Diversity and Harmony in a Spirasi Classroom
Adult education offers that special learning environment where learners of all ages and backgrounds can participate together, arriving at the same point often from different and varying journeys. This piece gives a brief insight into the diverse nature of the educational environment at Spirasi, and the overarching common goal to better one’s life.
Author - Angus O’ Riordan , Teacher with Spirasi.
In any adult education class you can find learners from various walks of life, each attending for their own personal motives and desires. Adult education offers that special learning environment where learners of all ages and backgrounds can participate together, arriving at the same point often from different and varying journeys. Upon entering third level education, my own experience of an all-boys school was abruptly flipped on its head when meeting new classmates of different generations who had opted to study later in life, each armed with a wealth of experience that only exposure to the real world can give you. And yet I was as much a part of that educational environment as anyone else. I am reminded of this in the classroom at Spirasi. Learners through their diverse pathways to education are indeed challenged by their new environment, but by coming together and equipped with a common goal to learn, understand and develop, there is an underlying interconnectedness. Education acts as a medium for unity.
Diversity is a term that has perhaps become somewhat diluted over the years since the first large scale arrival of migrants to Irish shores almost two decades ago. In other words, it’s a term that can get overused. An ESOL tutor (English for Speakers of Other Languages) however looks upon diversity through quite a unique lens. An ESOL classroom exemplifies diversity in many forms and is almost synonymous with the term. Walk into a classroom in Spirasi and there is an immediate sense of this. Due to the fact that educationally Spirasi exclusively works, in broad terms, with asylum seekers, refugees including survivors of torture and their family members , it doesn’t take long to appreciate how many stories there are in the one room, how many different journeys have led up to this collective coming together. Diversity is apparent, and yet there is also a realisation that as different each learner is to one another, in nationality, mother tongue, belief system etc., there too exists a harmonious goal which only education can provide. A Spirasi class exudes this: diversity and harmony side by side.
All journeys which have led to the classroom at Spirasi have not been without their own unique set of difficulties and challenges. Each individual has their own distinct story to tell. The classroom is not the space to share or call upon these stories. Nevertheless, as in any educational environment, learners grow in confidence and develop an ease and trust between each other. As an individual grows, the former self whose way of life was abruptly and dramatically disrupted, begins to reveal itself more and more. We begin to see the doctor sitting next to a seamstress who sits next to an athlete who sits next to a welder. There is recognition that regardless of race, belief system, gender or nationality, there is a shared experience, and that experience often presents itself in the warmth, respectfulness and sense of togetherness on display in a Spirasi classroom. On the surface there is much difference. However the common goal to learn and improves one’s life, combined with an unspoken awareness of a shared journey, appears to encourage a collective sense of oneness.
For the majority of learners at Spirasi their educational development came to an unexpected and inconclusive end, pulled from beneath them, that is, if there were any educational opportunities available in the first place. This results in learners arriving to a Spirasi classroom from very different starting points educationally. There are those who have barely seen out some form of primary education, while others have achieved success at postgraduate level. Naturally we aim to place our learners in the most appropriate level according to their skills. However with limited classes and spaces, there is inevitably quite a variety of learners in the one room; diversity once again, from the perspective of educational skills. The ESOL tutor must be aware of this. It is fundamental in order to achieve collective goals. The learners in a class do not possess a uniform skill set. Weak literacy skills, poor concentration levels, damaged confidence, stunted penmanship, difficulty in understanding tasks, the challenge of navigating a worksheet, a fear of the written word: these are all some of the real issues faced by many of the ESOL learners at Spirasi. Here lies perhaps the greatest challenge in an ESOL classroom: fostering a learning environment that aims to cater for all, regardless of strengths or weaknesses; a learning environment that aims to be inclusive and meaningful to the learner; a learning environment built around the appropriate teaching tools and resources employed by the tutor that are accessible to all; a learning environment that respects the diversity in educational starting points and strives to meet that need, as layered and complex as it may be. With a solid foundation based upon inclusivity such an environment can be realised.
A Spirasi classroom is diverse from multiple viewpoints. While this diversity is recognised and forever present, an ESOL tutor aims to nurture cohesion by allowing the learners a way in, driven by the learner’s own spirit to engage and develop their opportunities to navigate the world outside.
An ESOL learner at Spirasi may have significant external factors which can impact upon their educational development: the arduous journey to Ireland, their own vulnerability as an asylum seeker, previous traumas and the aforementioned barriers to education, to name but a few. Their pathway through education may require a particular type of support quite unique to such learners. Allowing the space to develop at an appropriate pace is vital. Over the past 20 years Spirasi has provided a safe and nurturing educational environment whereby can reignite their potential.