Faith Formation: a Teacher’s Story

The role of faith formation in schools has become the subject of much heated debate; here is my own personal experience of being educated in the Christian faith as a child and how that education has impacted my life.

copyright: dreamstime.com

copyright: dreamstime.com

Christian faith formation was part and parcel of my childhood education. As a toddler, I regularly heard simple Bible stories – Creation, Noah and the Ark, Moses and the Plagues of Egypt, David and Goliath, Elijah at the Brook Cherith, Daniel in the Den of Lions, the Nativity, the Miracles of Christ, the Parables, the Crucifixion and Resurrection and many more. During my school days, I moved from stories to Scripture reading and analysis of religious belief and doctrine. Some of my teachers exhibited a genuine belief in God, thus impacting me through their subjects even though they were not specifically teaching religion. I grew up, relatively capable in Maths, English, languages and science, but also equipped with a confident knowledge of God and of my heritage as a citizen of a Judaeo- Christian nation. Not only did such learning increase my knowledge of Christianity, it also added a depth to my educational experience and ultimately to my understanding of life generally which has proved to be invaluable.

Boundaries brought freedom to be myself
It helped me make sense of History; Ancient Ireland, the work of Patrick, the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Ages of Exploration, Renaissance, Reformation, and Revolution, the great wars, and modernisation were all easier to understand when one understood the religious factors that played a role in the conflicts behind so many historical events. Maths and Science were underpinned, subconsciously, by the knowledge that God the Creator was a God of order and structure, and that human beings, made in the image of God, were equipped with the faculty of reason. On ethical issues, such as human relationships, I was gently instructed in the facts, and in the Christian beliefs concerning marriage. There was a sense of security in such education; I was allowed to be a child, to be untrammelled by the pressure of relationships with the opposite sex. The boundaries gave me freedom to be myself.
Understanding great literature
English was my favourite subject, and without a doubt my education in Christian belief gave me a deeper understanding of the great works of literature. My Leaving Cert texts included Silas Marner (George Elliott) and Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe), two texts dealing with various aspects of Judaeo-Christendom. Poets I studied included T.S Elliott, Emily Dickinson and Patrick Kavanagh, all of whom had both positive and negative interactions with Christian belief at the heart of their works. I thrived on the give and take of great literature, the challenging of belief-systems, the presentation of old truth in new light, the varied angles and perspectives on the issues of life. English was a fascinating adventure; I immersed myself in words, not just because I wished to do well in an exam, but because I loved what I was learning.
Bullying and peer pressure
It wasn’t just my education, however, which benefited from the early instruction I received in Christian faith and values. Like so many today, I was the victim of bullying and peer pressure, and in my early teens wept tears of hurt bewilderment as I tried to figure out what I was doing so wrong that my ‘friends’ wouldn’t let me be part of their group. I used to think the problem was with me; I wasn’t wearing the right clothes or I just didn’t know how to be cool. In those days, it was always comforting to simply know that God saw what was happening too; He would never leave me, even if my fickle ‘friends’ ignored me when it suited them. I learned to be content with my own company, and became strong enough to walk alone, a skill which was invaluable right through the tumultuous college years.
Fighting the darkness
When I left Ireland for a year in my early twenties, I was unprepared for the debilitating aloneness that assailed me abroad. While I was surrounded by acquaintances and people who did indeed care about me, I came face to face with a dark part of myself I hadn’t known existed. I remember one day finding myself walking across a bridge in the centre of that European city, and staring numbly, wearily, at the raging waters below. Life was pointless and empty; bright lights were just illusions. I turned from the river and in desperation, skyped a faraway friend; he had been there too and he gave me life-saving advice. ‘Don’t focus on the darkness. Don’t look into yourself. Look away. Look to God’.
I did, reaching back to those fundamental facts that had been built into my life at a tender age. It was facts I needed now, not self-help tips, or emotional quotes. God exists. God has created me. God made me for a purpose. God cares about me right now, here in this cold, friendless city.  To those facts I clung, as a drowning man clings to a safety ring. And, eventually, looking away from my weary, broken self to One much greater Who understood what was beyond my fallible comprehension, I walked across that bridge and made it through the grasping, cursed darkness.
Life as a teacher
Today, in my career as a teacher, my belief in God forms the foundation of my own teaching philosophy. For the kids that are hard to love, I remember that all are made in the image of God, and are therefore invaluable and worthy of the deepest respect. I teach them to respect themselves, help them to see their immense potential, encourage them to be positive. But there are times when such platitudes are not enough. Just recently, a pupil shared with me about an extremely challenging personal circumstance. Deeply moved, I talked about being strong and brave, and looking on the bright side, when the child politely interrupted, ‘I know all that’. So I added, ‘And because I believe that God is all powerful, and can do anything, I will pray for you’. Only then did the light come to that child’s face, a spark of hope ignited by the prospect of Divine intervention.

