Community Education: So Much More than a Course

On a bright summer’s day in 2017, around 8 of us gathered in an upstairs room over a busy community centre on the outskirts of Limerick city. All of us had been working in community education in some shape or form for several decades. Some of us were on the front-line, organising and sometimes delivering community education, others worked in advocacy organisations whose role it was to create networks for practitioners and promote the work. The rest were academics who in a previous life had worked in community education and were still connected to the sector. Had we done the maths, there was probably around 100 years’ experience in the room if not more. I won’t name the people there as I’m bound to forget someone, what matters more is the reason we were there. You see we were each passionate about a particular version of community education; one that is about people’s needs, about democracy, participation, equality, social change. We were worried this was being erased by government policies that viewed the work as not about needs but about outputs. And only outputs that could be measured.  This was a ‘bums on seats’ approach that was drowning in the language of work-readiness and up-skilling for employment.  Where did it all go wrong? Vocational education is important, but it’s not the only factor. 

We knew that we were not the only ones feeling this way in fact many people working in community education were just as fed up as we were. Certainly, many practitioners enjoy aspects of their work but they can also feel trapped in roles where they are not able to exercise the freedoms to work to well-established Freirean principles of community education (Fitzsimons 2017). People felt paralysed by previous brutal cuts that have been inflected on the community and voluntary sector as recently as the 2010s. Nobody wants to jeopardise funding to their project.  At that meeting in Limerick we gave ourselves a name ‘The 3-Pillars Group’.  One of the first things we did was to reach out to the two largest national community education provider networks in Ireland; The AONTAS Community Education Network (CEN) which is a network of over 100 independently managed community education providers; and Community Education Facilitator’s Association (CEFA) which connects public-sector employees who work as Community Education Facilitators (CEFs). It did not surprise us that these networks were having the same sorts of conversations as we were. So, the 3-Pillars group decided it was time to reassert the principles and values that underpin our collective understanding of community education. We did this by drawing from facilitated conversations within CEN and CEFA and came up with the following:   

Community education……  

Is rooted in equality, justice and empowerment. 

Creates a voice for those who are furthest from the education system.   

Is about social inclusion in its broadest sense.    

Is needs based, driven by the community and reflective of lived experiences.   

Recognises the value of accredited and non-accredited learning        

Promotes critical thinking 

Is learner centred, flexible, supportive, and developmental.   

Is facilitative, group focused and open to new things.   

Centres on relationship building.   

The charter was launched at a hugely successful webinar on the 29th of April called Reasserting the Politics of Community Education.  

A charter for Community Education

Mae Shaw and I (the speakers) took the title to heart and did not hold back on asking critical questions about whose side we are on. Do we, as practitioners want to be accountable to students, communities and social movements, or to neoliberal governments whose policies re-enforce a model of capitalism that allows a small number of people to get extremely wealthy while things get worse for millions of people. We encouraged people to make strange the familiar, to question such stalwarts as ‘community’ and even ‘education’. As Mae Shaw reminded us, community and community development have its origins in colonial policies that were put in place to create compliant citizens. Education is also worthy of interrogation as something that successfully   corrals people into very particular jobs and life-chances depending on your socio-economic background.  But the event was hopeful too, not least because the Charter is a wonderful celebration of the values held dear by community educators, but because of the work that is still being done that asks critical questions about the sort of world that we want to live in.  

Fitzsimons, C. (2017) Community Education and Neoliberalism, philosophies, policies and practices in Ireland. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan.  

Camilla Fitzsimons is a Lecturer in the Department of Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University. She hails from Dublin and has been working in adult and community education since the 1990s. She has worked with women’s groups, residents groups and campaign groups all as part of wider community development and leadership initiatives. Camilla’s practice is influenced by feminist critical pedagogy and her research influence extends across the breadth of adult and community education where the emphasis is on equality, social justice and dialogic, democratic learning. Camilla has published extensively in adult and community education, with an emphasis on the neoliberalisation of grassroots community education. She has also researched and written about broader feminist issues relating to equality, health and reproductive justice. All of Camilla’s work seeks to uncover asymmetries in power and privilege. At Maynooth she works across a range of programmes at under-graduate and post-graduate level. Camilla is currently the Course Coordinator of the Higher Diploma in Further Education.


