sowing the seeds of transformation in the margins

Bernie Sullivan


A paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting as part of the interactive symposium for the Self-Study of Teacher Education Practices

The transformative potentials of individuals’ collaborative self-studies for sustainable global educational networks of communication


San Diego, 16th April 2004


This paper aims to demonstrate what I consider to be the transformative potential of my educative influence in enabling marginalised children to participate more fully in their own educational process. The issue of marginalisation is central to an understanding of how education can be a force for personal renewal and social good (O’Sullivan 2000). Because my work is to do with encouraging all children to learn how to contribute to future public discourses that will influence their own lives as citizens within an enlightened community, I take the idea of marginalisation very seriously. I am not alone in this endeavour. The recently published National (Primary) Curriculum (1999) in Ireland recommends that education should be about ‘enabling the child to live a full life as a child and to realise his or her potential as a unique individual’ (Government of Ireland 1999:7). Because I endorse this view, I have undertaken my enquiry into how I can live the rhetoric in my practice, especially in relation to children from the Traveller community, who are publicly recognised as being a seriously marginalized group in Ireland.


Children can be marginalised for social or cultural reasons, or because they belong to a minority group (see for example Connell, 1993; Kenny, 1997; Daniels and Garner, 1999). When children are marginalised, they are hindered from becoming active agents, capable of making their own educational decisions (see for example Aronowitz and Giroux, 1986; Fagan, 1995; Apple and Beane, 1999). Children can also feel marginalised when educational institutions do not recognise their rights to self-determination, or do not make any efforts to integrate them in a meaningful way into the educational system. The consequences of these actions for marginalised children are that they are often left feeling alienated from the educational system (see for example MacAonghusa, 1990; Jordan, 2001), that they may not have any sense of ownership of the process of education and that their difference can be seen as a negative factor within educational institutions.


This sense of the almost inevitable marginalisation of children from the Traveller community raises concerns for me in my work as a teacher, and especially in my role as a resource teacher for children from the Traveller community. Because I was so troubled, I decided to undertake my action enquiry into how I could enable my children to become aware of their own situatedness and learn to combat public prejudices, which frequently resulted in their marginalisation. Ultimately, I hoped, I would enable them to develop their intellectual and emotional capacity to resist the imposition of normative expectations and have confidence both in their integrity as fully participating members of an ethnic community, and in their capacity to find ways of contributing, as a minority community, to the future discourses of the majority community.


My research therefore takes as its starting point my attempts to transform the educational experiences of marginalised children so that they can benefit from the educational system in a way that is currently not available to them. My research focuses on ensuring that their experience of education becomes positive and life-affirming. In locating my research within my own practice, I am aiming to produce my own living theory of education as transformation as I strive to live out my values in my practice (Whitehead, 1989). This practice is grounded in my embodied values of equality and social justice.


As noted, in my particular context, the marginalised children are the Traveller children with whom I work. These children belong to a long-established nomadic group, who can trace their history back to the twelfth century (see for example Liégeois, 1987; Ní Shúinéar, 1994). Because of the nature of their lifestyle, Traveller families were constantly on the move up until the 1960s, and therefore their children did not feature much in the educational system. Since the 1960s Travellers have become more settled, due to economic factors as well as for legal reasons, and the majority of their children now attend primary school (Government of Ireland: Green Paper on Education, 1992). I work with Traveller children on a withdrawal basis, in small groups, from their mainstream classes. I provide learning support to those with learning difficulties, which would usually be regarded as falling within the remit of a Resource Teacher for Travellers. I also exercise what Finnegan (2000) describes as a ‘preferential option’ to work on projects relating to their culture and history with the Traveller children who do not require learning support. It seems to be a public perception that the Traveller community does not generally perceive secondary education as having any relevance to their lifestyle. The reasons for this lack of interest could be various. It could be seen, for example, that an educational system that serves the needs of a capitalist economy is not an attractive proposition for a group of people who choose to live outside of that economy, which is the usual situation of the Traveller people (McDonagh, 1994). However, because of my value around the concept of lifelong education (Sullivan, 2000), and because I do not subscribe to the idea that the only purpose of education is that it is a means to a job, I try to influence Traveller children to consider secondary education as a viable option that need not be a cause of conflict with their cultural identity.


