I teach in a Catholic school. I teach Religious Education. Yet the most important outcome for the students I teach is not knowledge about religion, or analysis, evaluation or other cognitive skills. For me, the most important thing I can do as a teacher for the students I teach is to allow them to feel hopeful and joyful. Easier said than done, though, right?
How do we inspire hope and joy in our students? And, for that matter, in our colleagues? For me, service to others is one very important tool in the kit bag of school leaders. Service is fundamental to the wellbeing of students. It is also essential to create citizens who have a social conscience and will contribute to the common good.
Hope: trust that good is possible or probable. A very difficult thing to bring about for some, especially those who are doing it tough, as the Aussies say. It has to be based in a concept of self which affirms one’s own innate human value. Yet our culture – social media, advertising, the modern world – tells young people repeatedly and often that they are not enough. They must have more, be different, change into someone they are not to satisfy external pressures. Not only do we have to tell them they are enough, but we have to create opportunities for them to feel affirmed. Most importantly to this are opportunities to serve the community. There is no greater sense of satisfaction than knowing you have made a positive difference to someone’s life through an action that cost you nothing more than your time. Volunteering for community service activities can have a significant impact on the mental health of young people. Through service, students socialise in new environment, learn new skills, and become more confident in themselves. They get the feel good factor. This is especially important for students that don’t feel a sense of achievement in academia, sports, and other areas.
I think an important word in my definition is trust. This is something that takes time to build and can be easily broken. This one reason hope can be so precarious. If our young people have people in their lives who often break their trust, they protect themselves by not being vulnerable and trusting others. Thus teachers who model service and are authentic with students about their motivations and aspirations start the slow process of allowing trust to grow. A sense of motivation and aspiration would allow students to set themselves goals and assists a sense of optimism for the future.
Joy: a sense of pleasure and happiness. One of my favourite French phrases is joie de vivre, something we would rarely say in English! It implies a contentedness with life which, for me, is a form of simplicity, in satisfaction with life itself. Joy can be evoked by a sense of work well done. Our Marist value of love of work can create feelings of joy by the sense of satisfaction gained through successes achieved by hard work. Evidently, if community service is successful in creating hope through affirming the value of the person’s gift of time and presence, it can also create joy in the satisfaction of a task completed to the benefit of others.
For Pope Francis, with joy comes peace. What greater gift to give our students than a sense of peace? For Francis, all evangelisation should be marked by joy. As teachers and evangelisers, if we cannot create this sense of joy for ourselves, how can we possibly hope to enable students to do it? Through the sharing of our own experience, through authentic engagement ourselves in the process of becoming hope-filled and joyful, we model this for students. Teachers ought to be servant leaders. As Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium #3, no one is excluded from the God-given gift of joy. Our invitation into opportunities which create joy must therefore be inclusive. Also, #7 says:
Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met. To some extent this is because our “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy”.
How do we engender happiness and joy? The Dalai Lama says it comes from good-heartedness. If we regularly and habitually practise kindness, love and compassion – in other words if we live out of a good heart – we can create a sense of peace in ourselves we can call joy.