Today, the school year seems very long! After whatever summer break you had, this is the time of the year when everybody who works in school begins to realise just how hard you work – and how it takes time to wind up the engine and get going under all that pressure.
With schools reopening fully, you will hear many ideas about how to get started after the incredible events of the last 18 months. But those of you who work in Catholic education are also being asked – or asking yourselves – what you are doing and whether your work is any different from that of those who teach in other sectors. Unless we have some idea of what we stand for, we have nothing to communicate that justifies us being a separate sector. The greatest threat to Catholic education in Ireland and around the world comes not from outside opposition but from lack of identity within.
So why are you glad to see the pupils back?
Is it because you love them and are prepared to do everything to help them, whatever their challenges?
Is it because you have very high expectations for what they can achieve – and refuse to label anybody as a waste of space?
Is it because you know the value of community and how the school is only a small part of where and what forms our young people?
Is it because you believe that a one-dimensional, market-driven worldview is not the best that they can hope for?
Is it because you believe in the power of forgiveness and mercy to help people get up off their knees?
If you can say ‘yes’ to at least some of those questions, then you are off to a great start.
I was talking to an experienced teacher just last week. She told me about a child she taught years ago. The girl seemed very unhappy, and she seemed incapable of handling even the simplest of comprehension questions. The teacher thought that she was perhaps being discouraged by being overstretched. The teacher sang in a choir and one evening they were asked to tackle a challenging piece of music. When asked about this, the choir director said that he knew they could cope with it. Otherwise, he would not be suggesting it. The next day, the teacher took that lesson into school. She set the struggling child a substantial test and told her that it was hard – but that she believed she could do it. The teacher was amazed at the quality of both the answers and the handwriting. A little wise word can go a long way.
Good schools can break the mould of low expectations and broken spirits. That can come from the class teacher and the caretaker, from the classroom assistant and the canteen staff. The content you teach is useful but only a small part of what you hand on.
Many young people will be disorientated when they come back. Life has been tough and disorganised and disrupted for so many families. Welcome them back with hope and a welcome. Jesus knew that children – and the children inside all of us – are fragile and need to be loved. Many of them are tortured by little devils running round in the heads. If you come with a loving heart, you can cast out devils. If you come with strong and gentle hands, you can steady many trembling spirits.
Help them be beautiful on the inside and not just on the outside.
Help them believe they can be good and not just good at things.
In a throwaway culture, help them to believe in the dignity of their bodies.
In an age of instant gratification, help them to grow up and learn discipline.
In a moral culture of ‘why not’, help them ask ‘why’.
In a world of frail role models, give them example that will help them blossom.
In a hyper-critical world, help them believe in a God who believes in them.
And nourish yourselves with a belief that the world can be a wonderful place, because there are many great people about whom we hear little.
In these strange months of echoing streets and social distancing, I remember one event very clearly.
It was a late autumn Saturday morning in 2020, and I was taking my normal walk around the city. In an almost empty Castle Street, I met a lady and a primary school child. I stopped to greet them and saw that the child was disappointed. Had she been hoping to buy something? I asked.
No, her aunt replied. The 9-year-old child had gathered together all her First Communion money and had wanted to hand it over to a charity that supports children in need. But the outlet was closed. She was just sad that she was unable to give all her money to the children – because they needed it more than she did. She had grasped something powerful that fired her with a passion for generosity.
Thus, handing on faith is not just talking about bits of religious belief. It is about sharing a rich worldview, laced with imagination, that gives meaning to everything and helps them process the pain of being human. Our schools will flourish when we can help the whole school community experience a rich way of being human, of processing the past and of facing the future. You are doing a sacred job in your school. Be proud of what you do because it is of eternal beauty and value.