#TheologyinIsolation 13: Teachers Educating as Genuine Witnesses
Danielle Lynch asks 'who are teachers called to be in the midst of COVID-19'
I write as academic theologian and secondary school educator. My work in systematic theology overlaps with my work in a pastoral position as a teacher of young people in a Catholic school in many ways, but perhaps most importantly through the framework of what I understand to be mission - being a witness to a lived Gospel.
Who are teachers called to be in the midst of COVID19? I suggest they are called to be credible and authentic Gospel witnesses who embody hope against hope. Bernard Lonergan gives us some guidance on this: “Genuineness… does not brush questions aside, smother doubts, push problems down, escape to activity, to chatter, to passive entertainment, to sleep, to narcotics. [No, teachers, not now!] It confronts issues, inspects them, studies their many aspects, works out their various implications, contemplates their concrete consequences in one’s own life and in the lives of others.” Teachers are called to be genuine, to be people who face the challenging questions head on, not with certainties and convictions, but with faith, hope and love.
How do I teach in the middle of a global pandemic?
Teachers are such a committed group of people that they are overhauling the curriculum and the way they teach in preparation of transitioning to a form of home learning. It is a time of great personal and professional strain. Are we overdoing it?
More than ever, teachers need to be living witnesses of the Gospel, not by creating fifty youtube videos, setting up zoom classes, setting endless tasks for completion. Teachers witness most effectively in the present moment by living the values they aim to cultivate in students. I am trying to hold on to the Marist values of my school context: 1. presence, 2. simplicity, 3. family spirit, 4. love of work, and 5. in the way of Mary. This means: 1. I challenge myself to be available to students in whatever way works for them, building relationships providing different options for support, recognising that home learning contexts look different for each of them, more diverse than ever and yet more hidden; 2. I try to reduce anxiety and stress around work as much as possible, and take care not to overburden students; 3. I stay connected to students and their families by technology, ensuring they feel supported not isolated, and encourage them to prioritise social relationships in times of physical distance; 4. I model love of work through teaching, academic work, and music, but remind students that whilst learning is important, it is not always easy, and especially in this moment is not necessarily our first priority; and 5. I tackle the difficult questions head-on with students, saying yes to a hope-filled faith in the midst of anxiety and uncertainty, setting time aside for deeper questions and discussion, for prayer and reflection.
As educators, we should prioritise cultivating theological spaces that appear. This global pandemic has opened up hermeneutical spaces in classes – in whatever form they are now taking – into which students and teachers can think theologically. Students are dealing with complex existential questions, arising from issues including but not limited to trust, suffering, and death. Teachers can assist students to develop the critical thinking skills to discern truth amongst the plethora of mass-hysteria and misinformation on social media. We, as educators, should model for students that we don't have certainty now, or indeed ever, about matters of faith, and that's ok - something many a theologian could do with remembering. Hope exists in the midst of darkness and uncertainty.
It is also an opportune teaching moment to discuss what it means to be a global community, how that relates to religious teachings, and what faith might look like going forward. Ethical principles and philosophies are evident in stories from around the world, which are food for deep discussion and critical thinking. Especially in my classes of healthy young men (I teach in a boys’ school), I have found myself engaged in conversations around the common good: in other words, assisting students to understand that they must follow physical distancing restrictions not necessarily for their own benefit (although also acknowledging the possibility that they could also be significantly affected), but to protect the most vulnerable in society. Now, more than ever, it is important to teach about our common humanity.
As teachers, we can journey with students as guides, models, and witnesses as they ask existential questions and work through answering them in their own contexts. We also need to recognise and discuss these with our colleagues, and provide spaces to raise questions and journey with each other. I have made time to virtually connect with colleagues – continuing our Lenten journey together, but, more importantly, opening the space into which we can ask existential questions and offer thoughts and ideas.
My identity as theologian-musician-teacher makes me who I am; they are not separate aspects of my life but blur and intermingle in a way which is reciprocally refreshing. I do my theology through music and I share my music with my students. Their responses help me both write better music and think critically about my theology. Now it is more important than ever that I continue to do this with them, giving them spaces and places of encounter with the mystery we name God. As we were beginning to recognise the scale of the crisis of COVID19 I shared with them my rewrite of the Lord's Prayer, Into Silence. It gave us the opportunity to discuss ideas about God (and where God is in this) and our role as global citizens.
I return to where I began with Lonergan, teachers are called to confront challenging questions, not with certainties and convictions, but with faith, hope and love. Or at least to embody this genuineness to the extent they are able. In the midst of crisis, teachers must reassure students that they are innately valuable human beings in whose lives we, as teachers and fellow human beings, are deeply invested.
Unknown, unnameable, in our midst.
May music speak your name into silence.
Let us together acknowledge the dignity of all people
each created in your image until the end of time.
When we have more than we need, help us to share with others.
May our faults become gifts of healing.
Let us remember to live in the mystery where we seek wisdom
to live in harmony and recognise ourselves in you.
Unknown, unnameable, in our midst.
May music speak your name into silence.
(© Danielle Anne Lynch, 2019)
Hear Danielle Lynch sing Into Silence here -https://soundcloud.com/danielle-lynch-380525490/into-silence
Dr Danielle Anne Lynch is a theologian, musician, and composer. Danielle teaches Religious Education in a Catholic secondary school in Melbourne, Australia. Danielle’s PhD is in theologies of music and her book God in Sound and Silence: Music as Theology was published in 2018. Danielle’s theology is expressed in word and song. Danielle’s blog can be found at www.danielleannelynch.com for more thinking around theology and education.
 Lonergan, Bernard The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan: Vol 3. Insight: A Study of Human Understanding, eds Frederick E. Crowe & Robert M. Doran (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992), 502