Learning to Teach, Teaching to Learn

Teacher, Writer, Entrepreneur: To employ your teaching skills, look for opportunities outside the formal accreditation system. 

The author Stephen King states that you can call yourself a writer when you pay a bill with money earned from writing. In 2015 I paid a phone bill that way and added writer to my profile. In 2016 I graduated Higher Diploma in Further Education from Maynooth University and proudly added teacher to that list. After graduating I took an opportunity to start up a business, earning another title, entrepreneur. I couldn’t commit the time to a traditional teaching role but I stayed involved by invigilating and marking State Exams. However, that was peripheral work and I feared that with passing time I would become far removed from the vocation I loved.  

To employ my teaching skills, I realised I would need to look for opportunities outside the formal accreditation system. The new business had a 16-PC co-working space and so I started a beginners’ computer skills course. The success of this led to advanced classes and workshops. With recognition other opportunities arose; local businesses required bespoke staff training; an international internship company required a programme for disadvantaged young adults from Germany. It was a pleasure to facilitate these groups, in particular the German learners, hearing their stories and seeing their social and language skills develop along with their confidence. The culmination of their visit was to deliver PowerPoint presentations to an audience. For most it was their first time to speak in public and to do that in a second language was commendable.   

I was then commissioned to design an intensive course for a group of local government employees from Poland. Their aim was to learn about aspects of Irish society to enable them to return to Poland as cultural advisors. At our first meeting I found out only one member spoke English! Not to burden him as a translator I trialled translation apps for handouts, leading to some entertaining ice-breaker results.  The group brought to the table matters for discussion such as education, emigration, tourism, agriculture, the provincial divide, and even why we need two taps on our sinks (delivered by a wonderful mime of swiping hands from boiling to freezing water). While gaining the confidence to test their English they taught me enough Polish, German and Russian phrases to, at least, confidently order lunch.

I also ran workshops as part of the annual Lifelong Learning Festival and from that I was invited onto the community steering group for University College Cork’s Learning Neighbourhoods and Learning Neighbourhood Mentors, an initiative of S.O.A.R. (Inter-Institutional Collaboration on Access.), supporting under-represented groups and individuals in gaining access to education. 

At this time I was immersed in writing a novel that evolved from my Classics thesis and I was inspired to create a course on Ancient Athens for the UCC/ACE (University College Cork Adult Continuing Education) short course programme. I run this course twice a year, and I’m putting together a new course on ancient theatre. In preparation for going fully online UCC gave staff technology training. They also offered wellbeing advice and one valuable suggestion I took away was to realise we’re all in this together. I now ask for student volunteers to monitor the chat room or the hands up function, to watch time, and remind me to record the session.

I also designed and deliver online creative writing workshops as part of a support programme for adults with Asperger Syndrome. Online engagement can be difficult for some in the group and as facilitator it is stimulating to adapt to needs, and the wide-range of interests is motivating for all of us.   Although my teaching pursuits are diverse, at no time do I feel I have neglected my values. I have always aspired to a humanist, student-centred ethos. I am a strong advocate of the educational theories of Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, also Carl Rogers, and Malcom Knowles, with respect to appreciating the individual and encouraging self-direction in learning. Acknowledging prior experience enables the learner to communicate. This develops critical thinking skills, which leads to greater confidence and motivation. My teaching experiences have taught me that the same principles apply to me. The students in the Post Leaving Cert classroom, the Polish professionals, the retired academics of ACE, the computer beginners, the creative writers, all bring unique perspective and experience and I am the one who has truly benefitted. In seeking new paths to teaching I have learned from these interactions, and I am fortunate to have a platform in which to reflect on my practice and reassert my values. I am a teacher, writer, entrepreneur, learner.

Theresa Ryder was assistant to the late author J.P. Donleavy for many years before graduating M.A. (Classics), 2013, and H. Dip. F.E. from Maynooth University, 2016. She has a particular interest in autism in the adult classroom. She won the Molly Keane Creative Writing award in 2015 and has had short fiction, poetry and plays published. She is a regular contributor to the award winning #WomenXBorders project in the Irish Writers Centre and is one of 16 emerging writers contributing to The 32: An Anthology of Working Class Voices, (publication May 2021). 


