In this series, MEduc4 students on the ‘Prophets of a Future not our Own: Catholic Schools and Contemporary Issues’ elective course reflect on how a Catholic educational perspective can enhance school’s’ approach to current challenges.
Aisling Gallagher, MEduc4
There is no simple definition of poverty nor a simple solution to tackle its effects. UNICEF defines poverty as ‘when a person’s needs are insufficiently met due to their lack of access to primary materials such as food, clothing and shelter’ (UNICEF, 2014). Poverty affects education, not least due to the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, and the War in Ukraine. Catholic schools and teachers can help address this issue through effective pedagogical and professional practice.
Poverty and education
Child poverty is a significant indicator of poor academic performance (Hirsch,2007). In Scotland, children from poor socioeconomic backgrounds regularly achieve less academically than their wealthy peers (Naven et al ,2019). Children from lower-income families tend to underperform in school due to a lack of communication skills, limited vocabulary, and focus (Perkins et al., 2013). Where food insecurity is an issue, the performance and behaviours of children are negatively affected as breakfast is crucial to support cognitive development, academic performance, and behaviour (Gao et al, 2021). Therefore, as future teachers, the academic study of poverty is vital, as we can see its direct impact on education, allowing us to address the issue within our classroom.
Catholic Social Teaching
Pope Francis shares his concerns about poverty: “It is a cruel, unjust and paradoxical reality that, today, there is food for everyone and yet not everyone has access to it” (Pope Francis,2019). The intrinsic dignity of the human person, as created in ‘Imago Dei’, meaning ‘in the image and likeness of God’, is the cornerstone of all Catholic social teaching (Genesis 1:26-31). If we truly love God, we must love one another and to violate God’s children is to violate God Himself. Poverty is a direct violation of Human Dignity.
Jesus, Himself, was a product of poverty. In Matthew (25:34), Jesus states: “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink.” In this passage, Jesus connects serving others to serving himself. I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink: caring for the most vulnerable children in our classrooms is also taking care of Jesus. Jesus illustrates this as the night before his death, he washed the feet of his disciples (Jn 13:1–5). Such a task was the work of a servant, so Jesus does this to highlight the importance of serving others. We can learn a lot about how to treat people with Dignity through the work of Jesus. As Pope Francis reminds us: “if we truly wish to encounter Christ, we have to touch his body in the suffering bodies of the poor” (Soehner, 2017).
The Scriptures demand that we “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs 31:9), and so the preferential option for the poor is a vital aspect to consider for our pedagogical and professional practice. Liberation Theologian Gutierrez claims that the preferential option for the poor symbolises Christian discipleship because of the influence of Jesus’ own poverty and love for the poor (Gutierrez, 2009). Christ founded the Kingdom of God, paving the way for a new system of justice for the disadvantaged, freedom for the oppressed, and comfort for the suffering (Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace 2005, section 325). The underpinning of educational and social responsibility is the Christian approach of the preferential option for the poor.
Young people as agents of change
A consequence is that young people need to be aware of social injustices and their causes. The social and economic factors that contribute to child poverty and the debilitating consequences of hunger can be studied by the students, who can also engage in theology and ethical reflection using current Catholic social teachings (Byron,2015). This participation aims to create a community of young people who are theologically literate and capable of articulating a modern Christian response to these current problems by actively looking for transformational responses. It is crucial as future practitioners to recognise that young people are leaders, initiators, and decision-makers and are not just a target group for developmental processes (United Nations, online). Therefore, through teaching them about poverty, pupils can follow in Jesus’ footsteps and fulfil the scriptures’ orders to honour the poor while giving them a voice.
Implementation of the preferential option for the poor must be adaptable, tailored to each school, supported by data, and directed by the experiences of young people and school personnel. So e.g. in the case of breakfast clubs mentioned above, evidence shows that while breakfast clubs can improved academic achievement and mental health nonetheless on their own will not combat hunger, given that various studies have concluded that impoverished children are more likely to arrive at school late (Children in Scotland,2021).
So there is still a need for a discernment as well as a greater comprehension of the concept of the preferential option for the poor as it is presented in the gospels, Catholic Social Teachings, and Vatican documents on education before it can be fully effective (McKinney,2018). Within an environment in which school resources are constrained, Catholic schools should collaborate with the government to access a more extensive financial base to support the underprivileged while retaining their own identity and priorities.
As future practitioners, we must commit to promoting the human dignity of each child in our class to follow in Jesus’ footsteps as he devoted much of his life to helping the poor. We can allow the preferential option for the poor to shape our professional practice, while promoting an ethos within our schools that ensures that the voices of the poor are truly heard.