How to be a good Catholic teacher

Isabelle Boyd says the best educators are the same in and out of the classroom.

When researchers ask what makes a good teacher, the results always throw up common themes.

One outlier that makes me smile is ‘the teacher smells nice’ – but the factor that always tops the chart is about how the teacher made you feel.

If I asked you to name your favourite teacher you would have an answer. It is highly unlikely that you would remember subjects or lessons but you would talk about the how Mr/Mrs/Miss made you feel. It would be the teacher who included every- one and didn’t have favourites. The teacher who laughed with you and not at you and the teacher who was definitely firm but fair. This model of the good teacher is universal and is of vital importance in our Catholic schools.

Personal relationships, particularly between teachers and pupils, are at the heart of Catholic education. My teaching career began in John Bosco Secondary school in Glasgow and it serves us well to remember the saint’s words ‘education is a thing of the heart’.

In remembering your favourite teacher, I bet they were not cuddly or wishy-washy but set clear boundaries and showed consistency in their dealings with pupils. I am confident that they said prayers with us daily, that they displayed a commitment to learning and teaching, a caring and concerned attitude for people and environment together with patience and resilience. These favourite teachers made us feel liked, understood, encouraged and challenged to do our best. They guided us and kept us on our toes! They found out what we were good at rather than always highlighting our failings.

These are examples of Gospel values of love, truth and compassion. Gospel values transform lives and pupils in our schools are at particularly transformative times in life. In the values they live teachers help children and young people become the Christian adults of the future.

Good teachers lead their pupils to success – exam results, progress, etc. – but it is what Professor Gerald Grace, distinguished Catholic Education scholar, calls the ‘hidden pedagogy’ that makes our Catholic schools distinctive. Professor Grace pleads that in striving for academic excellence, we do not lose sight of our mission of ‘educational service to the poor and religious service to the Church’ and the promotion of the common good.

Catholic schools do not exacerbate differences between peoples but support cooperation with others. Our schools and teachers are open to others and respect their way of thinking and of living.

In Scotland, we are blessed in that teachers appointed to our schools are expected to support the aims, mission, values and ethos of the school, as detailed in the Charter for Catholic Schools in Scotland. This charter sets out the distinctive nature of the Catholic school and the teacher’s role in promoting and supporting the inclusive ethos ‘to honour the life, dignity and voice of each person, made in the image of God’ and to communicating Church social teaching ‘to promote social justice and opportunity for all’.

However, we need our Catholic teachers to live that charter. The authentic teacher as one who ‘brings their whole self’ to the classroom every day.

I often repeat a story I heard from a headteacher colleague who reminds the teachers in her school that their Faith and commitment cannot be worn like an overcoat. An overcoat put on when arriving at school in the morning but discarded at the front gate on the way into the ‘real’ world. We need teachers who promote and support Gospel values at work but also at home and in their communities.

God forgive me, but I was suspicious of some of the holy Joes I met in my career. Thankfully, a tiny but very pious minority – even carrying the cross and washing the feet of staff during Lent – but donning the over- coat on the way in and discarding it on the way out.

Giving less than 100% for the children in front of them but expecting the teachers in their own son or daughter’s school to go the extra mile. Making derogatory remarks about choices made by families we are paid to serve and by making children in their ‘care’ feel worth less than others.

We require all our teachers to be living role models who speak out for all and especially for the marginalised in society. Teachers who are appalled and seek action on the drug deaths in Scotland and seek compassion for the families fleeing their homelands in dinghies.

We need teachers who understand that poverty and homelessness is not the fault of the poor and teachers who have empathy for the plight of families in our communities at home and abroad. Our schools do fantastic work. Our teachers work hard often in trying circumstances, particularly during the pandemic, but we cannot be complacent.

Yes, there are syllabuses to teach and exams to be prepared for but the truly authentic Catholic teacher will display rigour, will challenge, will encourage critical thinking and advise on real world problems. They will bring their whole selves to the classroom every day. In this way, as Catholic teachers they will model Catholic teaching and Gospel values. If doing this, then surely our young will follow suit.

Sign Up to Our Newsletter

Get the latest Scottish Catholic news. Sign up today.