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Ireland Blog Posts

'Seldom have we had such rich and genuine conversations, certainly not on principles of belief and faith.'

“My favourite thought about Abraham Lincoln is he believed strongly in two things: loving one another and working together to make this world better” Cuomo, 2004.  

As a Catholic primary school, we can certainly relate to this quote but the more challenging question is whether we are a living example of such Christian practice in today’s world. This is the journey a cohort of three Laois primary schools The Heath National School, Emo National School and Scoil Mhuire, Abbeyleix, have begun to explore in partnership with Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) and the Diocese of Kildare and Leighlin.

Like other Catholic primary schools in Ireland, our school, The Heath NS, has a long educational history dating back to the days of penal laws and hedge schools. It is a history of education through a Christian lens, inspired by a shared belief in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. It is an education which emphasises the dignity of the human person as a child of God, called to work with other persons in creating an inclusive community in service of the common good; where knowledge is sought and respected while faith is nurtured and challenged. Our ethos/mission statements are based on these values, are quoted in our booklets, are available on our websites and are evident around sacramental preparation but, as educationalist Jacinta Kitt so wittily questions, is this the living reality in our schools?

One of the major challenges for Catholic schools in Ireland today is sustaining educational practice centred on Jesus Christ in a very changed, demanding and fragmented society. The increased levels of expectation, compliance, accountability and curricular initiatives, no matter how well intentioned, all erode our enthusiasm, our time and, above all, our focus.

As if to highlight this point, in the same month that our school received an invitation from our diocesan education adviser to participate in this School Culture Initiative, our school also received notification of a Whole School Evaluation. Needless to say, the initial interest in the School Culture Initiative was quickly replaced by preparation for the Whole School Evaluation. In the aftermath of our WSE, and the normal work of a summer term to be completed, our staff could have been forgiven for not embracing the opportunity being offered by ACE to reflect on our school culture. Initially apprehensive about another initiative, we tentatively established our school culture team, tempted by the opportunity to engage in meaningful work in a process inclusive of all our staff.  It also helped that this would be led by an external facilitator involving other similar local schools and of course the promise of a weekend away together in Killashee House Hotel!

Seven months into the process and a year on from our initial sign up, there has been no easing of societal and educational change. What has changed, however, is that this year we are not just responding to external demands but are engaged in true school self-evaluation which is of fundamental value to the school community we serve. The School Culture Initiative has provided us with a reason and safe space in which to examine and debate our Catholic culture.

Seldom have we had such rich and genuine conversations and, certainly not on principles of belief and faith. This opportunity has enriched us all, our understanding, our relationships and our sense of being valued. All staff greatly appreciated Bishop Denis Nulty’s presence at both of our culture weekends and were motivated by his interest and support in our work in becoming an intentional Catholic school.

While it has not been easy to always find the time, our monthly meetings with Jonathan Tiernan (Director ACE Ireland) and the other partner schools have been instrumental in keeping us on task. Indeed, in my view, the opportunity and benefit of networking with other schools on our shared Catholic culture would be of great assistance to all Catholic schools. At this stage we have established our school’s root beliefs and values and have simplified the language to make it accessible for children and adults alike. These root beliefs and values will now guide us in examining both our current practice and in establishing how we can demonstrate them in an intentional way on a daily basis.

On completion of the process, at the end of this school year, we believe we will be more confident in articulating and communicating what our school stands for as an intentional Catholic school. More than ever I believe if Catholic schools are to have a future, they need to be certain of their identity, proud of their tradition and for their practice to be clearly rooted in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. We are grateful to our Diocese and the Alliance for Catholic Education for allowing us begin this very positive journey which, we hope, will result in us in the Heath National School working together to make our world better, which, in turn, will lead us all to love one another a little bit more.   

David O'Brien is Principal of The Heath N.S., Co. Laois. 


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Focus on School Leadership Central to Future of Catholic Schools

This article first appeared in the December 2018 issue of 'Le Chéile - A Catholic School Ethos Journal'

Principals in Catholic schools have a much more challenging job than those in most schools. Most principals strive to lead schools that aim to be excellent educational institutions by accepted standards of the profession. Catholic school principals do this too, with great success in most cases. However, they must also nourish and celebrate a distinctive mission to be a Catholic school, inspired and guided by a great spiritual tradition.

