Career preparation that goes beyond theory
Preparing for a future career path is never simple – on top of the long list of university study requirements are the necessary hours of professional learning, potential pro-bono work, obligatory placements and ongoing accreditation.
In the Catholic tradition the rigorous preparation for a specific mission – such as being a teacher, priest, nurse or business leader – is commonly known as formation. Formation is the exploration of the theory of a chosen vocation (what you learn at university) and the practice of it (the being and the doing).
Formation is becoming increasingly important in Catholic workplaces. As one of the largest employers in Australia, Catholic organisations are acutely aware of the need to recruit staff that understand their unique mission in society – people who can talk the talk and walk the walk.
Trish McCarthy has the crucial task of leading ACU education students through a rich formation experience, known as the Signum Fidei program, to meet the needs of employing Catholic schools.
Signum Fidei is a formal assessed unit of study that can be completed as an elective unit by ACU initial teacher education students. Consisting of four modules, the program aims to equip participants with the knowledge, skills, and expertise to contribute to the mission of Church communities, specifically Catholic schools.
“Catholic organisations are open to anyone who is open to working for them, but there is a particular language, a particular environment that students are going to encounter at a Catholic organisation,” Trish said.
“Part of my role is to introduce our students to that vocabulary and the experiences that are unique to the Catholic Church, to help them understand the history and context of these Catholic organisations, so it's not so confronting on the first day on the job.
“It’s about breaking down some of the barriers, and some of the mystery and confusion around Catholic life and practice, so they feel comfortable working in these environments and participating in the life of the school or the hospital or the employment agency.”
A former teacher and ACU alumna, Trish understands the value of formation for all ACU students, including those who don’t come from the Catholic tradition.
“We've had some Muslim students go through the initial experience, as well as atheists and non-Christians,” Trish said.
“We don't water-down the teachings of the Church, and we don't shy away from the fact that Jesus Christ is central to the Catholic Church, but I give students the freedom to change the language to suit their context and experience.”
Exploring Catholicism with a Protestant eye
Primary education student Benjamin Kirkmann would never have imagined being a Catholic missionary in Fiji, but such was his experience of the Signum Fidei program.
A committed Christian and father of three, Ben left his job in corporate sales to follow a persistent dream of becoming a teacher through ACU.
Ben’s introduction to university as a mature-aged student was less than ideal – COVID-19 had just arrived on Australian shores, so he was plunged into online learning. When Australian borders reopened, his family decided to leave their Sydney home for a more spacious landscape on the Sunshine Coast. Transferring his degree to ACU Brisbane Campus was simple but added a considerable commute.
“I was questioning whether I was going to be continuing at ACU, and was looking at more local options for me,” Ben said.
“I hadn’t heard anything back from my other options, and then I got an email from Trish saying registrations had opened for Signum Fidei. Two days later, Trish accepted the application. I took that as a sign that I was supposed to stay at ACU.”
Over the course of 12 months, the Signum Fidei program took Ben to Canberra for a Youth Ministry Equipping School, shed light on questions he had about the Catholic faith, and his ultimate highlight, sharing the Gospel to young people in Catholic schools across Fiji.
Ben said from the minute he started the Signum Fidei program, he knew he had made the right choice to stay at ACU.
“If you said to me one day that I would be a Catholic missionary in Fiji, I wouldn’t believe you,” Ben said.
“When you scratch away all the debates around the expressions of various doctrine of all the Christian denominations, the central message is the same, and I can get behind that, no matter what the flavour is.”
Not too cool for school
Fellow Signum Fidei participant, Jaimi-Lea Andrews, realised she wanted to be a teacher after getting a job working with teenagers at her local Catholic parish. She was partway through a law degree but “honestly I had no idea what I wanted to do”.
“And then I started working as the youth coordinator at my parish and I realised that I love working with teenagers, and that teaching is actually what I wanted to do,” Jaimi-Lea said.
Jaimi-Lea hopes to become a religious education teacher when she completes her Bachelor of Education (Secondary)/Bachelor of Arts (Humanities). The Signum Fidei program has connected her with other aspiring RE teachers at ACU, who are also committed to their Catholic faith.
Looking back at her own high school experience, Jaimi-Lea said it was one of her teachers who inspired her to take her Catholic faith seriously. Although she attended Catholic schools her whole life, she wasn’t interested in the faith, and going to church on a Sunday “was something other families did”.
“I got to Year 10 and I had a teacher who would actually answer my questions and said that he believed in God and went to church, and that really caught my attention,” Jaimi-Lea said.
A significant challenge for RE teachers is demystifying common stereotypes attached to being Catholic. Jaimi-Lea said the Signum Fidei program has given her the language to support young people and their questions.
“It's definitely the same perspective that I had when I was at school – I thought I was too cool for youth ministry and that our faith sounded really boring,” Jaimi-Lea said.
“Sometimes there's that barrier to even want to be curious about the faith. You can see that the kids have questions but they are worried about what their friends are going to think.
“And I can say, ‘I used to be a teenager, I know’.”
Learn more about the Signum Fidei program and explore your teaching options at ACU.