Teacher Breda O’Brien tealls how she sees her job and the school can be an effective for handing on Christian beliefs and values from one generation to the next.
Once upon a time, you knew a Catholic school by the crucifix above the blackboard in every classroom. Now, in many schools, as the blackboard and chalk have been replaced by whiteboards and data projectors, the crucifix has quietly disappeared, too.
Life is more complicated in the twenty-first century. Immigration has led to an influx of students who may not even have English as a first language, or who may not be Christian. It cannot be even taken for granted that allegedly Catholic pupils will know how to bless themselves or say the most basic prayers that are normally learned in families.
While levels of Mass attendance remain among the highest in Europe, they are declining. On the positive side, those that do decide to make a real commitment to their faith do so in a much more informed and even courageous way.
Among the first and most important elements in any school is leadership, beginning with the principal. When the principal sees faith as an integral part of the school, everything is much easier. In small and large ways, from beginning assemblies with a prayer, to facilitating time for staff to plan liturgies and retreats, the principal and the management team set the tone in a school.
While it is unrealistic to expect all staff members to be fully committed Catholics, it is important that all teachers are in basic agreement with the ethos of the school. From the point of view of pupils, it is a powerful witness when all the teachers obviously value the religious ethos.
Schools operate best as places in which to pass on faith when there is a close partnership between school, family and parish. In some contexts, the school is trying to carry the burden for all three, which results in young people associating religion solely with school. It really helps when the school enlists the support of parents and parish whenever possible, especially at key moments in the term like the opening of the school year.
In my experience, parents are often delighted to help, whether it be in ferrying children to some worthwhile exhibition of religious art, or in praying an intercessory prayer at a school Mass.
Although we may not have crucifixes in every classroom, when tasteful religious art and iconography are clearly on display in the school, it makes a tangible difference to the atmosphere. Our environment affects us, and we are influenced by beauty at a deep – if often unconscious -level. Having a prayer space that is carefully decorated, peaceful, and filled with a sense of the sacred, is a priority in any school hoping to hand on faith.
The Catholic school operating at its best is a community in the real sense, that is, it has a strong identity, but is also open and welcoming. Pastoral care becomes a form of witness when pupils feel that they are known by name, and that staff members care for them and try to cater for different levels of academic ability within the classroom in an inclusive way. This is an integral part of the Christian ethos of care for each individual.
A little positive discrimination in favour of religious education does not hurt! Careful timetabling is a very practical way of showing that RE is not just another subject, but is central to the school’s mission. One of the worst offences is to take time from RE for other academic subjects when exam pressure is on.
The new religious education examination syllabus can be an excellent addition to the school, especially when the faith formation element is seamlessly integrated into the academic. This is more difficult than it sounds simply because of time pressure, and it is where a full-time chaplain is invaluable.
Ironically, all community schools have full-time chaplains, while schools where religious orders are trustees often do not. As religious orders explore different ways of relating to the schools that they have founded, helping to ensure chaplaincy is provided in every school would be a major investment in the future.
Young people love action, and demonstrating concern for the developing world and the environment are very important. Many people who later went on to volunteer in the developing world ‘caught the bug’ while in school. Concern for the wider world is a great strength of Catholic schools, and in our school, pupils love to meet missionaries.
The wonderful rhythms of the liturgical year can provide a cyclical reminder of Christian values, as can liturgies for special occasions like the opening of the school year and graduation Masses. Getting pupils involved as much as possible in the preparations provide a great opportunity to explain the significance of rituals and actions.
Nor does every occasion like this have to be a Mass. Prayer services and services of reconciliation are also important, and sometimes afford pupils opportunities to be very creative, particularly in art work and other symbols.
When one of our past-pupils died tragically, I was very struck by how her former classmates set about organizing the elements of her funeral. They were completely at home with the idea of writing prayers and organizing the offertory procession, and of choosing appropriate music. Sometimes, it is a relief to feel that you have got something right, in spite of other failures.
Perhaps the most important means of passing on faith as a teacher – and this is really scary – is how you live the message yourself. Pupils remember you long after they have forgotten every topic you ever covered. If faith is important in a teacher’s life, students know.
Finally, schools are messy, noisy, and sometimes chaotic places where human beings lose their tempers and often fail to live up to the high standards of gospel values. None of that is fatally damaging, however, if people are able to ask for and give forgiveness, and to start again. Pupils, I find, are very forgiving, perhaps because I have given them ample opportunity to practise the skill.