Icons of the heart

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Icons of the heart

Posted: Wed, 20 Jan 2021 14:11

Icons of the heart

Don Bosco's approach of 'loving kindness' is the key to delivering the best for our students, as Catholic teacher and deacon, Mike Bennett explains.

I have habits and routines. In these difficult times, when what was 'normal' is no longer the reality, I cling to those routines and habits that I can still enjoy; they are vital to my well-being. One such habit is listening to BBC Radio 4. The Today Programme in the morning is an old friend, as is Desert Island Discs. The latter is something I look forward to every Sunday. On Sunday January 10, the guest was David Olusoga, the Anglo-African historian and broadcaster. As is the process of Desert Island Discs, David journeyed through his life through memories and music; it was fascinating.

This episode explored David's love of blues music, public history and social justice. One particular part of the episode, when David talked about his education, made me sit up and think. David was asked about his experience of school, and he candidly spoke about how he faced bullying and racism from both students and school staff. I was shocked. Sadly, some people in the 1970s and 80s did not respect or embrace the beautiful diversity that we currently enjoy. David commented that with the exception of his history teacher, he had nothing positive to say about his schoolteachers. Yet when it came to his history teacher, whom David is still in touch with, he spoke about the life-giving energy that radiated from his lessons, his attitude towards learning and relationships with his students. David's history teacher touched his heart and set him on a journey of love; the love of learning history. What a blessing this teacher was to David. He was an 'icon of the heart'.

Icons are windows to heaven. Thus, they are windows to ultimate truth and reality. Windows are the means by which we see beyond our current reality. David's history teacher was an icon in as much as he offered David a view of life that had been hidden by all other teachers. This teacher touched David's heart and opened it to truth.

Teaching is a multidimensional role that requires a vast and diverse set of skills. When we get it right, we need to thank God for the gifts we have been given. This is what I feel David was expressing when he spoke of the way his history teacher taught. It was not just that he had an expert command of his subject, as this in itself is not enough; it was the skills he used in imparting his expertise to his students. David's overwhelming experience of education was negative because of the racism, classism and bullying to which he was subjected. Yet, there was one light in this darkness; one teacher was enough to 'hook' him and offer him a lifeline of learning. I believe that wise and learned teacher of history was offering a pedagogy of love.

I firmly believe that the guiding maxim for every teacher is love.

  • First, a love of one's subject—the wish to impart this on students should be the starting point.
  • The love of young people—I don't mean 'liking' young people; that is not enough. To love young people enough to devote one's professional life to them is required.
  • A love of learning—I honestly believe that the best teachers are also the best learners who are constantly fascinated with new learning experiences.

Don Bosco offered us enlightened advice when he invited us to love what the young people love and to teach in such a way that our students will love us. For when they love the teacher, they will love what the teacher loves, their subject and their passion for learning. We are well aware that love comes in many ways, including tough love! Yet, when the guiding principle in the life of a teacher is to educate through loving kindness, students will walk with them. The reality that David was only truly touched by one teacher in his high school is both sad and a cause for joy, as it only takes one teacher.

In listening to David, I was forced to reflect on those teachers who were icons of the heart that touched my life. I was so fortunate that there were many. And I am blessed to say that, to this day, I still experience instruments of loving kindness who guide me on my learning journey.

The first reading in Mass on January 10 came from Isaiah and opens with 'The Lord says: "Oh come to the water all who are thirsty, and drink"'(Isa 55:1). David was fortunate that he one life-giving spring of love that inspired his own search for meaning through the study of history. As teachers, each day is a new invitation for us to invite our students to find refreshment in the life-affirming waters of education. Education not only gives life but also encourages us to live the best life possible. The role of the teacher is to let the spring grow into a deep pool and invite their student to dive in. This is exactly what David's history teacher did.

I am reminded of the famous quote by John Stuart Mill, the utilitarian philosopher and reformer, "It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied'' (Utilitarianism, 1863). Educators, when teaching through love, will encourage their students to be satisfied with nothing but the best, as that is what our students deserve: the best! And I am convinced that when our primary motivation is love, then the best is exactly what the students will receive.

Today's Gospel recounts the story of the baptism of Jesus. The moment when Jesus affirmed his humanity through the solidarity of baptism and when the divine relationships of the Trinity is fully revealed. The sacramental nature of water clearly demonstrates the presence of God in matter, showing us that, through Christ, matter and spirit unite and become as one. I believe that education is sacramental in nature as it unites truth (spirit) with matter in the hearts and minds of the students. God is in all things: the curriculum, teachers and students, not to mention the entire corpus of adults who make up the school. Each one is an icon of the heart that points to a greater truth and reality. I thank God that David has his icon, and I thank God for mine. I pray that all those who have the privilege of walking with young people can be icons to those whom they serve.

Michael Bennett

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