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Sustaining the vocation of Catholic teaching

TEACHING, like many professions, can be demanding, stressful and intense.

With such great focus on content and knowledge, on “what” students learn and “how” they are taught, the “who” – the teacher – is often sorely neglected.

But in a profession where this “who” directly shapes our future generations, Dr Michael Downey is working hard to nurture and sustain the vocation of those teaching in Catholic schools.

“We live in a consumerist society dominated by inputs and outputs and measurements, but teaching, it’s not about this,” he said.

“It’s about drawing out the image and likeness of God in the children we teach, and we can only do that if we are travelling that journey ourselves.”

Having worked in Catholic schools across Queensland for 31 years – completing his doctoral research along the way – Dr Downey recently conducted a two-day teacher spirituality conference at Stuartholme School, Toowong, in Brisbane.

It attracted 50 educators from around Brisbane archdiocese, and from Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra and Auckland, and Dr Downey hopes to make the conference an annual event.

“When we’re under so much pressure in such an intense vocation – teaching is one of the most psychologically stressful things you can do – it’s more important than ever that we as professionals are able to stand back,” he said.

“This is something we must continue to do, and do with the most up-to-date insights into the human condition that we have.”

The conference included guest speakers author of the 2007 book “Releasing the Angel: Saluting All Who Strive to Teach” Jesuit Father Christopher Gleeson and Marist Brother David Hall, who is acting principal at St Augustine’s College in Cairns.

Fr Gleeson, Br Hall and Dr Downey all work from the premise that although teachers have a high “burn-out” rate, the work that burns them out also has the potential to help them flourish.

For Dr Downey, this lies in the struggle to balance one’s numerous vocations.

“I have a calling to teach in Catholic schools, but I also have a vocation to be a parent and a spouse,” he said.

“These are not three separate vocations though, they’re one, so the key is working out how to integrate them and sustain all three.”

When asked how this could be achieved practically, Dr Downey said daily contemplation was vital.

“The temptation of being over-busy is insidious and before you know it you are overwhelmed,” he said.

“So each day, regardless of one’s schedule, there must be time for prayer and reflection and stillness.

“These are the moments when the sacred touches our lives. We can’t see the presence of the divine in the instant, but when we look back we can see glimpses of it throughout our day.

“Sometimes it might be in the smile of the kid who nobody hoped for, but who got a C-minus for the first time.”

Belinda Sydenham and Stephanie Ashton, from Baradene College of the Sacred Heart in Remuera, Auckland, agreed that on Day 2 of the conference they had received “wonderful food for thought”.

Mrs Sydenham said she was more aware of teaching’s many dimensions and the impact her own vocation had on others.

“Content is important, but the other things children learn from you, like attitudes and behaviours, matter just as much,” she said.

“Having some quiet, gentle time to think and reflect has been so valuable, and has reminded us how our spirituality not only affects us but affects our students as well.”

Along with continuing the conference, Dr Downey plans to create a website for its participants where “nourishing bits of information” will be posted for all to share.

“The immediate objective of this is not about what teachers do in the classroom, it’s about nurturing and sustaining the vocation of teachers because when we do that the flow-on to the colleges, classroom and school community is great.”

Dr Downey is head of religion at Stuartholme. He has spoken at conferences throughout the United States – in Washington, Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey, Atlanta, Chicago, California and Seattle – and in the United Kingdom.

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