03 May 2022

Feast of the Holy Apostles Philip and James, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 3 May, 2022

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success was a non-fiction smash hit.[i] It debuted at no.1 on the New York Times bestseller list, remained there for 11 weeks straight, and went on to feature on the paperback bestseller list 232 times.[ii] It explores the complex factors that contribute to greatness—or at least success. Gladwell argues that there’s more to it than “smarts, ambition, hustle and hard work” and he seeks to elucidate the other factors. (Education, unsurprisingly, is one of them!) The appeal of the book is not just the psychological and sociological studies he references but the anecdotes from the lives of the Beatles, Bill Gates and Robert Oppenheimer among others. His “10,000-hour rule” even entered common usage.[iii]

Human beings are fascinated by greatness. Our histories are mostly the stories of ‘great men’ and women who made a difference. ‘Reality’ TV is replete with MasterMinds, MasterChefs, idols, biggest losers, survivors, and similar competitors all vying for our admiration. Our fictional universe is just as full of heroes and superheroes We reward success with glamour, salaries, honours. We even sacrifice precious sleep in the hope of witnessing a moment of Olympic brilliance.

But we don’t just watch or applaud success: at some level we want greatness for ourselves. Self-help books now far outnumber philosophy and theology in our bookstores, for winning seems to matter more than character and salvation today. So, too, personal trainers, life coaches, success gurus and online influencers have more purchase on many than confessors and therapists. Today’s best version of ourselves is whatever makes us most successful!

The Christian tradition is more ambivalent about worldly success. There is a place for pride, ambition, excellence. “Don’t be lazy,” Paul tells his flocks, “work hard and serve enthusiastically, so as to deserve your keep”.[iv] Fight the good fight, run the race to the finish (2 Tim 4:7-8; Phil 3:13-14). Earn praise for your hard work and perseverance (Rev 2:2-3). “Aim to be perfect like your heavenly Father” (Mt 5:48; cf. 19:21) or as near as!

Yet in the end “What does it profit to gain the whole world and lose one’s soul?” (Lk 9:25). So we must be humble, ambitioning for higher things, seeking holiness rather than popularity, putting others’ interests before our own.[v] The Bible names selfish ambition a vice and cause of quarrelling.[vi] True greatness is self-sacrifice and helping others. Jesus was very direct: if you want to be great serve.[vii] And if ever there was a profession ordered to such greatness, it’s teaching. Teaching is a most Christian craft.

Your greatness, dear beginning teachers, won’t be about personal fame so much as greatness cultivated in others, not in products sold but in students who have grown as a result of your work. “You call me Teacher and Lord,” Jesus said at His Last Supper, “and rightly, for so I am. Now if I, the Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet also.” (Jn 13:13-14) Service is at the heart of leadership and education, of being lord and teacher.

Your teaching will serve individuals, but your vocation is a deeply communal one. Your practice comes out of received the knowledge, skills and resources that make up your discipline. You will add your personality, style, wisdom. But you are now part of a school and system of schools, a tradition and profession, an educational ecosystem, that will support, inspire and scrutinise you. St Paul speaks today of teachings he is handing on to others (1Cor 15:3-4), for teachers are traditioners, like runners in a relay race passing the baton between generations, evolving the practice along the way, but always seeking to be faithful to it.

Jesus was an accomplished teacher. He taught in buildings and open fields, at table or wherever people gathered. He even had twelve prac-students, who tagged along behind Him, including Philip and James whom we celebrate today. To those students He gave the responsibility of teaching after He had gone. “Go out to all the world and proclaim the good news,” He said (Mk 16:15-18), “discipling them all, sacramentalising them, teaching them, and assuring them that I am with them always” (Mt 28:18-20). It wasn’t a highly detailed curriculum: there was no ACARA back then! But the Teacher did say they should share that best news He had taught them (Mt 28:19), and that the Holy Spirit would guide them into all truth (Jn 14:17,26; 15:26; 16:13; 20:22).

That project continues to this day and you, dear beginning teachers, have been chosen for it. Today’s Philips and Jameses are the called-and-sent, the footwasher-servants, the feeder-shepherds, the disciples-become-disciplemakers, the teacher-lords our young people need. If that is daunting, know that you have 2,000 years of Christian teaching experience to draw on. When Jesus returned to His hometown and began to teach in the school, people were astounded and said, ‘Where did he get this wisdom and these works?’ (Mt 13:54; Mk 1:22,27; Lk 4:15,31-32) You might be surprised at the wisdom that comes from your lips under the Spirit’s influence!