Faith education in my formative years impacted my life immensely, and has provided me with the basis upon which I built my own personal faith. My soul now has an anchor. I feel strongly that our children will incalculably miss out if they are not provided with a knowledge of God and His Word and a strong foundation in Judaeo-Christian beliefs when they are young. To attempt to de-Christianise schools will only end in moral and social disaster for the state school system, as has happened in other countries.

Merely ‘spectators at the carnival of belief?’
Minister for Education, T.D Richard Bruton, believes that schools ought to be places of inclusion and understanding between different groups. He has referred positively to the Goodness Me Goodness You faith and belief nurturing program which ‘is based on mutual understanding of different religions and belief systems, and of people who don’t subscribe to any religion’. He proposes a worrying alternative to straightforward education in Judaeo-Christian belief, for to educate a child in all religions equally will inevitably turn that child into what journalist John Waters once called ‘a spectator at the carnival of belief’. When no belief system is preferred, a barren vacuum ensues, leaving children adrift with no anchor in a cruel world. We do our children a dire injustice if we refuse to educate them in basic truths concerning God. For my part, I know that my belief in God, the seed of which was planted when I was a little child, has been my mainstay, my life-line and has given true meaning to my existence.

The Leaving Cert is not the problem

It always amuses me to watch celebrity do-gooders come out around this time of the year and demand that the Leaving Cert be overhauled.

 

funny

Clever or stupid?

There is nothing wrong with the Leaving Certificate exam. It’s an indicator of the level of your academic ability, and if you don’t like it, well, that’s a pity.  The LC is an exam with three different levels (Foundation, Ordinary, Higher) in core subjects and two in optional subjects (Ordinary and Higher), and thus gives pupils the opportunity to work towards the level they are comfortable with. There is also the option of doing the Leaving Certificate Applied, a fantastic program which allows academically weak pupils to procure a certificate in their final year at school. Through the Points System, The LC system delivers an accurate measure of the pupil’s academic ability and prepares him/her for the occupation to which they are most suited.
Of course there are problems; our secondary school graduates often lack creative thought and critical skills and they are ill-prepared for the world of 3rd level. These are problems have nothing to do, however, with the actual structure of the LC. Rather, they are indicators of some serious issues which lie at the heart of the teaching profession today.

Teacher Burnout

Morale levels among teachers are at an all-time low with the profession reporting one of the highest levels of depression within the public sector. Reasons for this include unwelcome Junior Cycle reforms, increased classroom discipline and behavioural issues exacerbated by societal change and dysfunctional, broken homes, and the invasive demands of pay reform agreements which include unpaid working hours. Add to this the upcoming obligation on schools to provide mental health services for children in the form of Wellbeing. Depressed, confused, badly-treated teachers cannot be expected to teach to the best of their ability. The government must take care of its teachers if it wishes to have successful schools.

Downgrading of the Teaching Profession

Teaching course requirements are attainable by most average LC pupils; Arts requires 300 points, while specific 2nd level teaching courses begin at 380 points. Statistics show that approximately 40% of pupils receive between 300-445 points in their Leaving Certificate therefore making almost half of school-leavers possible candidates for teaching. The cream of the crop, the high-achievers, are not being attracted into teaching. The faculties of medicine, law and business snap up the most talented young people with lucrative training offers and countless opportunities for travel, upward mobility and salary growth. The mediocre and the plodders, on the other hand, file into Arts degrees, and then struggle through the two obligatory years of teacher training (another area which needs a major overhaul). The financial incentives to become a teacher are non-existent; a McDonald’s employee tossing burgers earns almost as much as an NQT.  They come into our schools to do teaching placement, and those that give you hope for the future with their innovation, sense of vocation and genuine love of the profession are, sadly, few and far between. The reality is that our pupils will only perform as well as their teachers expect them to perform; the attitude and ambition of the teacher has a crucial effect on the pupils. If the government wants successful schools and a highly-educated workforce, it must urgently address key issues such as pay for new teachers and teacher training. The current situation is unfortunately bleak.

