Seeing good – in ourselves, in each other, and in creation
Welcome to the start of the 2016/2017 academic year!
It has been very special over the past week to welcome the entire school community to the new academic year. I warmly thank the Heads of Year for splendid assemblies that took place on Monday, which effectively set the tone in terms of the school’s ethos (about which I will say more below) and our expectations regarding care and behaviour, as a Christian community that is based on love – I was fortunate to be able to speak to girls from all year groups on the first day of term to reinforce our ethos.
Our boarders arrived over the weekend and I enjoyed meeting and chatting with some of their parents; last Thursday and Friday the teachers met together for two training days, enabling us to set the tone for the year ahead – with a focus on learning and learners (as opposed to teaching and teachers), within a rich environment of pastoral care.
All students, including our new joiners, should have received their copy of the 2015/2016 Magnolian (our annual magazine) which highlights last year’s community’s activities and achievements. The magazine also sets out the 12 Characteristics of a Mary Ward School; in order to do justice to each, we typically prioritise two each academic year. Last year’s chosen characteristics were ‘Embracing diversity’ and ‘Promoting Christian values of truth, justice, freedom and sincerity’. This year our focus is on: ‘Seeing good in all creation’ and 'Coping effectively with failure’, particularly essential areas of reflection as we continue to work with the girls as they process difficult news, for instance the tragedies that occurred over the summer, from Orlando in June, to a number of events in France and Germany in July, and Turkey in August.
Coping effectively with failure
As the media continues to highlight young peoples’ struggle with mental health, esteem and well-being on a weekly basis, investing in our young people’s mental well-being is essential. We hope to guide our girls to be able to reflect on success and failure in a healthy way.
Failure is a human judgement, often assigned to ourselves, when we measure our successes against criteria we have set according to our human values. Of course, everyone has a unique set of values, and so we encourage the girls to reflect on their own to think about how they came to prioritise certain accomplishments over others. It is essential that we do each work out for ourselves what our priorities in life are. In fact, internationally best-selling Israeli author, Yuval Noah Harari, who spoke at the Cambridge Literary Festival this week, claims that “we are probably one of the last generations of Homo sapiens” – a thought provoking claim that warrants each of us to question the status quo at the very least. So, we will be working hard across the school to support each other when we find things difficult, and will be reflecting on developing virtues such as patience, generosity and humility.
It has certainly been a summer of achievement for women! Over the holiday we have seen the appointment of a female Prime Minister in the UK, a female US presidential candidate, and amazing accomplishments by female Olympians in Rio. Our foundress, Mary Ward said that “by God’s grace, women in time to come will do much”, and her expectation of women is well on the way to being fulfilled. Indeed, at the weekend Pope Francis declared Mother Teresa of Calcutta (who spent the spiritually formative years of her life as a Mary Ward sister in Dublin) to be a saint of the Church, her contribution to the world having also been recognised internationally when she received the Nobel Peace Prize.
Certainly Mary and Teresa experienced failure in their lives but it was in the overcoming of failure that greatness was nurtured. We will be encouraging the girls to reflect on the opportunities that failure provides to spur you on, to teach humility, patience and perseverance. As Pope Francis says, “sometimes in our lives, tears are the lens we need to see Jesus”. In the same way, failure offers a lens through which we often experience love, mercy, compassion, support, self-knowledge, reality and a number of other positives that may not have otherwise been experienced. Having a healthy perception of failure is vital in being able to enjoy a fulfilled life.
Seeing the good in all creation
Christians believe that as God is creator, so the whole of creation reveals something about Him – in the same way as a work of art reveals something about the artist.
I would love to hear from members of our community who took on the challenge I set before the summer – to do and see things a little differently and to create or experience something new… For instance, I was delighted to learn at the start of term that some staff members have already taken to heart 'Seeing good in all creation'. Mrs Yan Gao, EAL and Mandarin Teacher, found a white dove and her baby nesting in the flower pot on her balcony and cared for them overnight as temperatures dropped. Mr Chris Ogur, one of our fantastic chefs, took in an abandoned and ill squirrel, who seems to have not only adopted Mr Ogur as his father but also Mr Ogur’s cat as his mother! Do see photos of these lovely animals on the school’s Facebook, Twitter or Instagram accounts.
Seeing the good in creation invariably leads us to cherish the world around us. As the topic of climate change increasingly takes centre stage – through media coverage, political debate, and through Pope Francis’ encyclical, Laudato Si – we will continue to promote a conscientious attitude to the world and its resources through the school’s Environmental Society, considering the effects of our actions on our local and global environments, and on others around the world who share our planet.
It’s Organic September, as I discovered from a recent Fairtrade Foundation e-newsletter, and this is just another example of ways in which we all can play our part in valuing the land and people of creation in different parts of the world. Organic farming not only allows higher prices to be paid for the farmer’s crops, enabling them to better provide for their families, but it also ensures soil is healthier and so can be more resistant to drought, floods and the impacts of climate change. Here is a list of Fairtrade and organic produce for inspiration.
Closer to home, ‘Seeing good in all creation’ has relevance for the way we treat each other in school too. This year we will be encouraging each other to, as Mary Ward put it, “put a good construction on all you see and hear”. We will be trying to make sure we always give someone the benefit of the doubt, and not assume that someone was intending to be hurtful. We will be encouraging each other to also see the good in those views and ways of being and living that may be different from our own. Another way to do this is by excellent initiatives such as Miss Nicky Lees’ new staff running club; Miss Lees is a very experienced ‘Ultra’ runner who delights in combining her love of the outdoors and spending time with friends through running. Miss Lees is keen to share her passion for being outside and making friends with the staff– and not to mention cherishing our bodies by keeping or becoming healthy – by inviting novice and experienced runners alike to the weekly running club. The group has already run twice and I know that they have been spotted by some girls and parents earlier this week.
Our independent status allows us to determine our own school ethos, and it is a joy to be at the head of a school that is entirely dedicated to reflecting on and living out the 12 Characteristics of Mary Ward School. These values underpin the activities of the school community; we don’t only focus on them in assemblies, but intertwine them with the learning and teaching and our pastoral programme throughout the year.
Any parents who may be unfamiliar with our Christian ethos may be interested to read more about the positive benefits of faith schools, as highlighted in a recent article in the Telegraph, in which Marc Sidwell commented: “I find the success of faith schools unsurprising. Religious belief offers believers a more ordered pattern of life, and it is reasonable that it should also offer the opportunity for a more ordered mind.”