More than a statement
I was one of the lucky ones. I was able to get into the latest exhibition at the Royal Academy without having to queue up. I was able to marvel at the wonders of the exhibition “Monet in the Twentieth Century” in relative peace and calm. While I do not see myself as an art critic, my colour blindness being an obvious bar, I do know what I like! Therefore, when Veicki, a pupil in a Salesian school, showed me his painting of “Don Bosco” I was impressed. Don Bosco is the obvious centre of all the activity in the picture; smiling he seems genuinely happy to be in the presence of so many young people. However, what sets this picture apart for me is the way all the young people are looking at him. Consider carefully the eyes of each child. Veicki has been able to capture in this picture, the essence of Don Bosco – the effect he had on young people.
In this article I want to capture, in words, a similar relationship, the relationship between the teachers and the young people in our schools. For the last two years it has been my privilege, as the “chalkface” member of the Salesian Pastoral Support Team, to work in seven secondary schools. In two years I have met about 400 teachers and 7000 children, I have come to know seven schools well; not as an inspector, not as an adviser but as a teacher amongst teachers and a teacher amongst children. The teaching profession has come in for a great deal of criticism in recent years. Admittedly there a few teachers who let their students down, every profession has weak members. However, I have met so many exceptionally good teachers in the network of our Salesian Schools across this country; teachers who have gone that extra mile with often very difficult young people.
How can I capture in a short article what I have experienced. It has been suggested that I look at various elements of the Salesian Schools’ Mission Statement and reflect on what is happening in reality. It is interesting to note that a “Mission Statements” are now accepted as part of every business venture. You can see them in fast-food cafes and in the Head Offices of multi-million dollar corporations. They look nice and decorate the walls. The danger is that we can then treat a Mission Statement as a decoration when it should colour all we do in school. While a Mission Statement expresses an “ideal”, it should also reflect a reality. It is that reality I want to capture in this article. During the last two years I have seen excellent ways in which hard-working teachers, already burdened by the demands of national and local education authorities, are, living out our Salesian Mission Statement.
We state our belief in young people
It is a sad, but real fact of modern life, that children and young people are being constantly marginalised. Young people need to be believed and they need adults who show they believe and trust them. Watch any of the popular “soap operas” on TV and you will see a very negative picture of the young that hardly inspires confidence or trust. In our schools it is totally different picture. I have seen staff giving up valuable free time after school to organise a whole range of activities that give young people confidence in themselves. I have in mind schools who co-ordinate the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme that offers not only physical challenges, but also community care and voluntary service. The work of these teachers, helpers and young people actually enhances the local environment, as well as helping them to grown in confidence. In many cases some of the young people, who have gone through the programme, come back to help younger students gain from their experience.
One way of trusting young people is to give them a voice; to value their opinion. It is very encouraging to see Salesian schools actively encourage the notion of a School Council that values the opinion of students and empowers them to do something to change their society.
In the spirit of Don Bosco we turn our efforts to those who stand in special need.
Everyone has a special need because everyone is unique in the eyes of God; teachers want what is best for every one of their pupils. I have heard of schools, for example, where it is unofficial policy not to enter certain pupils for public examinations as they might lower the standing in the league tables. Such a cynical disregard for the rights of young people is not practised in our schools, who want to do what is best for their students. I have a very happy memory of an Awards Evening where the prize for most outstanding student was won by a young lady who was very limited academically, but who had befriended and helped through school a student with learning difficulties. The response of students, parents and staff was unanimous and warm, this young person deserved everything.
We set out to create a joyful atmosphere
There is, I feel, a need to inject a great deal of humour into the education debate; it seems at times to be taking itself so seriously. In the quest to achieve the highest possible standards, there is sometimes a failure to recognise that we are dealing with real people, with emotions and who are not just work fodder for the brave new world. Don Bosco was noted for his humour and ability to live life to the full. At a recent European forum for Salesian Youth Workers, a very important point was made: all over Europe, playing fields are being taken over, often for commercial ventures. Where do our young people have the space to play? Effective learning can only take place where young people feel comfortable and are, above all, happy in their environment. I know of many teachers who provide that needed injection of fun and laughter into their lessons and one can see the speed with which young people want to get to their lesson. Setting high standards and goals for students need not exclude joy. We are told that “school-days should be the happiest of our lives”; those of us involved in Salesian education must constantly ensure that our young people do have a positive experience and that there are genuine moments of real joyfulness.
Our schools will be noted for an atmosphere of welcome where all will feel at home
A parent once said to me, “he might as well have a bed here, he spends so much time at this school!” In this case, the student concerned certainly did feel “at home.” It is a realistic fact of modern life that school actually offers a place of sanctuary and safety for so many young people. In the aftermath of tragedies such as Dunblane, children and young people have expressed a real concern for their safety-not only were innocent lives lost, but innocence itself was destroyed. Students know that, however mixed up their own lives are, there are group of adults who are there for them on a regular basis.
