Slow learner

Nov 17th, 2008 | By | Category: Ministry

Once upon a time in a place far away a man whom I hardly knew called at the door.   The man asked if he might come in to talk and I said, “Of course”.

“I wish to say something under the seal of the confessional”.

Feeling cornered, I agreed to hear what he had to say.  It was nothing dramatic, just to do with a relationship he shouldn’t have had; soap opera stuff really.

“I know it shouldn’t have happened and it won’t happen again”.

He seemed unburdened as he left.  I felt altogether different.

Confession has never had much part in Church of Ireland ministry; certainly the Prayer Book said that people could go to a minister to quieten their conscience, but few ever did so.  In the Roman Catholic tradition confession at least has a semi-anonymous nature; sitting in the front room opposite someone who called because he felt he knew me well enough to say what he wanted to say was about as far as anonymous as it was possible to go.

For years later, I worried about that man.  It wasn’t even that he was a particularly religious person; what had prompted him to come knocking at the door?  I never saw him again afterwards; perhaps he felt there was no further need, perhaps he felt that there was now an insurmountable barrier between us.

I never want to hear people’s business; they know themselves what is right and what is wrong and they know they are going to get a conservative answer from me.  I don’t like people who mess around with other people’s partners; it’s sordid, grubby and often pathetic, and the toll on home life is devastating.  I’m getting as crotchety as some elderly parish priest in the west of Ireland, but then I’ve seen too much happiness.

I couldn’t have been a Catholic priest, I just couldn’t have coped with all those confessions, but I am now realising that nor could I have been a primary school teacher.

Children are the most honest people in the world; they will tell things as they are and even the most innocuous questions can sometimes elicit unlooked for responses.  Marking exercise books, in which answers about being happy and being sad are written, there is an insight into the complex world faced by kids who just want security and the chance to be kids.

Only after completing the marking of a pile of books did it occur to me that our primary school teachers face this material week in and week out; that the sadness of a generation is coped with by teachers who are charged with a hundred and one other tasks as well.  Only after marking the books did it occur to me that in times when the majority of people rarely go to church, the pastoral care for young people is now provided by the teachers.

I gathered my things for the morning and wondered how often they wish they had never heard things.  How often are there things that remain with them for years to come?  How often are there stories that they cannot repeat?

Who supports them?  Maybe there is a whole branch of teacher training I know nothing about.  Why has it taken me twenty-two and a half years of parochial ministry before I even gave thought to these questions?

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  1. For most teachers whom I’ve known, and in my own experience, there isn’t anyone to provide support for teachers except their friends in the same profession. Is that the head teacher’s role, or the departmental head?

    This seems a bit like pastoral ministry and the development in the area of Spiritual Direction/Accompanying/Friendship… is the beginning of recognizing that we all need someone to whom we can unburden. Someone who will listen with one ear on what God is saying too.

    And maybe too your blog is a reminder to those of us who meet teachers from time to time in the course of parish ministry that we need to have an ear open to hear more than the words that are said…

    Keep blogging Ian – what you say is often challenging and always interesting. And when do you think the bloggers might meet up?

  2. Ian

    Listening is a great skill and you seem blessed with it.

    When I am troubled by something that someone tells me, I go for a walk in the woods and talk to the trees. Somehow it works for me.

  3. I wouldn’t know whether you’re a good listener or not. You’re a good writer and poser of conundrums!

    Teachers are good, but many are reluctant. The extra workload involved with ‘pastoral’ type problems and ensuring equal opportunity, appropriate sexual behaviour, non villification and a million other moral lessons they have to teach leaves them exhausted! I have just spent the weekend with three teachers – believe me they feel like you . . they’d rather teach than have to listen to everyone’s problems.

  4. As a teacher who has put in 17 years of listening I’m looking forward to completing my next 16 years as quickly as possible so that I can retire early (albeit on a reduced pension). As Principal, DIYer, teacher, listener, policy doer etc. I’m tired of doing more than is required of me yet I still get a torrent of abuse for it.

    (Thanks Grannymar for pointing me to Ian’s article).

    I’m not looking for pity ….. I’ve come to accept my lot ….. I do my job to the best of my ability with the best of intentions …. with the welfare of the children being given priority ….. my conscience is clear …. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t …. it’s a no win (not even a break even) situation.

    16 years and counting down …….

  5. Paddy,

    I talked to the teacher, whose class I have started to take for an hour on a Tuesday morning and asked who provided pastoral acre to the teachers.

    She smiled, “No-one.”

    Maybe our system needs more support structures? I don’t know – I only encounter it for two classes and one assembly a week.

  6. 16 years Ian and hopefully the system and I will part company and I will have that hideaway upon a Kerry mountain side. 🙂

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