Leaving Certificate Applied
Not all pupils have the academic ability to sit the Leaving Certificate. This fact needs to be recognized and respected – we should not force pupils, by means of societal expectations or otherwise, to sit an exam which they are incapable of successfully completing. The Leaving Certificate Applied (LCA) is a fantastic resource for these pupils to, nonetheless, receive an end-of-school certificate and go on to further education, be that a FETAC course or an apprenticeship. Unfortunately, the LCA has received a bad name in school circles as merely an opportunity for pupils of lower academic ability and with poor behaviour to come together in a class and do nothing for two years, and worse still, wreak havoc. This is the result of mismanagement and poor school strategy. It has all but ruined the reputation of an assessment which some pupils should be completing instead of the Leaving Certificate. The majority of schools should be obliged to offer the LCA program, particularly rural schools. Pupils who wish to go into professions such as hairdressing, mechanics, childcare, etc. should not be enduring the stress of the Leaving Certificate, and indeed causing extra work for already hard-pressed teachers, when they could be enjoying the more practical LCA. Societal attitudes in schools and communities around the LCA need to change.

Call for Change

The Leaving Cert is not the problem. Teacher morale, downgrading of the teaching profession and negative attitudes to the practical LCA ARE definitely problems.

Sort these out and the Leaving Certificate will be sorted too.

 

Little Mix and the Sexualisation of Our Children

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Little Mix (copyright http://www.thesun.co.uk)

 

Recently I asked a group of second-year girls who their favorite music group was. All of them replied, ‘Little Mix’.
Up until recently I knew very little about Little Mix – I knew they were born out of X-Factor and that they were four young women who sang run-of-the-mill pop songs. Last summer however, I joined the gym and was introduced to the world of music videos through the 7 screens that entertain gym-goers. One of the groups that appear regular on Capital TV, streamed in the gym, is this group Little Mix.

Suggestive Lyrics, Provocative Outfits

I was embarrassed when I first saw them – so much so that I took a quick glance around me to see if anyone was watching me watch them. Their revealing outfits, suggestive lyrics and provocative movements are not only distasteful and inappropriate, they are also dangerous.
Little Mix song lyrics include ‘Photograph with no T-shirt on/Why you making me wait so long?’ (‘Touch’), ‘For tonight I’m gonna get my mind off it/Don’t care that someone’s got his hands all over my body’ (‘No More Sad Songs’) and ‘Forget that boy, I’m over it/I hope she getting’ better sex/Hope she ain’t fakin’ it like I did, babe’ (Shoutout To My Ex’).
Given their huge popularity among teenagers, Little Mix are playing an aggressive role in the sexualisation of young girls. It is worrying that parents are allowing their children access to these lyrics and music videos. It may be, of course, that they do not realise, or care to realise, what an effect such role models are having on their children.

 

Sexualisation of Teenage Girls and Boys
Children imitate what they see. Young girls think that if Little Mix singers can wear almost nothing in front of millions of viewers, they can do the same. Drive by the local teenage disco in your town and observe the girls – they will be wearing incredibly provocative clothes and heavy makeup. Some of them will be carrying the ridiculously high heels they force themselves to wear and may be walking the streets barefoot. Whether they understand it or not, they are portraying a blatantly sexualised message through their behaviour. They are also posing a huge risk to young boys who will interpret their dress and actions to mean sexual behaviour – and many boys will not feel able or ready to respond. They may be mocked by the girls, and feel abnormal, insufficient, uncool. If they are not enthusiastic about sexualised culture, they run the risk of being ignored and being labelled ‘gay’ or ‘unmanly’. This is happening in our schools among our young people and we are simply fooling ourselves if we do not acknowledge it.

