Getting schools active, one CSPAP step at a time – my experience as full-time teacher, part-time postgraduate researcher – Alan finnegan

Late February / early March 2020, as I scrolled through my Twitter feed and read that Dr. Elaine Murtagh was joining the PESS team, along with another PESS tweet with a call for applications for the Pat Duffy Teaching and Coaching Scholarship, my decision was made to pursue a part-time research masters back in PESS.

I graduated from PESS in 2017 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Physical Education and Gaeilge after 4 great years as an undergraduate. Having enjoyed my time here, coupled with my ongoing interest in the area of research I carried out for my final year project, it was always I the back of my mind to return to the PESS at some point in some capacity as a postgraduate student.

My final year project, supervised initially by former PESS dept lecturer Dr. Jaimie McMullen and finally by one of our current senior lecturers, Dr. Antonio Calderón, investigated the creation of physical activity opportunities in schools, moving toward an ‘active school’ culture. Since graduating and commencing my teaching career, it has always been an area that I desired to research further. Having Dr. Elaine Murtagh onboard as a supervisor with her wealth of experience of school-based physical activity research, along with Mrs. Ursula Freyne, my final year school placement tutor and former teacher on several physical education modules as an undergrad, I was ready to embark on the journey as a full-time teacher, part-time postgraduate researcher – cue the start of my research project “Creating a physically active school culture in an Irish urban post primary school, planning for infrastructural change”.

I was delighted to be awarded the 2020 Pat Duffy Teaching and Coaching scholarship. Joining the PESS department as a postgraduate researcher was an exciting prospect given the excellent ongoing research of the Physical Activity for Health (PAfH) cluster, and also the support from the more recently formed school-based research PESS forum led by Dr. Elaine Murtagh. In November 2020 we met as a group remotely for the first time and it was an excellent opportunity to discuss shared challenges of school-based physical activity research, along with getting to meet other PESS researchers in the area, who have been very helpful to me with my own research at hand.

I am a full-time PE and Gaeilge teacher in Gaelcholáiste Luimnigh here in Limerick City, where I have been teaching since I graduated from UL. The research I am carrying out has an interesting layer to it given we are planning for a move to a soon-to-be-built new school campus here in the city. There is no time like the present to ensure our future school campus is in the best position to be a physical activity promoting environment for all, with my work investigating current and potential future opportunities for the school community to be physically active, informing the creation and implementation of a Comprehensive School Physical Activity Programme (CSPAP). A CSPAP involves addressing five facets of an active school culture: physical education, physical activity opportunities before and after school, physical activity opportunities during school, staff involvement and family/community engagement.

Balancing the my teaching responsibilities with my research work has certainly required me to work on my time management skills, which I must add is definitely a work-in-progress. Setting aside a designated block of time each week for research work has helped. I would also be lost without my block of post-it notes, to-do lists, my productivity diary and an A2 whiteboard in my room to satisfyingly tick off tasks as I get through them. Teaching this year has been a hectic one, with a busy return of students to schools in August last, followed by a January – March period of remote online teaching and learning from home, and then a very welcome reopening of school buildings to finish out the academic year. School-based research in the midst of all this has required a lot of improvising, adapting and overcoming. My plans and timelines were very much written in pencil, erased and rewritten on a number of occasions in response to the complex context of research in schools in the context of COVID-19 public health measures and a period of remote learning, but I am doing my best to “nudge” my project along, as Elaine and Ursula encourage me to do. As recent as last week, student focus groups took place in relation to physical activity opportunities in our school, with some excellent insights given that I look forward to analysing, although maybe not the transcribing of the recordings so much! In a couple of weeks staff focus groups and interviews will be held, followed by the designing a Comprehensive School Physical Activity Programme for my school to actively kick start the academic year of 2021/22.

Alan Finnegan is a Postgraduate Student in the Department of Physical Education and Sports Sciences, University of Limerick. Contact: Follow on Twitter: @AlanFinnegan4   

Alan Photo - GLR

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