The ability of our Catholic school leaders to continue to achieve both sides of this leadership equation will be a key determinant in the long-term ability of our schools to remain intentionally and authentically Catholic. This is one of the biggest challenges that Catholic schools will face over the coming decades in continuing to be, as US academic John Dilulio has referred to them, sacred places serving a civic purpose.

This dual role that we expect of our Catholic school leaders, to be both the pastoral leader as well as the leader of teaching and learning, raises deeply important questions for all those who are invested in strengthening and sustaining Catholic schools. If we take a moment to reflect honestly, how would we answer the following two questions. 1. Are we working hard enough to ensure that there is a sustainable pipeline of Catholic school leaders for our schools? 2. Are we preparing our current and aspiring school principals adequately to lead intentional Catholic schools? If the answer is ‘No’ to one of these questions we should be concerned. If the answer is ‘No’ to both of them then we should be ringing the alarm bell.

Succession planning is a vital component in any organisation, and failure to identify the next generation of committed and competent leaders can often have a detrimental effect on the overall mission and direction of an organisation. It could be argued that we have come through the first significant ‘succession’ phase in Catholic schools pretty well. This first phase can be identified as the transition from a long history of vowed religious leading our schools to the first generation of lay leadership. As demographics change, and the growth of secularism continues, we must ensure that we continue to recruit leaders who are as committed to the spiritual character of their schools as they are to the school’s academic reputation. To enable this we must provide channels and experiences for this next generation of school leaders to be strong academic, administrative and spiritual leaders.

Preparing Catholic school principals to lead should be as intentional as the school culture we expect them to foster and promote. It should not be left to chance and it must be holistic. Holistic in the sense that it focuses not only on the management capacities that school principals require, but also on the unique gifts required to lead a school grounded in a specific faith tradition. Archbishop Eamon Martin reminded us in a 2016 address entitled Intentional Catholic Schools – Hubs of God’s Mercy ‘how easy it is to pay lip-service to our Catholic ethos and to simply put on a good show when necessary’. If our schools are to avoid this trap, and instead be vibrant centres of faith and reason the calibre and commitment of the next generation of school leaders will be the fulcrum on which the future of Catholic schools hinges.

Leading Catholic schools in modern Ireland is not an easy task. Archbishop Martin also recognises that ‘it is sometimes difficult in Ireland to be an intentional Catholic school. In recent years it has not been politically correct to speak too loudly about the Catholic ethos - some have labelled us exclusive, sectarian even’. Writing in the book Why Send Your Child to a Catholic School? (2014) Bishop Donal McKeown alluded to one of the challenges of leading a contemporary Catholic school while also pointing to where school leaders might draw encouragement, ‘In a rapidly changing world, Catholic education is faced with the need to reinvent itself for new environments. However, the many strengths of the Catholic school will continue to give encouragement to those who must lead that development.’ This changing world will require school leaders who are confident and competent in articulating the many strengths of a Catholic education and advocating on its behalf.

For the past twenty years the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) Ireland has, in partnership with partners across the island, sought to identify, motivate, and develop leaders that are committed to revitalizing the Catholic character of Irish primary and secondary schools in the 21st century. We believe that nothing is more important for the future of our Church than the quality of our schools, and nothing is more important for the quality of our schools than the formation of the next generation of school leaders. To address the need of schools for transformational school leaders ACE’s leadership programmes focus on three main domains; Instructional Leadership, Executive Management and School Culture. By focusing on these three areas school leaders develop the skills and knowledge necessary to increase academic achievement through data-informed, mission-driven instructional leadership, apply executive management skills to direct school operations, and cultivate a strong, positive, intentional Catholic school culture.

Many leadership programmes focus heavily on the management tools needed to run a modern school, in which policies, procedures and directives occupy so much of a principal’s time. Some also seek to build the capacity of participants to more effectively lead teaching and learning in their schools. However a focus on strengthening and sustaining Catholic school culture is often the missing element in how we prepare school leaders. For those leading Catholic schools understanding how and why school culture contributes to forming an intentional Catholic school cannot be overlooked. School culture can often be seen as a woolly concept, and thus not open to rigorous attention. Contrary to this notion, our experience in ACE both in the United States and in Ireland is that if you provide school leaders with the concepts and skills required they, along with their staff, are capable of creating and sustaining a strong, positive, intentional school culture aligned with the mission, vision, beliefs, and values of their schools.