The willingness of staff to be present with the pupils in friendship and to go that one step further.
This is a key element of Salesian education; Don Bosco was different from the clergy of his day; we do well to remember that we are talking about Victorian times when “children were seen, but not heard!” Don Bosco wanted children in his schools and youth centres to be heard and believed in. I can think of spending many happy times in the office of the Year Tutor in one of our schools; so often a tutor’s office can be a place where students are corrected. In this particular school, the year tutor uses it as a place to informally meet and talk to her students. She could be quite easily taking a well-deserved break in the staff room, but she chooses, like so many of our teachers to “go that extra mile”. As another teacher said to me, “every time I take a group out or spend time with them it pays dividends in the classroom.” Every day of the week, and often during the holidays, there are young people enhancing their education through Sport, Drama, Music, Cultural Exchanges, School Holidays, Exam Revision Programmes, The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, Schools’ Councils, Community-Parish Liaison, Confirmation Programmes, HCPT and Lourdes Groups, Prayer Groups, youth Clubs; the list goes on! However, none of this would happen were in not for the enthusiasm and support of both students and staff, together going that extra mile.
So often I have seen young people in the older age groups helping younger students in various projects in school. Students have become Mentors and are involved in Anti-Bullying Campaigns. Students, together with interested staff, are empowered to help themselves, to take responsibility for their educational environment.
Our main criterion will be personal worth
It is obvious that the child or young person must remain at the centre of all our educational endeavours. If we lose this vision, then we also loose the reason why teachers do so much within school. Young people, along with the elderly and those in between, have a God-given dignity by virtue of their conception and birth. They have rights and responsibilities and I have been lucky enough to see teachers construct specific units of work that will help and develop not only the less able student, but stretch and expand the potential of the brighter student. They do this because they recognise their individuality.
Within our schools we foster the spiritual, moral and religious development of our pupils and a lively celebration of prayer
Our Salesian schools stand within the network of Catholic schools founded to help parents and parishes in the education and formation of their young people. Perhaps the reasons we maintain schools today are different, but we work to offer quality Catholic Education. This is not to say that a Catholic School is simply a state school with statues or that we offer a Catholic form of Maths or Geography. Catholic education offers a Good education, but as the comedian says, “there’s more!” As one of our schools rightly puts it: "Salesian-More than just a School." We want to be able to support all that is being done in the home and parish to encourage the spiritual journey of the young person. However, if we are realistic, for many students in Catholic Education in Europe today their only real experience of “Church” is within school, the school has become their “parish”.
Therefore the importance of the Chaplain and their team is all-important. We are lucky to have a group of Chaplains in Salesian schools who each offer a unique style of working, of helping young people in their personal faith journey. The style varies from the more formal setting of a prayer group to a Christian gathering round a pool table. Chaplaincy is a key area of the Salesian school that offers even more exciting possibilities as society changes. However, school liturgy is not just “done” or just “delivered.” It needs to be prepared carefully, with the involvement of young people, and celebrated joyfully, with music even it means a lot of noise! At a Mass to celebrate John Bosco, I invited others to “preach” the homily; I argued that they heard too much of me during the Mass. The homily turned out to be a version of the popular American TV talk show, “Jerry Springer”; the young people captured the mood and challenged the adults present to view Don Bosco in a new and powerful light. It is essential that in Catholic education we offer young people an exciting and life-giving model of the Church.
We recognise that in our present age there are so many social and educational tensions that stretch our staff, at times, to breaking point. In our schools, therefore, we undertake to affirm and support each other.
So many people blame our teachers and our schools for the behaviour of young people today. How often we hear the refrain “I blame the teachers.” Even in the Catholic press I am saddened to see how often it is the schools that are blamed for not having young people in Church on Sunday. The teaching profession today is full of stress; I know teachers who cope very well and I know others who do find things so difficult. However, they deal with stress, teachers are still expected to take on a variety of roles for society, for the Church and for the Salesian family. As I often remind students, teachers do not come out of their stock cupboards at 9 am and go back in at 4 pm! They have a busy home life too.
It is essential that we affirm the work that is being done by our colleagues in schools. This is done in all honesty and appreciation, honesty because we know what they do, in appreciation because we know it is not easy. League tables remind us that we live in an age of accountability. Encouraged by the government, parents, the media and the students demand so much from teachers in the name of accountability-and rightly so. But, as salesians, we believe that in education only gratitude can balance our accounts.
Fr Gerry O’Shaughnessy SDB