Lay teachers: backbone of the Catholic system

Lay teachers: backbone of the Catholic system

Tom Kendell

Since the 1960s, lay teachers have come to play an integral role in the effective operation of Catholic schools. Over the past 30 years, the number of religious men and women, who sustained the Catholic school system over the previous 100 years, has declined considerably, with many of those remaining moving into other apostolates.

Among the many thousands of capable, dedicated Catholic lay teachers to be found in schools throughout Australia are some especially remarkable individuals, who carry out their work largely unsung. Tom Kendell, former principal of Sacred Heart College, Oakleigh, and now an educational consultant, pays tribute to one such individual who typifies the qualities of the many others on whom the future of Catholic education depends.

Statistics relevant to the Australian Catholic school system in 1997 indicated that 37,325 lay and religious teachers were serving in the 1,699 Catholic schools which were educating 622,940 students.

While the Catholic education system still relies heavily on the valuable contribution made by religious, it is a simple fact that Catholic education in Australia would collapse if it were not for the significantly large number of lay teachers employed in our schools.

Several hundred dedicated teachers retire from the Catholic schools each year. Many are practising Catholic teachers with over 30 years of service to the Catholic system. It is rather sad that most of these teachers do not receive the praise and recognition they so richly deserve. Their severance entitlements in one of the lowest paid professions in Australia are certainly not overly generous. A morning tea, a few words from the principal and a small gift from staff are the best that most long-serving Catholic teachers can hope for.

These days, most long-serving principals in Catholic schools receive a golden handshake on retirement, if they push for it, but I personally feel for the long-serving Catholic teacher who retires, with little reward or recognition, after many years of dedication and caring service in our schools.

Sacred Heart Girls' College in Oakleigh will lose its most highly qualified and experienced teacher when Miss Jean O'Toole (TPTC, BA, BEd, Dip Theol, MA (Ed), MACE) retires at the end of the current school year.

Much loved by the two thousand former students she influenced in her twenty years as a deputy- principal and teacher at Sacred Heart Girls' College, Jean O'Toole will complete over forty years of distinguished service to Catholic education and is an excellent example of the many teachers who have given such a large portion of their lives to Catholic education.

Professional expertise

Regarded by her colleagues as the epitome of the dedicated schoolteacher and administrator, Jean increased her professional expertise and experience, partly at her own expense, by visiting schools in England and Ireland and undertaking a course at Harvard University. Apart from her role as the former deputy- principal, a role she occupied with distinction for eighteen years at Sacred Heart, Jean has fulfilled the roles of curriculum co-ordinator, religious education co-ordinator, subject co-ordinator and outstanding teacher of VCE Politics.

Her role as student counsellor was especially significant. As a friend and confidante over the years to hundreds of girls, her special skills enabled her to offer genuine comfort, solace and renewed strength and determination to hundreds of girls, many of them the victims of broken homes, depression, anorexia, child abuse, disputes with parents and peers, and other problems which beset teenagers today.

Such was her success as a special friend and counsellor to the girls, that she often produced the positive results, in difficult situations, that were denied to teachers and parents. She was a strong supporter of family values and the traditional role of parents.

Always at school early, Jean was an example to her professional colleagues. She has the enviable record at Sacred Heart of having only missed three days through sickness, and her thoughtfulness and consideration for others has been much admired. A most charitable person, Jean contributed to harmony and happiness in the staff room by her common-sense approach and her sense of humour. Her dress and deportment were always an example to colleagues and students.

As Principal of Sacred Heart Girls' College for 16 years, I found Jean O'Toole to be the most impressive Catholic educationalist I have ever encountered in over 40 years in Catholic schools in South Australia and Victoria. Her academic qualifications are impressive, her wide- ranging experience was invaluable to me in my long period as Principal of Sacred Heart, but those who knew Jean O'Toole will always remember her as an outstanding teacher, a most dedicated and caring person, who was always there when students and colleagues needed support, sympathy and under- standing.

Sacred Heart Oakleigh will not be the same without her.

As long as such teachers continue to be found in Catholic schools, there will be always hope for the future.

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