Summer 2008 brings me to my 34th year in education at second level in a co-educational Community College. I am a Home Economics teacher and a Religious Sister of Mercy, coming from a rural background and the eldest of nine children. I was taught and experienced how to put “a stone upon a stone” to develop my future – respect for other people was the very core of our value system. I saw this developing at home with hard work, deep faith, honesty and integrity. My parent’s work/life was a vocation which had to be worked on and worked with – it did not come prepacked or flatpacked.
My second level education was with the Sisters of Mercy in a rural setting where I saw again that vocation had to be worked on and worked with and worked out. The lives of Sisters in education, (educere – to lead out), involved constancy, fidelity, sacrifice and prayer, recognising poverty at all levels. In my early twenties I taught for six years in that same school which is now coeducational. The students came more markedly from various socio-economic backgrounds experiencing similar types of poverty – financial, culture of poverty, and sometimes family tragedy. True education however, empowers and frees all who come in contact with it. The Mercy ethos was certainly passed on and all the students were always encouraged to take care of the poor at all levels, whether that be in terms of emotional, physical, monetary or insecure poverty, through fundraising, standards/values, example, awareness, etc.
1980 brought me to a co-educational Community College of various socio-economic backgrounds but in an urban setting. Students from all these backgrounds worked well together in one class or in one year group and were actually good for each other. Apart from the various socio-economic backgrounds we had students of different religions attending – the Community College serving the community. Now after twenty years, we as a staff, due to the feuding families who presently attend the school, serve mainly one socio-economic background. Our standard of formal education has dropped drastically but, staff strive to achieve a certain excellence in bringing students possibly just one step further each day and making life in school a happy secure place. This was not an easy change for us but most of us have adapted well. We win some, we loose some and the attrition rate among students is high enough due mostly to interests and energies beyond our control, being focused in other directions!
For me the face of poverty is in:
Bad management – poor life skills
Single fathers with no legal rights
Poverty of family – values, faith, relationships, communication, family structure
Parents denying their responsibility
Family breakdown/marriage breakdown/instability
Lack of quality time for positive constructive love, affection and encouragement
Children with disability and special needs accentuated by their socio-economic milieu
Early dropouts from school
Lack of “proper” nourishment
Rife imprisonment, drugs addicts, drink, gambling, money lending
Poverty of culture
Lack of meaning in life
Lack of a sense of spirituality
Alienation from a church which is not in touch their lives/needs
Illiteracy – huge increase today at second level, so much so that I found it necessary and eventually helpful to put in place a basic programme focusing on the 3Rs (Reading, Writing and Arithmetic) for our incoming 1st years in September 2007. We are repeating this programme, updated in September 2008.
These areas of poverty identified and named are only some areas, but stable families are no longer the nucleus of society and hence, society is in the process of breaking down.
As a school we have good backup services from external agencies and we work very well in partnership. I hope thee services remain with us in this economic downturn. Myself – I feel I do not just teach – I am a social worker, counsellor, nurse, psychologist, in trying to eliminate poverty and ease the plight of the students. When a young student comes in drunk – what do you do? Throw the student out or allow the student to sleep? This position as a teacher has become more demanding, but as a Sister of Mercy and a daughter of Catherine McAuley, I hope to enable them, to love them, empower them, and above all to help them to discern the true voice within to make good choices.
My motto is: “Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and you feed him for life”
As a Home Economics teacher, the subject helps to develop skills, knowledge, and attributes in students to take control of their lives at present and in the future – doing “things with people rather than about them”. Home Economics class facilitates us working together – one big advantage of the subject is – it is interactive. Knowledge of the Home and Environment in which people fashion an individual lifestyle is more important than ever especially when working with disadvantaged students. But alas, not all students take Home Ec. and family does not seem important today. I, being a Home Ec. teacher and a Sister of Mercy hope that the students will discover through my work the ruby within, about helping each other to walk tall so that we are all loved and cherished for ourselves. I have experienced this discovery with students especially if they continue to Leaving Certificate level. Our school motto also helps with this discovery – “FAS, FOGHLAM, FORBAIRT” Growth, Learning and Development, as the students are reminded of it frequently.
I am Chairman of the Board of Management, St. Josephs Secondary School, Abbeyfeale and I feel they too are leading people to an awareness of poverty in its broadest sense at local, national and international level. Examples of this are their work with travellers and foreign nationals through inclusiveness and integration.
My experience of working with the Irish Wheelchair Association gives another opportunity in which to express my Mercy charism leading people from “behind closed doors” to achieve the full inclusion of people with disability in the community. As the mission statement says – “we are dedicated to the achievement of the full social, economic, and educational integration of people with disabilities as equal, independent, participative members within the general community.” This is the ideal and we are still advocating on behalf of our members to achieve this inclusion focusing at the moment on areas of access, the built environment, employment and of course education. We work independently and in partnership with state bodies to achieve this inclusion. EDUCATE, EDUCATE, EDUCATE, both FORMAL and INFORMAL.
All in all, my ministry in life, inspired by Catherine McAuley, is committed to holistic development, to recognising that every person has a right to equal opportunity in education and in life and to strive for the empowerment of all in real poverty. In alleviating poverty, I hope that each graduate from our school is a person of integrity imbued with the values which lead to happiness and fulfillment in life. I also hope that they will discern the true voice (ruby) within to make good choices as they experience life in all its forms on the journey.
“If you are what you should be, You will set the world on fire” – St. Catherine of Sienna.
Margaret Hogan rsm