Teaching is a vocation
Chris McDonnell CT October 09 2020
There are over forty occasions in the four Gospels where Jesus is referred to as teacher, a title of some significance. His words and his life were indeed meant to offer guidance for the manner in which we should follow him on our journey.
Maybe we should reflect for a moment on what makes a good teacher in the world in which we now find ourselves, bearing in mind the Gospel example that is offered to us.
One of the by-products of the COVID contagion has been to highlight the importance of schools in the lives of young people and their families. The weeks and months spent at home during lockdown brought into focus the value of schools as institutions and the immense importance and skill of those who teach day by day.
This crisis has brought to our attention the social importance of the school community for not only have children missed the expertise of skilled teachers, they have also missed the companionship of friends.
So let us ask that central question, what makes a good teacher? What skills are necessary for an effective relationship between teacher and pupil? Whenever I had student teachers in school, I always took the opportunity to explore with them their reasons for wanting to teach. Early in that discussion I would ask them if they enjoyed being in the company of young people, for unless they could honestly say yes in response to that question, the classroom was not the place for them. We have often lost the importance of that priceless word ‘vocation’ in respect of teaching, for that is what it is, a vocation. Teaching is much more than receiving a monthly salary, there has to be a commitment to the task, an empathy with and an understanding of, children.
A teacher is not just someone who tells you something; rather a teacher is a person who facilitates the acquisition of skills that contribute to the threads of learning, year by year. One criticism of the National Curriculum has been that the memorization of facts assumes an overriding importance – ‘it’s all about the Levels!’ The skills and understanding that a good teacher develops are long lasting.
What are the expectations of children for their teacher? When that question was put to groups of children by John McBeath, one time professor of Education in the University of Cambridge, they came up with some interesting answers.
They expected their teachers to be clever, someone who helps you when you are stuck, someone who doesn’t shout and is not bossy. They also wanted their teacher to have faith in them, a recognition of their worth, someone who is kind and generous, who helps you with your mistakes. For some children, offering an answer to a question is a risky business. The possibility of making a mistake prevents participation. Yet we all learn by our mistakes. The abrupt put-down by a teacher or of appearing to fail in front of their classmates can have long lasting effects.
A sense of humour is invaluable in the classroom. It can defuse difficult situations so long as we laugh with a child and not at them. An appreciation of laughter should also extend to the teacher, it helps build a confident relationship one with another.
They suggested that a teacher is someone who is kind and generous, who listens to you and encourages you, someone who keeps confidences. Once a bond of trust is established, the teacher often becomes the confidant of children in trouble, whether with other children or through stress at home. It is significant that so many of the expectations voiced by children refer to relationships with their teacher.
I always remember one Year 6 pupil who only had her Mum at home, giving me a present of a book when she left to move to High School. Inside she wrote just a few words “Thanks for being there”. That book, some twenty years later, is still on my bookshelf.
The encouragement we provide offers the essential framework for learning. Who we are is, in the end, more important than anything else.
The role of Bishop and of Priest is also centrally that of teacher and much of the response to McBeath’s questions to children applies equally to the role of the hierarchy in the Christian Community. Above all, the relationship should be one of mutual exchange, those of us who profess a Christian Faith should listen to each other. Jesus the Teacher listened to his friends and responded to their needs.
The top-down model of teaching from a position of unquestioning authority, without considering the point of view of those being taught is fraught with difficulty. The proven way to lead is to bring others with you, listening to their contributions and so making the journey together. The time when “Father says” and everyone follows has long since become an historical memory. We need to listen to each other and strive for a mutual understanding. An essential feature of parish life should be a well-organised and functioning parish council that empowers all in the community to become active members of a teaching Church. It is too much to expect one person to do everything. The challenge to the Church at a time of diminishing vocations to the priesthood is to entrust each other with care for the mission that we all share. We need to listen to each other and act accordingly.
Just as an essential aspect of teaching in the classroom is to listen to the child who is learning, so should our priests and bishops listen to the people they have been asked to guide through the vicissitudes of our lives, day by day.
It is sad to reflect on the position of the Irish Redemptorist, Fr Tony Flannery, reported recently in the Catholic Times, who has been refused restoration of his priestly faculties by the CDF until he signs a prepared document. Not once in his eight-year suspension has his voice been heard, face to face across a table. A good teacher listens to the one being taught in order to appreciate their point of view, rather than impart judgment from one standpoint only.
This cartoon sums up the difficulty nicely.
Teaching is not only a vocation, it is a privileged work on behalf of others. The satisfaction comes from those moments of insight when a child offers those three simple words “Oh I see!” They reflect the movement of the Spirit at the time of Pentecost that changed fearful men into proclaimers of the Word of the Risen Christ. Their courage came through their understanding.
One of the joys of spending time with young people in schools is to meet up with them in later years and to be greeted with warmth and enthusiasm, to hear their stories and to share appreciation of their successes. There are sometimes occasions when you find yourself teaching their children and the story continues.
Over passing years, a good teacher earns the respect of their pupils and builds a firm relationship with their families. In some African traditions, they speak of the village having a responsibility for bringing up children. All of us have a part to play through our care and example to the next generation. It is a great task that all must share.