Marie McCoy (Religious Education teacher at St Ninian’s High in Giffnock)
Here we go again. Not so long ago my classroom was a hive of Advent activity as my pupils listened to ‘O’ antiphons and designed Jesse tree decorations. Now, like classrooms up and down the country, it lies empty and deserted and we must return instead to the soulless world of online learning.
While in recent weeks the rapid growth in COVID 19 cases has made this decision unavoidable, it is all the more distressing since, in the midst of a deeply challenging year, it brought me, and no doubt every other teacher in Scotland, great solace to finally be able to welcome our learners back to school in August. Despite the hand sanitiser, the masks, the anti-bacterial spray, and the social distancing, as my pupils once again began to fill my classroom with heated discussion, poignant reflection, and not a little humour, it effortlessly transformed back into what it has always been for me: a home from home. I hope my pupils felt the same.
But a return to online learning not only strips us of valuable classroom interaction. While I have always considered it to be a true privilege to work in a Catholic school, over the course of this academic year being part of my school community of faith has become more important to me than ever. Places at parish masses across the country have been strictly limited and while I have been privileged enough to be able to participate online, I have lamented this physical separation from my parish community. It has provided me with much comfort therefore, that in school we have been able to reflect and pray together as normal as well as regularly celebrating mass in small, socially distanced groups. These practices are so ingrained within the Catholic school that in normal circumstances we are perhaps guilty of taking them for granted. This year they have rightfully regained the significance and meaning they deserve.
Yet, while it is undoubtedly extremely difficult to lose this physical community of faith once again as we enter a second period of distance learning, the past nine months have taught me that being forced to do things differently for a little while can, on occasion, lead to unexpected blessings.
As a secondary school teacher, I have never been involved in preparing pupils to receive the Sacraments or even witnessed my pupils receiving one. However, having missed out on the usual Primary 7 Confirmation ceremony, in October I watched my S1 pupils receive this Sacrament in small, socially distanced groups, at their local parish. These services were short and lacked the rich liturgy which would normally be associated with this Sacrament: the church was almost empty, the Sacrament was celebrated by the Parish Priest rather than the Bishop, there was no music, no celebration of the Eucharist, and it was all over in less than 30 minutes.
Yet, despite all this, or perhaps because of it, these celebrations were profoundly beautiful. The focus rested completely on the young people in front of us who stood to give witness to their faith and before being anointed with the oil of chrism and receiving the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The intense joy and pride that I felt on witnessing this occasion is something that I feel sure will remain with me and continue to shape my teaching for the rest of my career.
My experience from the previous lockdown has also convinced me that there are blessings to be found in the everyday tasks of digital learning and teaching. While stuck at home, separated from their friends and extended family, our young people need us just as much, if not more, than they do every time they enter our classrooms. It is a real privilege therefore as a Catholic Religious Education teacher to be able to remind my pupils that God is still with us, even in these very difficult times, and that though separated physically, we remain united with each other through our faith.
I look forward wholeheartedly to the day when we can all safely return to the classroom. Yet, I also know that even in such deeply uncertain times, God’s love continues to bind us together and bless us in ways we could never have expected. There is surely no greater comfort than that.