by Kieran Fouhy
Any parent with young children will appreciate the stress that occurs when driving long distance.
It was always a stressful experience with our four children under 2½ years. A mission to get everyone in the car, buckled up, ready to go with the right teddy bear, etc. World War III
could erupt at any time, because the ice cream melted, the seat was too hot and, of course, “are we there yet?” questions, etc.
That is, until we discovered the radio series Grandpa’s Place and the children’s favourite story of the king who built a tower to the moon using boxes throughout the kingdom. They were one box short of their target and the king, not used to campfire songs or group hugs,
demanded they find another box.
“But your majesty — there are no boxes left in the kingdom.”
“Then bring me the bottom box!” The courtiers did, with the expected results!
Catholic school principals are in danger of being asked to give the bottom box. They are expected to become not only curriculum/pastoral leaders of staff/students, counsellors to parents, fundraisers for facilities, multi-hydra people of presence at sporting, music, cultural weekends and evenings — but also to assume the faith mission leader of the church for young people.
We all understand the job is a vocation. And it is not that Catholic school principals aren’t willing to be all these roles to so many people. But the time and energy to undertake all those multitasks is simply not available.
The faith mission leader will spook the leadership aspiration of any modern day Cincinnatus-type teacher plucked from the fields (or the classrooms) to become leaders of complex, competitive institutions.
When religious orders ran the Catholic schools, their members were by vocation and training faith leaders. They had spent several years in theological formation. Many had studied overseas
in advance of an upcoming principalship. And they were operating in a high-trust, high-faith environment parents. Results were important but were hardly mentioned.
Contrast a 2014 principalship.
All human educational achievement in school is incentivised in order to achieve outputs of results — academic, sporting, music and behaviour. It is a highly competitive environment for resources and the minds and hearts of parents who send their children to Catholic schools.
Students are being brought up in a nanosecond-secular-environment.
Parents judge a school on the imperfections or perfections of the human being who occupies the chair of principal.
The 5C rugby team’s uneven results, the cyberbullying that occurs in parental homes at midnight, the nonattendance at Sunday Mass of their 14-year-old son or daughter, the broken
iPad on the bus, and the lost music instrument, are somehow the problems of the school. Especially at a Catholic school “where we didn’t send him there for such behaviour”!
Future leadership of Catholic schools is the elephant in the corner of the room.
The selection of good principals to Catholic secondary schools is dangerously low.
The Catholic character componentry has been reduced to a compliance criterion: “Does (s)he
go to church on Sunday?”
Catholic educational leadership demands a wider, more embracing, set of criteria.
If we are to sustain the faith tower of Catholic schools leadership, we need some new strategies like: a theological degree as a prerequisite for a principalship; an incentivised retreat experience as part of the principal’s contract; a formation module on the purpose/identity of a Catholic school; a structured mentoring system for principals; a Catholic
review/renewal system that celebrates and encourages the journey and asks the focusing question of each school: What are you doing about leadership capacity?
Catholic schools have as their prime function the ministry of teaching. Their job is about teaching subjects for their own sake as part of the mystery and creation of God, supporting the engagement of parents as prime educators, and educating young men and women in the
fullest sense of the word.
To layer the faith mission of the Church onto overburdened school leaders could be a bridge too far.
Catholic schools dwell in the world not as a club or caliphate, but a community of faith learners on the journey — which is messy, exhausting and real.
The immediate task is not to spook the future leadership horses. The next task is to ensure that the bottom box in our Catholic secondary schools is not being pulled away.
Kieran Fouhy is the headmaster of St Peter’s College, Grafton, a school with 1200
young men.