in home-ed is and if anyone knows you – just security for the children. I am not selling anything, including home-ed, so please don’t feel pressured in any way! So glad to have met you online and appreciate you sharing your story. Love, Eileen

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments Eileen. I will definitely look these up with interest, thank you

  • Wow,what a post! Jane, this experience you so openly spoke of, resonates with so many of us on varying levels – thank you for sharing. Having had a similar experience myself, and watched ours go through similar and devastating experiences we decided to home educate/unschool from last year – and to see their improvement in confidence and enthusiasm is a blessing and reassurance that we have made the right decision. And I agree that there is a connection with your suggestion “All the creative’s perhaps!”. I ‘d been speaking to a teacher in training recently who remarked that it seemed as though the initiative was to break the spirit of the “free thinking imaginative child”!!

    • Thank you Sinead, I really appreciate the comment and hearing about your home school experience. I’ll have to do a bit of research I think : )

  • Hi Jane,
    I spent the last few years researching creativity in education and ways to integrate the arts across the curriculum. While I was in the middle of this my daughter was becoming more and more unhappy in school. The Irish Primary Curriculum is actually very child-centred and hopes to foster creative,critical thinkers who control their own learning, but for a variety of reasons this is not the reality in many classrooms. I took my daughter out of second class a year ago this week and we’re unschooling since. The change in her since is amazing, definitely the best decision we’ve ever made.

    • Thanks Annette, I’m intrigued and really blown away by everything I’m hearing here. If nothing else it’s good to know that if we do run into difficulty this is not only possible but potentially a really great option, thank you

  • I found this so tough to read as I was lucky enough to enjoy most of my school experiences and in turn head on into the teaching career myself.On one hand I have also seen how a teacher picked on a few and had their favourites etc and how kids good at spellings and maths got more rewards, on the other I now see how the system has and is changing to focus better on Gardners Multiple intelligences. NUI Maynooth has focused their whole teaching programme on these intelligences, it is the Department of Education that need to allow new teachers to use these intelligences in their classrooms. As a geography teacher I am suppose to teach all of the curriculum and MAKE the pupils understand and learn the material.And then get the points. The department does not allow time for me to let them dig soil samples, follow a river from its source to its end etc etc which I was educated to incorporate in my teaching. We need to find an alternative to the points system dictating our schooling lives, I am all for this.Alot of teachers now want to explore and create themselves too along with their pupils, and you will see this as your little ones grow over the next few years. i have certainly seen a diference with my girl. when I ask her what she has learned today it always something very exciting like how a cloud explodes to make rain, and she watches for them in the sky! I don’t think I ever heard a teacher in my life until now ask me to watch clouds exploding in the sky???!!!And yes the little child in me has looked up to see do they look like they explode!!!!!!! Jane, things are far for the better now, and there will always be bullies and there will be always be 2+2 to learn, but gold stars are gone, Ann and Barry have been replaced and little ones are having happier times exploring! I hope that this time next year you will be writting to say you have seen better times?!

    • Thanks for adding your thoughts, another perspective and some interesting information to the discussion. I know that things have changed a lot but like you I want to see even more change. Even now art is not an option for leaving cert students in Ballinamore (I presume that will change with the new school) and while I thought the new ty was excellent in its development and execution it was very lacking on the side of creative pursuits when you’d think it would be an ideal opportunity to incorporate those but those are small asides in the grand scheme of things. I am expecting that Saoirses experience perhaps even more than Shaylyns will be radically better than my own! As you say alternatives to the existing system and the restraints it puts on teachers needs to be found. That will take a lot of work by good people/teachers plus I’d imagine a fair deal of ‘creative thinking’: )

  • HI Dear Jane, I was so saddened by this post that I couldn’t manage a reply. Still can’t.
    Much love.

  • I am really enjoying this blog. I can completely identify with this piece as I went to that school too. When I saw the ‘Dread of Sundays’ bit I felt it. Horrible old witches. Thank you for writing this. I would love to think those women have come to sense and repented and changed but I doubt it. I’m glad times have changed and people are starting to see things for what they are, there is a long way to go though as the minimised mentality is still there. We can’t tar them all with the same brush etc.. The two nuns that taught in my time in Ballinamore were cruel abusers. The Catholic church have a lot to answer for.

    • So happy to hear you’re enjoying the blog and thank you for taking the time to comment but sorry of course to hear your story is the same as my own. We’re far from alone in this experience it seems

  • You could be describing so many peoples experience of school. I, like you left without the points to follow the path I thought I wanted to take but ended up returning to education in later years only to enjoy every moment of the experience. My way of dealing with my kids schooling is similar to your own. I encourage them to question everything because it is only by questioning what is perceived to be normal that we truly learn and change for the better. I think your daughter will make it through the next few years with few bumps or scrapes, after all she has you looking out for her.

    • Great comment Karen thank you. I like your thoughts on the topic and thanks for your support of the blog too : )

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