Parental Responsibility
Groups such as Little Mix are normalizing adult sexual themes to children and are a root cause of the problematic sexual behaviour we see in our communities today, both urban and rural. Parents have a duty to allow their children to develop and mature without complex adult themes thrust upon them. Parents have a duty to enable their children to mature in a state of innocence, and, as much as is within their power, to restrict and ban access to sexualised behaviour and attitudes.
Never before have we had so many children and young people that are anxious, depressed and lonely. 62% teens have reported that their mental health is average/poor and a recent article in the Irish Times reported that the number of teenage girls being hospitalised for eating disorders had doubled over the past 10 years. There is no doubt that the rampant sexualisation promoted by mainstream groups – such as Little Mix – is playing a major role in the depression and negative self-image from which so many of our children suffer today. We need parents to step up, take responsibility and make those tough decisions that will save their children.
Groups such as Little Mix are ruining the innocence and potential of our 14-year-old girls, and while teachers can do their best, it is up to parents, ultimately, to do something about it.

 

 

Let Teachers Teach

Teach

 

Many of today’s teachers are afraid.

We are afraid of saying what we really think. We are afraid of being opinionated. We are afraid of controversial issues, especially if we hold the less favorable position. We are afraid of debate in the classroom. We are afraid of complaining parents, of offended pupils, of unsupportive management.

In an age when political correctness has run amok and social mores we lived by for centuries are being ploughed up and revised at whirlwind speed, the teachers are becoming shorn. We are fearful beings. We teach with a superficial cheerfulness, and deliver lessons that steer clear of any serious thought or deep discussion. Deep polarization in Irish society has silenced us.

Last week in German class, the issue of heritage, origins and migration cropped up. The lesson became quite intense and some careful navigation was necessary due to the presence of immigrants in the class. But we had the debate, and we needed to have it. When the bell rang, some of the children took no heed, so engrossed were they in a break-out discussion of terrorism in the name of religion, ISIS and the IRA. Many of the opinions expressed were not the ones heard in mainstream media, but they were perfectly valid viewpoints in a nation built upon the principle of democratic freedom. My pupils will take something valuable from that class that they would not have gotten if I had refused to facilitate and guide a controversial discussion.

I do these ‘risky things’ because I know that the subjects we teach are most often just a means to an end – and that end is the development of our children’s minds and characters.

I am a qualified teacher, with over six years of university and many years of experience behind me.

I have beliefs which I know to be valuable because they have been tested in the furnace of my life experiences and have held strong.

I have the benefit of hindsight and know which actions were successful and which were foolhardy.

I have values which have enabled me to make responsible and successful choices and decisions.

So let me teach by the light which I have been given. Let me help my pupils detect the difference between depth and superficiality. Let me encourage them to identify courage from bravado. Let me enable them to differentiate between liberty and license. Do not muzzle me with sanitized, one-sided lesson plans. Do not force me to teach that which I do not believe to be true or right.

The glory of our schools has been its inspiring, dedicated, selfless teachers. We remember the art teacher who taught us to see beauty in everything, the English teacher who taught us the feeling of self-worth that comes from facing up to and working through our challenges, the science teacher who taught us about the joy of discovery and the importance of a plan. Today’s children are going to miss out on this if we succumb to current pressures to leave our identities and our personal beliefs outside the classroom door and stick rigidly to the prescribed text.

They will get their beliefs and values somewhere – maybe from the media, from YouTube or from Facebook. Without good values, our children will lack the light by which they can successfully navigate their lives.

We must give them this light – light to know the difference between fake and real, love and sensuality, faith and superstition, false and true, right and wrong.

We owe it to the next generation.

(Image credits: Google Images)

Grace

I wonder how ‘Grace’ feels tonight, over 6 million euro richer than she was last night?

Does she know that she’s a millionaire?

Maybe she’s sitting in a room somewhere, cradling her child’s toy, unable to sleep because of the pain of her wounds. Wounds which will one day result in her death. Wounds which were inflicted by someone who was supposed to take care of her. Wounds which smashed the simple securities of her world into pieces and have left her helpless, broken and forever scarred.

Money cannot get rid of wounds. Only when justice is served does the victim feel any sense of vindication. With Grace, justice has not been served. Instead this case has been, and continues to be, a catalog of shameful failures.