Migrant to Teacher, Writer and Doctoral Student

How Adult Education can Change Your Life

I am Oleg Chupryna, an economic migrant from Ukraine. I am delighted to be able to contribute to the exciting blog from the Maynooth University Department of Adult and Community Education. I believe that my story may help others to start a journey which brings meaningful changes and satisfaction to one’s life. By sharing my experience, I hope to help adults who are undecided, or even desperate, to see that there is always a light at the end of a tunnel; and that light is Education – no matter how old you are. One just needs to be determined and keep going despite any obstacles they may come across with. That is my firm belief, and as a famous quote goes:

The world is one great battlefield,

With forces all arrayed;

If in my heart I do not yield,

I’ll overcome some day.

[Charles Albert Tindley]

I am a Higher Diploma in Further Education (HDFE) graduate of the Department of Adult and Further Education (DACE), and I am currently enrolled in the PhD programme (part-time) in the Department of Sociology at Maynooth University. I also teach in a Secondary School in Dublin and am a guest lecturer at Maynooth University. But my journey to where I am now, began a long time ago in Ukraine, where I was born into a working-class family. After a Secondary School, which I did not like at all, I worked in a factory for a couple of years as a general operative until I was called to military duty where I spent another two years as a soldier. I still did not know what I wanted in life, but on returning home from the military, I knew what I did not want. I wanted neither to return to a factory or continue military service.

Although nobody in my extended family ever went to university before, my parents convinced me to get into the University access scheme for working-class people. I became a student of the Kharkiv State University, in the city of Kharkiv in Ukraine.

Five years later, I became a proud graduate with a 1st class degree in History and Social Sciences.

Consequently, I was offered a teaching job in one of the Universities where I was happy to work for several years, until the country’s and the family circumstances made me emigrate to South America first, and then to Ireland. People in Ukraine who lived through 1990s still call them the ‘merciless nineties’ as most of the people in the country were severely affected, many became unemployed, and many emigrated looking for a better life elsewhere. My own experience in this regard helped me better understand Irish people who, for generations, were looking for better life chances overseas.

Since I left my home I’ve had to work elsewhere to make a living. A salesman, construction worker, motorbike mechanic, gym instructor, bodyguard, and private tutor are just a few of many jobs I have done. But I always had a dream to work in Education, because teaching is what I am really passionate about and I was told I was good at it. However, during those years in emigration, I lost confidence in my ability to be a teacher again until one day a casual talk with an Irish person opened my eyes. She convinced me to go back to education and apply to the Higher Diploma in Further Education (HDFE) in Maynooth University, which I did and am very happy about it now.

However, during the HDFE, I came across a very stressful situation and a potential barrier to my future progress, which thanks to my determination and perhaps stubbornness, I eventually overcame. Almost at the end of the course, I discovered that I owed the University over five thousand euro. It happened because, as a foreigner, I was not aware of the ‘nuts and bolts’ of the Irish higher education funding processes. As a result, I did not apply for the SUSI (Student Universal Support Ireland) grant in time. When I found about how it worked, SUSI refused my application, saying it was too late. Despite all my efforts, such as appealing their decision and looking for help from my local TD (member of parliament), I was not able to overcome the bureaucratic ‘red tape’. Eventually, I borrowed money and repaid my debt to the University and happily received my parchment a year after graduation.   

The HDFE course was crucial for my further career development and most importantly in restoring my confidence in my ability to be a teacher again, especially in English language environment which is not my mother tongue. While doing my Higher Diploma, I was also encouraged by my sociology lecturer to do a PhD as he believed in my great potential.  He also helped me to refine the topic for my research and recommended a potential PhD supervisor. Another staff member encouraged me to start my blog where I could share ideas and knowledge in my field of expertise; international relations, Eastern European politics and Ukraine’s politics in particular. Since then I have started the blog and I have written a number of published articles in RTE Brainstorm, the London School of Economics and Politics website, the Eurasia Review, and the Maynooth University Department of Sociology website. I am very grateful for their encouragement and the DACE contribution to my professional and personal progress.

I hope my story helps others find their professional development and personal satisfaction path.

Oleg Chupryna is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology, Maynooth University.