Our Catholic schools need people with energy, enthusiasm and tenacity to lead them. Jesus captured his disciples by teaching and living in a challenging and deeply compelling way. Our school leaders must be capable of forming schools inspired by this model, in which students encounter a learning community that is at once challenging and deeply compelling in its efforts to foster both faith and reason. Are we doing enough to cultivate the next generation of Catholic school leaders? Are we doing enough to support principals to lead intentional Catholic schools? We must ensure the answer to both questions is always yes!

Jonathan Tiernan is the Director of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education – Ireland based in Notre Dame’s Global Gateway in Dublin.

 


 

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Seeds of Openness Sown in the Classroom

For many growing up in the early to mid-eighties in Ireland our first exposure to 'other', to people 'not like us', or not 'from here', came in the classroom. Every Lenten season the Trócaire boxes arrived, as they still do, in schools around the country. On each of them was often a striking picture of a young child, much the same age as we were, but in some way different. To our innocent and curious six year old selves we couldn't quite articulate what this difference was but we recognised it. The image of the Trócaire box popped into my head as I reflected on the recent survey from the European Commission showing that Ireland had the third highest level of openness to immigrants (80%) after Spain (83%) and Sweden (81%). The EU28 average is 58%.

That the Irish are a welcoming people has been commented upon for generations. And while we may sometimes feel like this is a worn out statement, one we tell ourselves rather than a true reflection of an outsiders experience, surveys like the one published by the EC are important litmus tests of this age old adage. While we must not be complacent, and for sure the work of welcome is never done, we can and should rightly take pride in what it says about us as a nation.

This most recent survey caused me to pause and reflect on the contributing factors that have made the Irish so open to and accepting of immigrants. One might suppose that it is because we too are a nation of immigrants, with sons and daughters flung to the far reaches of the globe and that because of this immigrant experience it is only natural that we would reflect back the hospitality and opportunity so many of our people have found elsewhere. But a glance at the findings of the survey would point to this not being typical. The three lowest ranking countries in the survey are all Eastern European countries (Czech Republic; Hungary; and Bulgaria), countries who too have large populations of their own people who have travelled beyond their borders in search of brighter futures.

So what has contributed to this underlying openness to other that, while not ubiquitous, is clearly a trait of Irish society? In searching for an answer surely one cannot look past our schools, and the teachers that serve in them. The foundation for so much of who we are was laid down during our early days in the classroom. If you love books, have a passion for sport, or an insatiable interest in the scientific method it is likely that you can trace this back to a person or time from your school days. So too with many of our root beliefs and values. It is true that our family had a central role, however there were some concepts, some realities that were more deeply explored inside the classroom than the living room.

One of these realities, for many I suspect, was that we are not all 'the same'. We talk differently, look different, grow up in different places and face different challenges. These differences were most keenly revealed to 6 year old me through the teachable moment that was the annual arrival of the Trocáire box. The differences we encountered between us and the child on the box were so vivid and yet we couldn't relate to their reality, one that sounded so scary and unfair. Into this stark contrast our teacher would draw out the one unifying truth that we shared. It was that we were all equal and therefore their lives, like ours, had innate value. Like many growing up in Ireland this teaching happened in a Catholic school and so the 'why' behind this truth helped illuminate it. The 'why' being that we are made in the image and likeness of God and there was no hierarchy of children in His eyes.

We were taught that we had a responsibility to each other for 'I am my brothers and sisters keeper'. We were told stories of Irish men and women, in those days most often priests and nuns, who had committed their lives to serving these children and their families. Compassion and empathy were fostered by our teacher, rather than letting pity take hold. Our sense of social justice was stoked, most simply then by sharing our pocket money or forgoing sweets over Lenten so that we could try and make a 6 year old level difference. It is those early seeds of social action that have seen a new generation of Irish young people set out into the world to take the torch from the religious missionaries of past decades. It is what took me to places like Chernobyl and Haiti, to listen, learn, and provide any meaningful support I could.

And so when we consider why we are Irish are so open and accepting of others I think again of the Trocáire box. I believe it is, in part, because we've been aware of others, been considering others, and been open to others since our earliest days in school. All because of a simple plastic money box in the hands of a committed teacher.

Jonathan Tiernan is Director of the University of Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education initiative in Ireland.

Since this piece was published Dublin was ranked #1 for tolerance and inclusion in the QS Best Student Cities survey!