Catholic schools form the soul as well as the mind – so it’s not just the students who need mentoring
At this time of year most schools will be welcoming newly qualified teachers who are embarking upon a career. Theirs will, one hopes, be a lifelong vocation which will benefit the lives of many thousands of young people.
The first few years of teaching can be a rollercoaster of emotions: ardour, doubt, anxiety and hope. The support that we give to new teachers is therefore vital for the wellbeing of all in our Catholic school communities.
More than ever we have to safeguard our schools and ensure that they remain true to their founding principles. Part of this mission is helping new teachers to continue a journey away from secular careerism towards a deeper understanding of themselves and their vocation. This will take time and involve the giving of much support and space to flourish.
One of the aims of a Catholic school should be that they are places where young people become fully human, discovering who they are and what their purpose in life should be in relation to God and humanity. This is something which largely goes against the views of the world and the reality of contemporary secular education. All too often the torrent of requirements from the state and individual academic attainment appear to be the prevailing focus. How can we hope to counter this unless teachers in Catholic schools are confident and growing in their vocation?
Encouraging staff to think vocationally may also be a key to retaining teachers. A staggering 27,500 teachers who trained between 2011 and 2015 (that is, 23 per cent) have already left the profession. There are complicated reasons for this – but might supporting newly qualified teachers to develop a sense of their work as a vocation help them through the difficulties which they are likely to face in the tough world of education? This is a wonderful gift which Catholic schools can offer.
Our schools remain distinctive because of a spiritual capital which has been built up over generations. Enabling new staff to contribute to the continued growth of this capital is the only way that we will ensure that schools are Catholic in more than name. We can only rely on the past for so long.
Part of my role as a school chaplain is supporting new staff. I am glad that I have the opportunity to contribute to their induction period. Over the years I have noted that there cannot be an assumption that those who are Catholic will be deeply grounded in their faith or that they have a well developed sense of vocation. Sometimes non-Catholics will show more willingness to learn and embrace what is expected of them and have a better understanding of vocation in its broadest sense. With both groups, having an experienced Catholic person of faith as a mentor and example will help them to catch the vision and feel more confident. The presence of strong believing Catholics in our school is more important than ever before.
One of the wonderful things about a newly qualified teacher is his or her enthusiasm and love for their subject. This can bring new vitality, ideas and insights into schools.
But for teachers who have trained on secular courses there will often have been very little reflection on the Christian aspects of their subject area, and how their teaching might work as part of a whole to promote a Catholic vision of life, society, history and culture.
Supporting new staff to begin to understand the importance of approaching their subject in a broad and distinctive way, which reflects the catholicity of the school community, is vital as we seek to present the fullest possible image of God to our young people. For many, this will be a new and alien idea.
There is a danger that a Catholic school will operate in the same way as a secular school with a religious element bolted on through the religious education department, worship and chaplaincy. If this happens, we in effect send out the message that God is only interested in the religious aspect of human existence. We have an incarnational truth to share and a belief that God’s imprint is in all that is true, something which St Augustine terms semina Verbi (“seeds of the Word”).
An important starting point in helping a newly qualified teacher catch on to this idea is a sharing of the vision that a Catholic education should be ultimately liberating, discovering one’s uniqueness in relationship with Jesus and his community. Every subject area should breathe this reality.
We can only begin to achieve this when our teachers are empowered as partners in this important mission of the Church. I pray for all new teachers starting work this September.
Fr Matthew Pittam is the parish priest of Monks Kirby, Warwickshire, and author of Building the Kingdom in the Classroom (St Pauls)