From Ireland to Waxhaw

O’Connor brings Irish heritage to Kensington Elementary

by Josh Whitener

When Sandra O’Connor began teaching in Ireland, she had no idea she would end up working with first-graders in Union County. Now, the Irish teacher is on her second stint teaching in America, this time at Kensington Elementary.

O’Connor began teaching at Kensington in the fall. She is part of a program called Visiting International Faculty, which is the leading program for international educators wishing to teach in the United States.

“VIF is all about sharing our culture with (the children),” O’Connor said. “And then they share their culture with us as well. It’s like an exchange.”

O’Connor first came to the States in 2007 to teach kindergarten in inner city Atlanta, and loved it. At the end of the school year, she returned to Ireland due to some circumstances concerning her family back home. After several years of being back home, she reapplied to VIF. “I was always dying to get back here,” O’Connor said.

As part of a Union County Public Schools partnership with the VIF program, Kensington Elementary principal Dr. Rachel Clarke hosted Skype interviews with several different VIF teaching candidates last spring. But Sandra O’Connor was her first choice. During a family vacation in Europe last summer, Clarke’s husband met with a VIF representative who talked about this really great teacher from Ireland named Ms. O’Connor.

“It was like that final little stamp of approval,” Clarke said. “Sandra and I had this great interview. Then I’m out of my country and I hear from someone else that goes, ‘Oh yeah, you got a good one!’” Clarke took it as a sign that O’Connor was indeed the right hire and distributed her to first grade, the area where she thought an international teacher would be most beneficial.

Because all teachers in Ireland must be fluent in Gaelic, O’Connor had to study the language for a couple years before she could take the exam to become a teacher.  “Everybody in Ireland learns Gaelic in school,” O’Connor said. “But I hadn’t gotten a good enough grade to progress and do teaching, so I went back and learned Gaelic. That was a lot of fun.”

To teach her students about the culture of Ireland, O’Connor has incorporated Gaelic into some of her lessons. Her first-graders learn the Gaelic words for the days of the week and certain small phrases, such as “stand up” and “sit down.” O’Connor also teaches the students little Gaelic rhymes and songs in Gaelic.

“There are instructions that she gives the class in Gaelic,” Clarke said. “90 percent of the instruction is in English. But then out of the blue, she’ll throw something there in Gaelic, and I’m going, ‘What on earth just happened?’ Then all the kids move collectively and do something together.”

O’Connor also incorporates Irish culture into other subjects, such as mathematics and English. The children learn to count money in Euros and convert the temperature from Fahrenheit to Celsius. They also learn Irish-English rhymes and discover Irish terminology for English words, such as the “trunk” of the car being called the “boot.”

“They’re fascinated by English-Irish things,” O’Connor said. “Sometimes I’ll tell them to put their ‘jumper’ on, but I really mean their ‘sweater.’”

Because Ireland has “class” levels that somewhat parallel our “grade” levels here in America, the curriculum in Ireland is very similar to the United States. According to O’Connor, the teaching experience in Waxhaw is more similar to Ireland than it is to Atlanta in some ways. The main difference between Irish and American teaching is the terminology. In Ireland, a period is called a “full stop” and math facts are referred to as “tables.”

The schools’ sizes are also different. The school where O’Connor began teaching had approximately 400 students with two teachers per grade level, and her classroom had 29 students. Her school also did not have specialized teachers for subjects, such as art, music and physical education.

“I have 17 students in my class at the moment,” O’Connor said. “It’s fantastic. It’s a lovely system, that they can go to all these different classes.”

The teaching experience is not the only thing O’Connor likes about America. She loves the weather. She enjoys the mild North Carolina winters, and those hot summer days don’t seem to bother her, thanks to America’s air conditioning systems. (Ireland doesn’t have any air conditioning for those “four days when it’s actually hot.”)

O’Connor also loves to travel in America and has visited Washington D.C. (her favorite), Broadway in New York, and Orlando. She also took a road trip from Atlanta through Texas and Colorado to help a friend move to Utah. “People are always like, ‘Oh I haven’t traveled around America,” O’Connor said. “But look how big it is! Look at all the places you can go!”

The thing she misses most about home? O’Connor, a late-to-bed, late-to-rise person, confessed, “Apart from my family, I love that school starts at 9:20. I love sleeping in.”

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