Roisín Coll is the Professor of Catholic Education at the University of Glasgow, and director of the St Andrews foundation, which oversees the training of teachers for Catholic schools in Scotland.
I was brought up in an Irish Catholic family. Faith and Church were just central to everything that we did.
I can remember as a toddler going along to Mass with Mum, misbehaving and being told I had to be particularly quiet at certain times, like at the Consecration.
So, from a very early age, I had a sense of liturgy and the special moments during the Mass.
I grew up in Coatbridge, went to St Patrick’s, and though I’ve not lived there for a long time, I’m always delighted to go back. I’m struck by the depth of Faith and community that exists there.
The deep sense of support for one another, and the way they value their Catholic heritage and their Irish identity as well. That’s something that has to be celebrated.
From my fifth year of secondary, I was sure that I wanted to be a teacher. Not just a teacher, but a Catholic teacher. And I loved it.
The best part is what you get from the young people, what you learn from them and the privilege of journeying with them each day as they develop into the incredible people they are.
I haven’t taught in a classroom for twenty years, since I moved to teacher education, but even then I was aware that many of the young people didn’t actually go to church much. So being a witness to my own Faith was what I saw as my most important role.
For many children, I was really the only experience of church that they were getting. For current teachers that’s even more so the case.
The classroom today
Gone are the days when a majority of the children in front of you are practising Catholics. Even 20 years ago, teachers were able to catechise the children because they already had some language of Faith, a language they understood.
Now children come to school and have never had an encounter with Jesus Christ. So even for baptised children the Catholic teacher has an evangelising role where they’re trying to introduce them to Jesus and invite them to have a relationship with God.
The classroom is the new pulpit. That’s where the young people are hearing about Jesus from teachers and priests since many children aren’t going to church. The catechetical triangle of the home, the parish and the school is referred to as the’ three-legged stool’.
But now it’s just a wobbly one-legged stool, and it’s the school that’s the leg propping it up.
Catholic teachers today
The role has never been more in the spotlight but it is brilliant the way our teachers take it on! From day one, when our students come here, I give them a lecture on the distinctive nature of the Catholic school, and the role of the Catholic teacher.
The Church’s expectation of them! And at first some of them look like they might bolt for the door, but they soon realise there is such support for them.
There’s a fantastic network of support in Scotland through the parishes, the University, the dioceses and the Scottish Catholic Education Service.
A secular university
Because of the unique status of Catholic education in Scotland, I’m fully employed by the University of Glasgow, but my post is approved by the Church. The support I get internally from the University is excellent. Of course, it isn’t without challenges, but the partnership works.
The University of Glasgow was recently recognised as the best in the UK for teacher education, so our Catholic teachers are being trained in a place that’s recognised as being of the highest quality. That’s a great thing.
The future of Catholic schools
State funded Catholic schools have been here for over a century and they’ve survived through wars, financial crashes and societal trends. So, I’m confident they will be around for a while yet!
People always ask, ‘will they survive?’ but a better question is ‘how can we ensure they flourish?’ We all have a role in ensuring they continue to flourish and to support the fantastic work they do.
As told to Ian Dunn.