I locate my research within frameworks of social justice and equality. I value the right of all pupils to participate in the educational system on an equal basis. I agree with Rawls (1971) that ‘in order to treat all persons equally, to provide genuine equality of opportunity, society must give more attention to those with fewer native assets and to those born into less favourable social positions’ (1971:100). To categorise a minority group as different, which often implies ‘inferior’, whether for social or academic reasons, is, in my opinion, to treat those children in an unjust manner. In agreement with Young (1990), I believe that social justice ‘requires explicitly acknowledging and attending to those differences in order to undermine oppression’ (1990:3). Arising from my value around equality of participation in the educational system, I believe that minority groups should have the same rights as the majority in their school to whatever benefits are available. This includes the right to have their culture recognised or their special needs catered for within educational institutions. If these rights are denied, the children affected can feel that they are not considered valued participants within the educational system. My value of social justice commits me to ensuring that the Traveller children with whom I work feel accepted and valued within the school system. It also compels me towards promoting an inclusive model of education, premised on an intercultural ethos that values all children equally.


In my practice as a Resource Teacher for Traveller children, I define my role in terms of two functions. First, there is the position of providing learning support to Traveller children who present with learning difficulties. This is an important aspect of my work, but often this is the only perception that many in the field of education have of the role.  Consequently, within my school, I tend to be seen as somewhat supplementary to mainstream provision, and am often targeted as the first one to go, when the discourse is around issues of staffing and resourcing. However, I attach equal importance to what I perceive as the second function, namely the need for developing in Traveller children an awareness of the value of their own culture and of its potential as a positive influence in their lives. This perception evolves from the value I hold around the importance of an intercultural approach to education. I agree with Lynch (1999) that ‘if one’s cultural traditions and practices are not a valued part of the education one receives, if they are denigrated or omitted, then education itself becomes a place where one’s identity is denied or one’s voice is silenced’ (1999:17). My aim is to have the cultural identity of Traveller children recognised in my school and to enable their voices to be heard in educational settings.


The tendency in mainstream education is to promote the culture of the majority within the school, which means that curricula and textbooks reflect the views, opinions and lifestyles of the majority. Children who belong to the majority group are usually in the privileged position of having their cultural beliefs and practices reinforced by the educational system. They have what Bourdieu (see Robbins, 2000) calls ‘cultural capital’, and this gives them an advantage over those who do not subscribe to the majority cultural traditions. Children who suffer disadvantage from this system are consequently deprived of the opportunity of having their culture valued by the education system. I am not suggesting that these children are culturally deprived, or that there exists a deficit in their cultural background. Indeed, they live in a vibrant culture, with its own traditions and standards of judgement. What I am suggesting is that their culture is currently perceived as an invalid culture by the dominant community, and should receive equal recognition with that of the majority within the system. This therefore would mean that minority cultures should also feature in school curricula and textbooks.


To fill the lacuna caused by the omission of minority cultures from school programmes, I posit my role as Resource Teacher for Travellers as including the function of promoting the minority culture of Travellers as a valid and valued one. My classroom provides the space for Traveller children to discuss openly aspects of their culture. The fact that this class is a resource, outside mainstream provision, means that there are no children from the majority group present, and this lack of socially legitimised voices tends to encourage Traveller children to explore their own beliefs and practices in a safe environment and without fear of ridicule. The conversations heard in my classroom are rich indeed. In one such discussion, which I tape-recorded with the children’s permission, the children outlined instances of discrimination that they had been subjected to while in school. The incidents, of which neither the children’s class teachers nor I had been aware, consisted mainly of being called ‘knackers’ by other children. The word ‘knacker’ is considered a pejorative term by the Traveller community and its use causes them much distress. The following extracts from the tape provide samples of the children’s comments:


R: When I was in junior infants, a girl – I’m not saying any names – a girl called me a knacker. She had a big group and they kept calling me it.

M: I was out in the yard today and a girl in my class said a word – it wasn’t knacker – and I said ‘What does that mean?’ and she turned away and said ‘Oh, M doesn’t know what that means.’ The other girl said ‘Anyway, she’s a knacker.’


Using the term ‘knacker’ is at best disrespectful, and at worst discriminatory, to the Traveller community. I enquired from the Traveller children as to what they thought might be the reason for such discrimination towards them. Their replies indicated that they felt they were targeted just because they were Travellers and that the intention was to hurt them. They also stated that they felt they were the same as everybody else and should not be treated differently, as illustrated in the following extracts. 