The authorities failed utterly in their most important responsibility of caring for the most vulnerable. Worse still, this was not an accidental failure or a genuine mistake. This was a cover-up job which only came to light because of the tireless efforts of people who could not rest while torture was being inflicted upon a helpless girl.

Not only have the authorities failed, but we have failed – as a nation. We failed Grace because for too long we were afraid to rock the boat, to ask hard questions, to risk our own reputations, to listen to our consciences and to get involved in another person’s pain. We were afraid to be compassionate and we were afraid to get angry. And if we weren’t afraid, we were simply heartless, callous creatures.

As we raise our voices now in righteous protest against the maltreatment of Grace, let us be careful that we are not just drowning out our own consciences.
Because if we look sincerely, we will find a ‘Grace’ nearby, in desperate need of an ordinary, everyday hero.

They are in all of our communities. Maybe they aren’t suffering from such extreme abuse, but they are in pain.

They are the quiet children in our classrooms who long desperately for a friend, who suffer from relentless bullying which teachers and management never see.

They are the young people labelled officiously with a condition by psychologists and counselors, who just want someone to genuinely care about them.

They are the mentally and physically disabled people who want to be treated as human beings with thoughts and feelings, not as objects to be carelessly minded.

They are the addicts in the shadows of the night looking for solace from a needle or a bottle, hungry for a simple conversation with someone who respects their humanity.

They are the lonely, depressed, neglected introverts who are plagued by voices in their heads saying, ‘No-one care, no-one cares, no-one cares.’

Grace, 6 million euro doesn’t even begin to erase our guilt. Because in your room tonight, as you toss and turn and weep from pain, all you know is that for years someone made you suffer horrible, unspeakable pain, and for too long no-one cared enough to make them stop. And today your wounds will never heal, and your abuser still walks free.

Shame on us.

The Misplaced Vendetta against Religion in our Schools

Today’s schools are tough places for both pupils and teachers.

religion

Overcrowding, lack of resources, difficulty accessing IT, SEN issues, behavioral problems and the ubiquitous problem of bullying are all everyday challenges. Any teacher can list off areas which require immediate government attention, and in our staff-rooms, no conversation is complete without a reference to one or another of these problems. In my experience, these problems have never included religious instruction or the ‘baptism’ barrier.

Similarly, at parent-teacher meetings, parents raise concerns over discipline, access to support classes, grades, bullying. Never religion.
And sometimes when I listen to the news or scroll through Twitter and learn of yet another campaign against religion in the education system, I feel as though there is a massive disconnect between the media’s reality and my reality.

Reality in the vast majority of schools declares that religion is not an issue – but many other things are. I would appreciate a campaign calling for the government to commit to providing building funds for all schools experiencing overcrowding, or to make PE compulsory for all primary and secondary pupils, or to provide internet safety classes for every child who owns a smartphone. But why the vendetta against religion?

I work in a secondary school. In accordance with Irish law, any pupil who does not wish to partake in religious instruction or activities is permitted to sit in a supervised study area for that period. A small number of pupils do avail of this provision and the arrangement is very respectful and unobtrusive. The majority of pupils gladly take part in religion classes, with many speaking positively of what they learn there. Some have told me that they don’t mind missing Maths or Irish class for extra-curricular activities, but religion must not be skipped. They find the class interesting and for some, it is a peaceful space in the middle of a chaotic and demanding day. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that religious instruction has a positive impact on most pupils’ well-being and moral development.

It is no surprise then that opposition to the role of religion in Irish schools has not originated with Irish parents. Several organisations have been set up to fight the ‘religion’ issue including EQUATE and Educational Equality. They receive funding from philanthropic supporters such as One Foundation along with substantial media coverage and are doing their utmost to turn this into a ‘human rights’ issue. The leaders include Michael Barron, chairman of EQUATE who, along with his partner, Jaime, was a key campaigner for same-sex marriage in May 2015. Before his work with EQUATE, he was the director of BeLongTo, an organisation which promotes LGBT issues among young people in Irish society. April Duff is the chairperson of Education Equality, and along with her work against religion, she also campaigns for abortion and the Repeal of the 8th Amendment .

