OUR SUNDAY GOSPELS from Matthew until Lent are extracts from the Sermon on the Mount, which began with the ‘Beatitudes’ last weekend. In Matthew’s gospel above all we are enabled to see Jesus as the teacher, as the ‘New Moses’, renewing and fulfilling the moral law given by God through Moses to his chosen people. This teaching is given to us not simply to help us in our own lives: as is clear in today’s gospel we are expected to be salt and light, guiding other people; for some disciples of the Lord, this is demanding. This Sunday in this country is Racial Justice Sunday: racism in our society and in the rest of the world is such a serious problem that it demands a response from Catholics and other Christians. This is one way in which we can be salt and light.
But reflection on Our Lord as the teacher helps us in other ways, particularly in the midst of strike action by teachers in schools and universities (alongside many others): reflecting on him as the Teacher of humanity can help us reflect on what teachers do. The Catholic Church has for centuries valued education enormously, investing many resources in schools, colleges, universities and seminaries; this means that we see teaching as a vocation. One of my teaching responsibilities is to lead sessions in the Catholic Certificate in Religious Studies (CCRS), trying to help a large number of young men and women from Britain and Ireland get ready for the teaching of RE in Catholic Schools: it’s a daunting privilege, and trainee teachers need our prayers and support. They are entering the teaching profession at a time of crisis – many newly qualified teachers leave the profession after only a few years, because of pressure. These include inadequate pay which in recent years has led to real hardship, long hours, growing administrative burdens, and an increase in the numbers of pupils with serious behavioural and other problems. In all this, schools in the maintained sector have lost in real terms vast amounts of money, and teachers themselves have for decades been vilified in society, particularly in parts of the press. All these factors lie behind the industrial action in schools which began this week – on the day of the strike on Wednesday, an Anglican bishop gave a very good reflection about teachers on Radio 4’s Thought for the Day (BBC Radio 4 – Thought for the Day, Rt Rev Nick Baines) which is worth hearing.
Many of you are or have been teachers, or your children or grandchildren may be teachers. Teachers need our support and prayers at this time – those who have been on strike and those who have not – spare a prayer too for Headteachers. Again they are often attacked by politicians and journalists, and many reforms to schools have diminished their responsibilities, which is making it even harder to recruit Heads (this is a serious problem in the Catholic sector). Remember that the Catholic Church supports the right to strike (Catechism of the Catholic Church section 2435: ‘Recourse to a strike is morally legitimate when it cannot be avoided, or at least when it is necessary to obtain a proportionate benefit’) and the Church has often had close links with the Trade Union movement across the world. Proposals to limit the right to strike are at odds with this teaching.
How we view teachers says a lot about the sort of society we live in, or the society we want to live in; as with other public sector workers, the contrast between how teachers are treated and the growing wealth of the rich is very clear. Something we could all do is to encourage young people, in spite of the pressures which I have mentioned, to consider training to be teachers. Please also pray for those of us involved in teacher training.