It’s an unseasonably warm spring afternoon as Amanda Jolliffe maneuvers her compact car through the gates of Colaiste Pobail Setanta, a secondary school near Clonee, just outside of Dublin, Ireland. It’s half past four, and the teachers slowly file out of the building, heading home after the school day.
Amanda hasn’t even put her car in park before a teacher, waving and smiling, approaches. “Amanda! We heard you were coming for a visit!”
Two more teachers greet her as she steps out of the car. “You’re back,” they exclaim. “It’s wonderful to see you.”
Before Amanda can reach the front door of the school, three more teachers—including one she’s never met—walk past, each welcoming her. “You must be the Amanda who used to teach here,” says the newcomer. “I’ve heard so much about you!”
Amanda appears reserved when you first meet her. She takes in her surroundings, listening first, observing quietly. But then she speaks. She’s fast, enthusiastic, upbeat, and wise. Amanda can break down almost any topic—be it computer science, Gaelic football (her personal passion: an Irish team sport that’s a cross between soccer and basketball), or role models—and make it sound fascinating and attainable.
“Whether we realize it or not, we’re all role modeling behaviors. What we do, what we say, and the context in which we present certain circumstances is consistently being listened to, watched, and felt,” she says.
The behaviors she observed from her parents, Jack and Josie, who came from humble means, were hard work and sacrifice—actions that helped ensure Amanda and her sister’s private educations and participation in team sports.
It was playing basketball—and later serving as a coach to younger students—where Amanda developed an interest in teaching, for “helping people achieve things they couldn’t do before,” she says.
Her interest became her career, leading her to Colaiste Pobail Setanta where she eventually became an assistant principal, head of the physical education department, and the school’s lead for digital learning and technology.
At Colaiste Pobail Setanta, Amanda says she learned lessons that forever shaped her as an educator. And that’s why she’s returned today—to thank the community who inspired her.
In Ireland, students take two state examinations during their secondary school years. Covering multiple subjects and lasting for weeks, these high-stakes exams heavily determine the academic courses that students will be qualified to take, especially in university.
Schools tend to bend their curriculum toward prepping for the tests—helping students quickly recall facts that might show up on the exams. Amanda was taught to teach to the test.
But when she came to Colaiste Pobail Setanta after her first year of teaching, she met its founder and then-principal, Eileen O’Rourke, who believed learning could and should be different.
“Eileen taught me how to prepare students for the future, not for a tick box on an exam,” Amanda explains. “In the age of search engines, we don’t need to memorize; we need to analyze. To figure it out. To take what we learn and create new things.”
With Eileen’s guidance, Amanda developed new lesson plans that got her teenage students out of their chairs. Instead of teaching to the test, Amanda had her students interact more with each other to brainstorm, negotiate, and develop their own lesson plans to teach to the class.
Eileen also encouraged her teachers to observe each other’s and other school’s teaching styles and share that knowledge with their fellow teachers, a practice Amanda says was uncommon in Irish schools at the time.
“We shouldn’t be closed off from what others could teach us. Eileen was adamant that we can learn so much from each other.”
It’s a lesson Amanda carries forward.
As Ireland’s economy continues to rebound from a nationwide recession in 2008, the country finds itself in the center of a tech boom—now home to major international and local tech employers. To fill these tech jobs, the education system has struggled to catch up in how it prepares students for the future.
In 2018, after teaching for six years at Colaiste Pobail Setanta, Amanda came to teach at Microsoft at a one-of-a-kind learning center called DreamSpace. DreamSpace was created to be a catalyst for Irish schools and teachers to develop computer science programs, as well as to introduce students to the positive difference they can make through careers in technology.
Amanda teaches computer science—two classes a day, five days a week—to schools that have applied to attend DreamSpace at Microsoft’s office in Dublin. But before they set foot in the door, Amanda created a fully customized lesson plan with two goals in mind: spark curiosity in the student and inspire confidence in the teacher.
“I want teachers to be able to see the activities, but we also want them to be achievable—so that when they leave here, they can continue teaching their students back in their own classrooms.”
But it’s so much more than a technology education. She also mixes in what she learned from Eileen at Colaiste Pobail Setanta.
“In every lesson plan I develop, I think about, ‘Are they going to be creative? Are they going to work in teams? Are they going to have to problem solve?’” she explains.
“I want to show them that the future of work isn’t just about technology and STEM skills; it’s also about social and emotional skills—creativity, collaboration, critical thinking.”
She shows students who they can be and what they can do, whatever their background—a topic that takes her back to her childhood in Bluebell, a small suburb near Dublin’s city center, just 20 kilometers up the road from DreamSpace.
“Bluebell is in a disadvantaged area, and when I have kids come in from similar areas, I always tell them where I’m from. And they’re like, ‘No, you’re not!’” she says. “Because to them, seeing someone from Bluebell working at Microsoft is a big deal. And I just hope that they think, ‘If she works here, I can work here.’”
After a recent class, a student thanked Amanda and told her that she’d only seen men code before. The chance to code alongside other girls was something she’d never imagined.
“That was a ‘whoa’ moment for me.” Amanda pauses and then sighs with disappointment. “Of course, I know the statistics about women in the tech industry. But to actually have a student say that made the reality and the impact so much more real.”
In the next year, Amanda hopes to reach more students through DreamSpace by traveling to rural areas, training more teachers, and even creating mini-DreamSpace environments at schools—colorful and comfortable corners within classrooms where students can learn together.
“I firmly believe you can’t be what you can’t see,” Amanda says.
“I want to show students that it doesn’t matter where you live. It’s doesn’t matter what you’ve done. It doesn’t matter what your parents do. You can do this; it’s possible for you.”
Back at Colaiste Pobail Setanta, Amanda hugs her former coworkers good-bye and heads out of her old science lab. As her hand swipes an empty student desk, she thinks lovingly about the past. She loves what she does now—growing her own skills in new ways—but she’ll always remember where she came from.
Making her way to the exit, Amanda walks past the front office receptionist—a new employee who didn’t work there when Amanda was a teacher at the school.
“Hello, I’m Amanda. I used to teach here.”
“Hmm. What do you do now?” the receptionist asks, assuming Amanda has left the vocation as well as the school.
“Oh, I still teach,” she says, her face lighting up with pride. “But now, I’m a teacher at Microsoft.”
Photography by Rodrigo De Medeiros; videography by Rodrigo De Medeiros and Steven Heller.