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Teaching public issues in Catholic schools

  • 09 March 2018


I was in a lecture recently where there were 50 pre-service teachers preparing to transition into the profession. We were talking about the three school systems as they operate in the different states and one student spoke up saying he was afraid to teach in Catholic high schools.

He was under the impression that he would be reprimanded if he said 'the wrong thing' on public debates where the Church takes a strong position. There was a murmur of agreement in the room as others spoke up with similar impressions, some brought about by experiences on placement. Supervising teachers had made gestures from the back of the classroom trying to close down discussions which turned 'controversial'.

This exchange stirred my thinking and I made an intervention.

A church school comes alive when teachers and students breathe an air of freedom. If pre-service teachers believe Catholic schools are authoritarian regimes governed by fear, then there is a problem. Schools cannot 'share the good news' if teachers are afraid. Teachers are held back if they are afraid.

Parents and students are formed in their society's democratic citizenship, and as such they expect rigorous, free and open conversations in the classroom. Such conversations are a key part of a teacher's great vocation to help students be at ease with themselves, think critically, listen to their conscience and walk the way to life. In Catholic schools teachers can prepare students for responsible lives informed by faith.

A spirit of inquiry and curiosity, and an ability to dialogue with views different to one's own, should be basic dispositions for teachers. In the best classrooms, teachers can model considered discussions on all sorts of issues. When teachers ask helpful questions they can draw out the thinking of students so that they can engage with public debates at depth.

Our students will then have their own questions as they uncover the principles at work in various publicly advocated positions, including those proposed by the Church. With the confidence to chair conversations, teachers can encourage students to think critically about public debates in an open, reflective, respectful, principled and evidence based manner.


"Teachers are ethically bound to encourage critical thinking within classrooms, modelling the kinds of conversations which will advance responsible, open and honest civic engagement."


The way teachers guide conversations in the classroom helps to either illuminate or cloud public debates for their students. As George Lakoff explains in Don't Think Of An Elephant, debates