D: People call us knackers because they think that we’re different, only because we’re Travellers, but we’re not, we’re the same as everybody else.

M: We could call a name to them, because they’re not different in anything to us. They go to shops like us, dress in clothes like us and go to school like us.

D: Some people call us knackers just because they feel like it, trying to hurt our feelings.

R: Some people call us knackers because they’ve no one else to pick on.


I consider the discrimination outlined here to be a form of racism, for I believe, like Madood (1992, cited in Gillborn, 1995), that discourses of racism should not exclude minority groups whose identity is based on culture rather than colour.                 


The school in which I work welcomes Traveller children; there is no discrimination in relation to their enrolment in the school. However, it is clear from the discussion outlined above that equality at the level of enrolment is insufficient to create an atmosphere of inclusion. What may be needed in addition is a recognition among the staff and the wider community that the school is not monocultural, and public affirmation that they embrace the promotion of an ethos of respect for cultural difference and the development of an awareness of the need to attach equal value to all cultures. This more inclusive attitude is what I am trying to promote through my research. In enabling the Traveller children to give voice to their experiences of discrimination, I believe that I am allowing them the opportunity of speaking for themselves, in accordance with Freire’s (1972) suggestion that the oppressed should name their world, and that any attempt to prevent them from doing so is to treat them as objects, rather than subjects, in the world.


Another issue that I raised with the Traveller children was continuing on to second level schooling. This is not common practice in the Traveller community for a number of reasons. Some are to do with cultural traditions, which deem twelve-year-olds to be regarded as adults, who ought to be preparing for their future lives as married people. In Traveller culture, marriage usually occurs at sixteen or seventeen years of age. Girls learn skills to do with running a household from their mothers, and boys are initiated into the economic activities of their fathers. The traditional role of secondary schools in providing an entry into the labour force seems to have little attraction for Traveller children. The Traveller community has never sought employment in the same way as the majority in the settled population, preferring to keep to their own skills of working with scrap metal and car parts. Neither does there seem ever to have been a perception among settled people that Travellers would wish to, or have the necessary skills, education or ability to, participate in the general labour force. Of course, this viewpoint may in fact be rooted in deeply embedded prejudice and discrimination and may be a cause of the Traveller community’s reluctance to become involved in the general workforce.


It was in the context of this background, then, that I sought to influence Traveller children to participate in second level schooling. The children who became participants in my research all had older sisters and brothers, none of whom had remained in the educational system beyond primary level. Using a role-play situation to stimulate the children and to encourage them to express their opinions, I had a discussion with them on the value of a good education and on the importance of regular attendance at school. While accepting the idea of the need for a good education, as illustrated by D’s comment that ‘everyone has a dream to become something but you can’t become anything without a good education’, or M’s observation that ‘in this day and age everyone needs an education to make something of themselves’, nevertheless the children did not share my view on regular attendance. They expressed a need for time off, which is a common occurrence among Traveller children, for the purpose of attending family weddings and funerals. Their cultural traditions take precedence over formal education, and in view of my desire to have their culture valued in the educational system, I respect their stance. However, the discussion on continuing to second level schooling seems to have had some impact. The three Traveller children who completed primary school last year are all presently attending secondary schools, and the six children due to finish primary school this year have all enrolled in secondary schools for the next school year. In the year prior to my work with Traveller children, of the six children who completed primary school, only four started secondary school and two of these had dropped out a year later.


It was with some concern that I listened to the revelations by the Traveller children, recorded in the first conversation noted above, that they had been subjected to discrimination within the school context. It helped me become more aware of the manner in which educational institutions can collude in the oppression of an ethnic minority group. In enabling the children to give voice to their experiences of discrimination and to their feelings around this issue, I believe that I am influencing them towards a greater consciousness of the injustice and inequality of their situation. This is just the first step towards a more emancipatory concept of education, as I hope to encourage the Traveller children to confront, and ultimately reject, attempts to marginalise them because of their separate cultural identity. I hope too to posit the idea of education as an end in itself, rather than as a means to a job, as I believe that this would hold greater attraction for Traveller children, since it would not be in conflict with their cultural reluctance to join the general workforce. In this way I aim to show the potential for education to transform the lives of Traveller children, and to change the current situation of marginalisation and exclusion into one of acceptance and inclusion.




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