To celebrate the teachers within our Catholic education system, Melbourne Catholic will be running a series of interviews with teachers from Catholic schools all around Melbourne. Mr Brendan Nicholls teaches Religious Education and VCE Religion and Society at Saint Ignatius College Geelong. We got in touch with Brendan about COVID, and his teaching journey.

How has the COVID pandemic affected your work and your students?

The period of remote learning had a number of effects on my teaching and the students. As a teacher, I found the increase in documentation, planning and assessment to be quite challenging. Although, I did find this to be quite positive and improved my knowledge of each students' progression significantly.

Initially, I believe students found remote learning to be quite challenging both socially and academically. Although classes made use of video conferencing, students’ ability to offer suggestions seemed in my classes to diminish quite a bit. This made the ‘teaching’ difficult, as I find in teaching Religious Education, the energy comes from dialogue and alternate thinking. Academically, students have been less able to proceed and I found that even with good lessons and tasks that were adapted for a more individual approach, students were not able to move through new learning as quickly as they do in a standard classroom setting. I think this is primarily due to fewer questions or less support being offered by the individual or others that help clarify areas of uncertainty.

What do you love most about teaching?

I love that there is each day there are challenges and new beginnings. The opportunity to create something unique for and with each student along with the unknown transformation a students study of Religious Education may lead to is exciting and an honour to be a part of.

Who were your favourite teachers growing up? Why?

I had many teachers who I admired at school. I was fortunate enough to attend Christian Brothers College St Kilda and my teachers were amazing and so many helped, inspired and encouraged me to become who I am and who I am yet to be. I could easily name twenty! My top six would be David Harbison: a man of virtue and honour who was a role model and taught others and I how to be good men. Br Roger Cripps: a visionary leader and a man who could meld the Gospel with the world as it is (he is still a very close friend and mentor to this day). Les Tomazi: an intelligent and kind man who nurtured me as a young man who was unsure of his future pathway. Pat Kaufman: the teacher who gave up many lunchtimes and opened a door to a life-long love of running. His encouragement and support were formative to so many of us. Terry Sweet: an exceptionally talented and patient teacher who was able to meet us at our level and bring out so much because of his patience. Richard Stenton: a multi-talented teacher who's courage and trust gave us courage and developed resilience.

Do you remember your first day in a classroom? What was going through your mind as a ‘newly minted’ teacher?

My first day as a teacher was a blur. I remember being asked at the front office if I was the new Year 12 student! I was wearing a shirt and tie at a school with no uniform and had asked for the Principal by name so I guess from the experienced eye of the office staff I was pretty naive and wet behind the ears. I remember constantly thinking that I had to make a good impression on everyone and that the most important thing was to be in control of the class. In reflecting upon this, I think the office staff had it right. I had no idea!

How has teaching in a Catholic school influenced your own faith journey?

Teaching at St Joseph's College Geelong inspired me to enter into theological study. Paul Tobias was a generous principal who strongly encourages postgraduate study. When I began the Grad Cert in Teaching Religious Education I found that I really enjoyed it and did well. Interestingly when I looked over my old school reports the highest grades I got year on year were in Religious Education. This was a surprise and something I didn't even know until I looked over my old reports! I always thought my best marks were in English and Science/Biology.

The academic study I entered into led to further degrees including: Master of Theological Studies, Graduate Certificate of Divinity and a Graduate Certificate in Guiding Meditation. I found that during these studies my faith became stronger and became deeper. This learning affirmed a commitment to Religious Education and the beautiful growth of faith that goes along with academic success.

What appeals to you most about teaching a Catholic school? What do you see as the ‘point of difference’ of Catholic education?

What appeals most strongly to me is that when done well Catholic Education can offer everything a student needs. The combination of effective Religious Education, service opportunities, encounter experiences such as ACYF and liturgy nourish every need. Being part of this process and helping communities develop is a privilege. The point of difference is simply Jesus. Everything we do is because of his life, teaching and divinity. I believe that if students are formed well they are inspired to do all that they can to be exceptional learners as this enables them in the future to enter into their vocation and bring the Gospel to life through their life, work and passion. Focussing on academic success is shall and unfulfilling. Focussing on living to offer love and service inspires one to attain exceptional academic outcomes for an existential and lifegiving purpose.

Earlier this year, the theme for this year’s Catholic Education Week was ‘The future is listening’. How do you feel about the future of young people today?

The future is bright and hope-filled. Helping students see the world through the lens of the Gospel is a joy. At this time the future is listening, the Church is listening and over the next few years, in particular, the Plenary Council opens up a period of listening, discernment and new horizons. Young people can and will change the world and importantly our Church. I believe we have changed our approach to youth over the last few years to on that is not a Church for youth, which is doomed as it's a false premise. Today the Church is looking to affirm the Young Church. A Church that is eternally young and open to the world and new ways. Jesus' resurrection points to this framework and the need for impossible new beginnings, and a God who provides all we need so long as we have faith in him.

Having been a teacher now for 17 years, what advice would you give to your younger self starting out in the system?

Be open-minded. Asked more questions than you would like to. Trust the students and follow them. Openness to the 'new' requires courage but have faith and don't resist. Listen carefully and truly seek to hear what is being said. Offer your considered opinion with courage. Offer everything with love and don't get caught up in the frustration/jealousy/anger of the other.