A life devoted to learning

Gerard Mowbray assumed the position of Acting Director of Catholic Schools in September 2018, bringing with him a wealth of knowledge and understanding of the church and its school system.

Previously the Assistant Director of Catholic Schools, he has also embraced a number of positions as a teacher and school leader in the Maitland-Newcastle Diocese. He is thankful the Diocese operates with a growth mindset seeking to meet the needs of families in its region.

Schools and systems of schools are multifaceted, diverse environments. As Acting Director, Mr Mowbray works alongside 3500 teaching and support staff in 57 Catholic schools teaching 19,600 students.

Mr Mowbray has devoted 43 years to Catholic schools ­ — a significant achievement ­— but he is also a family man and a proud father and grandfather. And he is a man who never stops learning, recently completing a Masters of Theology with distinction, deeply nurturing his intellectual faith life.

There is no questioning Mr Mowbray’s deep passion and commitment to the learning, formation and wellbeing of young people.

Which Catholic school/s did you attend?

St Columban’s Primary School, Mayfield (K-6), and then Hamilton Marists Brothers (Years 7-9). I then attended St Clement’s, Galong, for four years to complete my secondary education. This school was a Juniorate for the Redemptorist Priests and was attended by students contemplating the priesthood. I left Galong at the end of Year 12 and attended Newcastle University.

Why did your parents choose Catholic school/s for you?

When I attended school, Catholic schools were incredibly tribal. For a Catholic parent there was a deep commitment to support Catholic schools and only Catholics attended, unlike today. Attending was part of ensuring we understood and remained deeply loyal to the Catholic tribe. There was a great barrier between Catholics and the “Proddos” (Protestants) who attended government schools.

You have experienced the Catholic education system as a student, a teacher, a principal, an assistant director and now acting director. What changes have you noticed?

This year marks the 43rd year I have worked in Catholic schools. In so many ways the schools of today are unrecognisable from four decades ago. While there are still physical spaces called “schools”, and there are still “teachers” and “students”, we are worlds apart from four decades ago and I say, thankfully so. In particular I note:

  • class sizes are smaller
  • all staff are lay people
  • there are significant standards to be qualified
  • there is profound attention to the safety and wellbeing of children
  • staff have many checks and balances to work in schools
  • the pay and conditions of staff has significantly improved
  • resourcing is significant, with strong government funding for Catholic schools
  • the internet has transformed learning
  • the nature of physical spaces and furniture has been revolutionised
  • mainstream schools now, thankfully, cater for students with a wide range of learning needs and disabilities
  • learning is not so much about content as about skills students need for their world of work
  • schools are much more student-centred and future-focused
  • The manner with which we shape, support and discipline students is very much about building emotionally strong and resilient young adults, not blindly compliant students.

I see these changes for the good of our young people.

What do you think are the benefits of Catholic education?

I believe Catholic schools serve their students magnificently. Interestingly, in this Diocese 30% of students in Catholic schools are other than Catholic. Why do parents seek Catholic schools in growing numbers in this Diocese? I have never witnessed nor ever supported Catholic schools ramming religion into our young people. Over four decades I have seen young people benefit richly from a holistic education that not only supports their cognitive, emotional, physical and psychological growth, but also attends to their spiritual nourishment. Catholic schools provide a spiritual framework, a values and moral framework from which to shape their adult lives. Many ex-students will not engage in regular traditional Catholic practices, but I know they are equipped to live fulfilling lives that is inclusive of their spiritual selves. Catholic schools offer formation in faith to our young people that forms a deeply rich vein in their lives.

What is the Diocese’s commitment to education?

Thankfully, I am the Director of Schools in a Diocese that has a deep commitment to the growth and development of Catholic schools. I serve in a Diocese that operates with a growth mindset that seeks to support a school system to expand its operations to meet the needs of the families of this region. Hence, there is a deep commitment to ensure we are renewing the facilities and resources of our schools, adapting the structures of some schools and certainly building new schools. St Mary’s Catholic College, Gateshead and St Joseph’s, Lochinvar will have their first HSC students this year. St Aloysius, Chisholm (K-6), St Bede’s, Chisholm (7-12) and Catherine McAuley College, Medowie (7-12, opening 2021) are new schools serving population growth. The St Laurence Flexible Learning Centre, Broadmeadow, opened its doors this year. Future growth is planned in areas such as Gillieston Heights and Cessnock. This all arises from a Diocese deeply committed to the value of a Catholic school system.

What excites you about the future of education?

I will focus on two things that are exciting and profound. Many people will recall their education as content-oriented. We learnt “stuff” and gave it back to teachers in assessment. There is a huge shift away from learning content for content’s sake. Our subjects will still have content, but we are ever so much more conscious of the world our young people will enter and the skill set they will rely on: they require uniquely human skills like creativity, team work, problem solving, service, collaboration, care for others and conflict resolution. We have a far more balanced approach to not just learning content, but a sophisticated skill set that sits behind the content. Thankfully, too, students in our schools who have all manner of needs and challenges are welcomed and supported in a much more inclusive environment.

Is faith a big part of your life? If yes, how has it helped?

Faith is fundamental to the person I am. I have a deep and strong relationship with Jesus. Daily prayer and meditation are critical to my day — I am a great fan of walking meditation. I love a pre-dawn walk, which focuses on my daily prayer and reflecting on what is valuable in my day. I have recently completed a Masters of Theology with distinction, which greatly nurtured my intellectual faith life. However, the basis of my faith life is measured by my every action in the minutiae of life.

Do you have a favourite memory as a student or from your career?

A beautiful young girl, Jacqui Chatburn, died on 14 September 2004. I was principal of St Paul’s, Booragul and our community walked a profound journey with Jacqui’s family as she struggled through a long illness before dying at the age of 15. I believe that the hundreds of young people who were Jacqui’s peers at school, learnt more about life and faith through Jacqui’s illness and death than a lifetime of teaching. It was a deeply sad, yet profoundly beautiful time.

What advice do you have for educators just starting out?

There are three things vital for our fine young people beginning their careers. First, know why you work in education — no less today than the day I started. I am deeply motivated by a love of young people and a commitment to their learning, formation and wellbeing. Second, you have three priorities before anything else: relationships, relationships and relationships. Get this right and the rest will follow. Third, remember being an educator isn’t an easy gig, it is challenging and will have its hurdles, but believe me it is the most rewarding career you’ll ever have. Helping shape the life of a young person is a privilege.

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Brittany Gonzalez

Brittany Gonzalez is a Marketing and Communications Co-ordinator for Catholic Schools in the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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