This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 14th December 2018
I had an opportunity to see the new icon of ‘Jesus Our Teacher’ which has been touring round the diocese of Scotland. The icon was designed by Bernadette Reilly and commemorates the passing of the 1918 Education Act which enabled Catholic, Jewish and Episcopal schools to be incorporated into the State System, providing the finance which those religions had been supplying. Catholic and Episcopal schools are still in the system.
The icon, with Jesus as the central figure, tells the story of Catholic education in Scotland and shows the immigrant peoples bringing their faith from places like Poland, Lithuania and Ireland. Like all icons, the closer you look, the more you see. It certainly caused me to think about my own experience of education and the people who influenced me.
My schooling was in Catholic schools and I got the benefit of sound religious teaching as well as a good grounding that stood me in good stead for the future. I taught in secondary schools for twenty five years and spent six years tutoring at Glasgow University. I suppose I’ve seen the education system from both sides. What I remember most is the people rather than the system. I found there were individual teachers who left their mark on me; sometimes just by a casual remark that gave me in insight into a different way of thinking.
In my teaching career I sometimes encountered the debate about whether we were teaching a subject or teaching pupils. The answer is both of course but I found there were teachers who were inspired by their interest in the pupils to go a little further to make their subject interesting.
The icon made me reflect on the idea of Jesus as a teacher. He had no qualifications and never took a class but he taught people, not subjects. That made me think about who are the teachers and the importance of schools. There seems to be a growing body of parents who prefer to home school rather than send their children to school. I think they miss out on the important aspect of schools. That is that they bring children into contact with talented, skilled teachers. Staying at home is a missed opportunity.
Schools are not the only places where learning goes on and it is not only qualified teachers who teach. Parents are the first teachers a child encounters. Their job is vital. If parents fail in their initial formation of the child it will not get the full benefit of schooling. The child learns to talk from the parents talking to it. The child learns the basic skills of living at home. Parents can engender a love of reading by reading stories to the child (even if it is only to get them to sleep.) The child builds up its vocabulary and understanding of language in listening to parents, but it’s more than that.
Children develop attitudes from listening to the parents talk. I’m thinking of my own children. What attitudes did I impart to them? Did I show them how to be good citizens? Did I encourage them to be helpful to others? Did I encourage them to love God? I don’t really know the answers to those questions but it makes me think. Jesus taught with authority in the Synagogue but his real teaching was done in what he did and the stories he told. I wonder if I did enough.
Of course, learning is not something confined to childhood. We continue to learn long after we leave formal education. John Dewey, an American educationalist, regarded learning as a sign of life. If you stop learning, he thought, you are not fully alive. Learning as an adult may take place in formal classes or in training courses at work but that is only a small part of learning. We learn from books and magazines. I learn all sorts of things from reading the Scottish Catholic Observer. I find out what’s happening in the church and I also develop my understanding of my religion from reading some informative contributors. Mostly I learn from people.
I was struck by a reading at Mass the other day.
You must preach the behaviour which goes with healthy doctrine. It is for you to preach the behaviour which goes with healthy doctrine. The older men should be reserved, dignified, moderate, sound in faith and love and constancy. Similarly, the older women should behave as though they were religious, with no scandal-mongering and no habitual wine-drinking..
I cut this short to leave out the bit about wives should obey their husbands as it might get me into trouble at home. The passage makes clear that we are to be teachers by the way we behave. It’s not a case of do what I say but it’s about teaching by doing. My issue is that I would probably be regarded as an older man and I should be reserved, dignified and moderate. I’ve just been looking after my five year old twin grandsons and none of those adjectives could apply. Nobody would describe hiding in the hall cupboard in a game of hide and seek as dignified.
However I like to think that Jesus would hide in the hall cupboard in my situation. Spending time with children and having fun with them is one way of showing you love them; you don’t need to put it into words. The same thing applies to adults. You might just spend a few minutes listening to someone’s tale of woe but giving them your time shows that you value them. That was the kind of teaching Jesus often did. He spent time with the people who were ostracised from polite society and showed them that they were valued.
What does Jesus expect us to teach? Surely it comes down to the basic commandment; love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. You can do that with a simple comment or even just a smile. I remember our careers master asking me how I had got on with my application to join the Royal Airforce. I told him I couldn’t fly as I was found to be colour-blind. He said “What’s for you will not go by you”. I was feeling pretty miserable at the time but it made me think and I realised that God had a plan for me and for everyone. I was still disappointed but I had learned an important lesson about our relationship with God.
Sometimes you can pass on an important lesson with a simple comment. You can only do that if you engage with people and you can only succeed when you are being positive. It’s too early for a New Year’s Resolution but I’m going to make the effort from now on to be that positive influence on those I meet. No more wee grumpy guy.