Clearly those leading the vendetta against religion in schools are not just ‘concerned’ parents. They are not even teachers. They are social activists who have the secularization of Irish society as their aim, and thus their professed sincerity needs to be regarded with great caution. I believe they do not have concern for youth well-being at heart but rather a sinister abhorrence of all Judaeo-Christian values.
There are not thousands of parents from across the country of Ireland revolting against the role of religion in schools. Instead there is a vocal, well-funded minority, led by political activists and favored by the media, stirring up dissent against something which, until now, was never an issue.

Yes, we have a plethora of problems in our education system, including overcrowding.

Religion is not one of them.

How Government Corruption Affects Us All

These are memorable days in Irish politics.

Not only memorable however, but also painful, sickening and disturbing.
Houses of the Oireachtas Commission suppliment(photo credit: oireachtas.ie)

Since February 9th, so many of Ireland’s fundamental institutions have been revealed to be harboring base corruption.

Our Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, the nation’s leader and figurehead, has acted dishonestly; in fact, after being forced to relate the facts regarding his dealings with Cabinet Minsters with regard to the recent McCabe scandal, he said in the Dáil on Thursday 16th Feb, ‘I actually spoke the truth in the house today’. He spoke as though speaking the truth was something to be applauded.

The credibility of the nation’s Ministers for Justice and for Children, Frances Fitzgerald and Katherine Zappone, has been weakened considerably by the corruption within their respective departments.

The Garda Síochana has been grossly unethical and the forthcoming Charleton Tribunal will investigate the extent of its corruption. This is the institution that has as its aim the protection of Irish communities, yet a man who attempted to flag wrongdoing within the Gardaí has left unprotected and abused.

 
TUSLA, the Child and Family Agency, has acted dishonorably and has been party to the blackening of an innocent man’s good name. This is the agency which professes to improve outcomes and wellbeing for children, yet Maurice McCabe’s children will be forever scarred by the horror of the false allegations regarding their father which TUSLA facilitated.

 
There is clearly a deficit in our culture of leadership. A deficit of basic moral responsibility. One is reminded of the story of a novice thief who was apprehended by the police. After he had undergone his punishment, he returned to the thieves’ hideout only to face the towering rage of his boss. When he piteously asked why he was being chastised again, the response was, ‘Because you were stupid enough to get caught’. The greatest sin in Irish political leadership seems to be the mistake of being found out. What is lacking is an inherent passion for the common good and a basic desire to be morally upright in all of one’s actions.

 
The actions and attitudes of government set the tone for the rest of the nation. Corruption at national level must be dealt severely, because it is a contagious disease, apt to spread. We look up to our leaders; they decide the moral temperature of the nation, and through their actions, they define what is acceptable behaviour for leaders in national, municipal and local institutions. If it is acceptable for the Taoiseach, the Minister for Justice, the Police Force, the Child and Family Agency to be corrupt, then it is acceptable also for the shopkeeper, the teacher, the principal, the mechanic.

 
Even our children are affected. I have written before of the premature disillusionment of certain pupils who looked at me cynically when I encouraged them to report any incidents of bullying to school management. With the insight of childish discernment, they know when management truly cares but also when its care is limited to some fancy words on a policy document.

 
A recent phenomenon in my local town are the fights under the bridge. Some of them happen during lunchtime, when youngsters from nearby schools congregate under a bridge located in the town center and watch the designated fighters take each other on. They are vicious, brutal encounters, and fraught with bullying and harassment. Anecdotal evidence reports that sometimes the Gardaí stop by, but their presence doesn’t make much difference. Others say that when the pupils return to school clearly bruised and bloodied, teachers rarely comment or get involved. Some unfortunates caught up in this activity have been subjected to terrible mental and physical abuse.

 
Corruption is becoming commonplace in our communities. When our national institutions don’t function as they ought, disillusionment follows. Depression rates soar. Suicide becomes the increasingly popular ‘way out’.

It has been a disheartening week. I recently read a quote however from Peter Ustinov which has stayed with me – ‘Corruption is nature’s way of restoring faith in democracy.’ We must believe in the power of our own voices and we must actively exercise the democratic principles of free speech and selection.

It seems that the fight for moral justice must be each person’s individual responsibility; we must be willing to expose ourselves by highlighting corruption in our workplaces and communities lest a day come when unchecked corruption turns into tyranny and free speech becomes a crime.