Christ’s students, including Pip and Jimbo, could be bone-headed, self-focussed, stubborn. Yours are probably much more co-operative! But Jesus had some pedagogical strategies. When communicating difficult ideas, He knew the importance of relatability and context. He told stories and used metaphors His hearers could connect to.[viii] He patiently repeated His point in different ways till they got it. He’d balance praise and critique. Because so much learning hinges on relationship,[ix] He gained their trust by demonstrating that their interests were foremost in His heart. “Love your neighbour, even the difficult one;” He taught them, “love the way I have loved, all the time, even unto death.” (Mt 5:43-47; 22:39; Jn 13:34-35; 15:13)

Good teachers know that effective teaching is not just about words spoken or ideas conveyed but example given. Kids pick a phoney from a mile off. But when a teacher is authentic, when the Jesus stuff, or the physics, literature or PDHP stuff is really your stuff, they pick that up too. Enthusiasm is contagious and makes transmission more effective. When inspectors came to review Jesus’ teaching they said, “Teacher, we know that you teach rightly and with integrity, that you are fair and show partiality to none, and that you truly teach the way of God…” (Mt 22:16; Mk 12:14; Lk 20:21). This Teacher was the real deal. Dear beginning teachers: do you want to be great? Well, the Church sees greatness in you and wants greatness for you. We want you to deserve the accolade Jesus received: “Teacher, you have spoken well” (Lk 20:39). So give yourselves freely and completely to the service of knowledge, young ones, God. Have confidence that teaching is a path to greatness if embraced with mind and heart. The key is not just hard slog and native talent, as Gladwell showed; a lot depends on context and yours is a great context. But to that writer’s insights we add an even more important factor: the power of God’s grace, poured out abundantly on us when we need it most, multiplying our efforts when we are doing a great work for God. Curriculums, pedagogies, strategies, technologies all matter: but what matters most of all is that you know your vocation and make God’s love your guiding pedagogy. Welcome to Sydney Catholic Schools!

[i] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success (Little Brown & Company, 2008).

[ii] Hardcover Nonfiction – The New York Times (nytimes.com)

[iii] Malcolm Gladwell’s 10000 Hours Rule Explained – More Than Accountants; The 10 000-hour rule – PMC (nih.gov); The 10,000 Hour Rule & What Really Separates the Best from the Rest (njlifehacks.com)

[iv] 1Cor 4:12-13; Rom 12:11-12; 1Thess 4:11-12; 2Thess 3:10-12; Col 3:23; 2Tim 2:6-7.

[v] Be humble: Mt 20:20-25; 23:11-12; Mk 9:33-37; 10:35-45; 12:38-39; Lk 14:11; 22:24-26; Jn 13:14-16; Rom 12:16; Phil 2:3; 1Pet 3:8; 5:5-6. Ambition for the higher things: Mt 5:6; 1Cor 12:31; 14:12; Col 3:23; Gal 1:10; Eph 6:7; 1Jn 2:16-17. Seek the accolades of God not men: Mt 6:33; 23:5-7; Jn 5:41-44; 7:18; 8:54; Gal 1:10; 1Cor 1:18; 10:31; 2Cor 5:9-11; Col 2:8; 3:23-24. Put the interests of others before our own: 1Cor 10:24; Rom 15:1; Phil 2:4.

[vi] Selfish ambition is a vice: Rom 2:8; Gal 5:19-21; Phil 2:3; Jam 3:14-16. It causes quarrelling: Jas 4:1-17; Gal 5:19-21; 2Cor 12:20.

[vii] Mt 20:26-28; 23:11; Mk 9:35; 10:43; Lk 22:26; Jn 13:14 etc.

[viii] Mt 5:14-16; 7:24-27; 9:16-17; 13:24-30, 31-32, 33, 44, 45-46, 47-50; 18:12-14, 23-35; 20:1-16; 21: 28-32, 33-45; 22:2-14; 25:1-13; 25:14-30; Mk 2:21-22; 4:2-9; 21-22, 26-29; 12:1-12; 13:34-37; Lk 5:36-38; 6:47-49; 7:41-43; 8:4-8,16-17; 10:30-37; 11:5-13; 12:16-21,35-40, 42-48; 13:6-9: 14:7-11, 16-24, 25-35: 15:8-10, 11-32: 16:1-13,19-31: 17:7-10; 18:1-8, 9-14, 11-27.

[ix] The Importance of Relationships in Education: Reflections of Current Educators – Cathy McKay, Grace Macomber, 2021 (sagepub.com)

Introduction to the Mass for Beginning Teachers for Sydney Catholic Schools

Welcome to the mother church of Australia and Cathedral of Sydney on the Feast of the Apostles Philip and James for our annual celebration of Beginning Teachers. It is a joy to see so many of you who have decided to serve in Catholic education. At a time when teachers have faced unprecedented challenges, your willingness to place yourselves at the service of our young people, their families and the Church is a testament to your faith and values, your character and selflessness. As teachers in Sydney Catholic Schools, you join a long and rich tradition reaching back more than two-hundred years here in Sydney, and more than a thousand years world-wide, that today impacts the lives of more than 72,000 students in SCS, nearly 800,000 nationwide and over 62m students worldwide, with their families and communities. We ask that God protect and guide you in your journey as teachers and that the joy of the Gospel shine brightly in all of you as you show the face of Christ to your students. 

I acknowledge here with us today the Executive Director of Sydney Catholic Schools, Mr Tony Farley and other senior SCS management and staff; all our school leaders, teachers and general staff; and especially our beginning teachers. Concelebrating with me today are Fathers Manuel Santiago and Stephen Drum. To everyone present: a very warm welcome!