A trip to Northern Ireland brings peacekeeping lessons home
By Catherine Winkler
Friday, July 14, 2023
Five years ago, Laura Stachowski began brainstorming a way to bring teachers from Indiana to Northern Ireland, where they could see for themselves how peace and reconciliation were being brought into Northern Irish classrooms.
The pandemic and a halt on global travel gave Stachowski, Director of Global Gateway for Teachers, a chance to work on her proposal for a Creative Paths to Peace grant. After being awarded the grant and with additional funding from the Institute for European Studies, Stachowski, School of Education graduate student Mariah Pol and five teachers from Owen County finally traveled to Northern Ireland this summer.
As she was hatching the idea, it was important to Stachowski to give rural educators an international opportunity to explore peace and reconciliation and how that might transfer to their own classrooms. But at first, some didn’t understand how problems across the ocean could relate to schools back home.
“One of the (local) principals had said, ‘The troubles of Northern Ireland are really different to what we’re experiencing here.’ I’m thinking about things like bullying, children from immigrant families, and after one of the principals stayed to talk, (they could) see so many ways this can apply,” she said.
The trip was organized by Stranmillis University College. While the group spent most of their time in Belfast, they also took a day trip to Derry. During their time in Northern Ireland, they visited schools, met with teachers and learned more about the conflict and its historical roots.
When you have that opportunity to talk with the locals and learn from them, it reinforces what I’ve known all along, that programs like this are just so necessary for our teachers, student teachers and experienced teachers.
For the teachers who went, the trip was transformative. After hearing the different perspectives of everyone they met in Northern Ireland, District ESL Coordinator Sarah LaGrange said she appreciated how many people are just trying to make it a point in their daily lives to live in such a way that it promotes peace and kindness
“That is what I really hope to bring to my students this year; I want to be someone that can listen to the different sides of a conflict and instead of trying to 'force' reconciliation (which, really, is it reconciliation if it's forced?), be an example of kindness and respect so that students see that despite differences and past hurts, we can all be a part of building a safe and welcoming school and community,” LaGrange said.
Gosport Elementary third grade teacher Davida Truax called the trip an amazing once in a lifetime experience, adding, “I don't think anyone can truly understand what the locals faced and went through during the Troubles. Hearing it first hand and seeing the different communities was really eye opening. The main take away from this experience I will use in my classroom is that everyone has different beliefs and values and we need to respect that. We need to take time and understand how someone really feels about a situation and let them know that we do understand and respect that. In my classroom, I want to teach my students to respect each other and their differences and how we all feel matters.”
Emily Vladoiu is a special education inclusion teacher at Patricksburg Elementary School. During the trip, she unexpectedly learned that implicitly teaching diversity to students is essential.
“The separation that exists today in Northern Ireland appears, in part, to be due a lack of understanding of each other's cultural identity, whether that is religion, political affiliation, or something else. I want to expose my students (who live in a very homogenous community) to more diversity through the lessons I teach. That is my primary take-away,” Vladoiu said.
With a visit to the Derry walls and the Peace Bridge and lectures on the historical and current perspectives of the troubles in Northern Ireland , Stephen Franz, a fourth grade teacher at Spencer Elementary School, said the group was able to examine Northern Ireland’s education system in context.
“Preliminarily, I am thinking about classroom and grade level (and possibly school-wide) presentations about Northern Ireland (education system, the Troubles, identity, history, geography, etc.). I would also like to incorporate lessons learned into the way I manage my restorative justice circles and conflict conversations in the classroom,” he said.
When she reflects back on the years of planning and finally the fulfillment of taking the trip, Stachowski felt so much gratitude for all the people who made it possible.
“Seeing the value and what the teachers learned and how they felt it changed them, it’s amazing to me. It just shows that international immersion experiences, not necessarily tourism, but when you’re actually going to learn and interact with people, with a different focus, that’s what changes you,” she said. “When you have that opportunity to talk with the locals and learn from them, it reinforces what I’ve known all along, that programs like this are just so necessary for our teachers, student teachers and experienced teachers.”