What I Learned From Teaching Abroad In Ireland

by Janine Loh

When I finally got that email I’d been anticipating for months — telling me I had been accepted to student teach for a semester in Dublin, Ireland — I was ecstatic. I knew that it was going to be an experience of a lifetime. What I didn’t realize is that, even though I would be in Ireland to teach young kids, I’d be doing plenty of learning, too. In fact, what I learned from teaching abroad in Ireland is definitely going to make me a better teacher back home in the U.S.A.

The author on the Irish coastline.
The author on the Irish coastline.
Photo courtesy Janine Loh

When I arrived in Dublin I was surprised at how normal it felt to me, like being in Pittsburgh, New York, or any other U.S. city — except the cars were driving on the other side of the road, and the drivers were on the “wrong” side, too. I was teaching at an all-boys’ school, Willow Park School, which was pretty similar to American schools. But there were enough differences to ensure that I had a lot to learn.

One difference I noticed right away was that the boys in my Junior Infants class (similar to preschool in America) could already read simple words such as sit, pin, and jet, and could already blend sounds together in more difficult words such as three, storm, and paint. I learned quickly that they were able to read these words not only from exposure but also from the difference in curriculum. In America, we teach children to read first by teaching them the letters, and corresponding words that begin with that letter — A is for apple, B is for balloon, and so on. Irish children are taught to read by focusing on the sounds that each letter makes, and then building to the sounds that two letters make — like sh, oa, or ie. This difference in curriculum has introduced me to a different method of teaching, one that I can use someday in my classroom in America with children who might learn better by concentrating on sound.

Living in Ireland, learning the culture, seeing the sights, and hearing the stories gave me new stories to share with my students, and more information about the world that I had never known. Student teaching in Ireland, for me, definitely involved a lot of time outside the classroom. I’ve traveled to Galway; to Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands; to the Ring of Kerry; to Donegal, Dublin, Blarney, Belfast, Giant’s Causeway, Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, London, Stonehenge, and the Roman Baths. While visiting the sites and listening to the stories, I learned the history, geography, and folklore of these places. I can show my photos to my students, and share the stories. Like the tale of King Puck, the “Goat King” of Kerry; the theories on the original purpose of Stonehenge (was it a Roman temple? a Druid monument? a magical structure built by giants, aliens, or the Devil himself?), and why the Giant’s Causeway has almost perfect hexagon-shaped stones (were they the work of Irish giant Finn McCool?).

The knowledge I have gained by student teaching in Ireland is beyond words. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and I hope to share my experiences with my future students and colleagues in my school back in the U.S. Student teaching in Ireland has broadened my cultural awareness as well as my knowledge of history and geography and because of this, I know that I am better prepared to become a great teacher.