Mike Haslam, Chaplain, The Taunton Academy, writes…
“Most things can be solved by cake.”
“Surely that should be ‘prayer’?”
“No, all things can be solved by prayer, but cake does help.”
That exchange from the end of the day reminded me of dawn when, after a run on the star-strewn hills of the Quantocks, the day did indeed start with getting cakes and then, as soon as I got into school, with prayers.
I am Chaplain at The Taunton Academy in Somerset and there, or indeed anywhere, it’s good to start the school day with the stillness of prayer and to reflect on the call and challenge of God in the morning’s Bible reading to ‘ask, seek, knock’ and find the goodness of God.
At 8.10 I join colleagues to prepare for a community multi-agency meeting, then at 8.30 we have staff briefing. I go from there down to the Hall to prepare for assembly, which today is being led by our deputy head boy and members of the prefect team. The theme is integrity: the prefects share examples when they have, with integrity, lived out their values, and a few times when they have fallen short.
I’m asked for an example of integrity in the Bible and I bat that back to the students. They say ”Jesus”. The answer is always ”Jesus”. But this time my first thought is Peter, who so often put his foot in it and got it wrong, but was always ready to say sorry and start again.
50 mentors come into school
With a London art trip on the next day and a Ten Tors training hike at the weekend, the morning is interspersed with arrangements, collecting student forms, briefing the students and preparing for the next week. I confirm arrangements for a PHSE workshop and have pastoral meetings with a few students and staff. I set up two mentoring meetings; talk with the students and their mentors; and email some more mentors. All of them are part of a project which brings 50 people from the worlds of law and local government, charities, business, the energy sector and the police into school to mentor our students once a month.
At break, I gather students from our school council to count the votes that the whole school has cast in the National Youth Parliament’s ‘Make your Mark’ campaign. Students have been asked to pick their top issues, which the Youth Parliament will then debate. The top issue is that government should allow schools to teach a ‘curriculum for life’.
After break, I teach a year 10 RE lesson on crucifixion. This is one occasion where I don’t teach by modelling! There’s a good starter of tough questions for the chaplain. ”Why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac?” ”What’s happening with the plagues of Egypt?” I don’t have complete answers. There aren’t complete answers, except perhaps in the heart of the lesson where we look at what the crucifixion means for Christians.
I chair the Somerset chaplains’ group; my role includes supporting existing chaplains and establishing new chaplaincies. After the RE lesson I do some work on a chaplaincy that we have been asked to set up at a local community secondary school, and prepare for a meeting of school chaplains that I am hosting after lunch. Just before lunch a newly appointed chaplain from another school arrives to see me and look around the academy.
“What did the sign INRI at the top of the cross mean?”
We spend lunch in the hall, talking with students and then in the chaplaincy – a busy bustle of chess and chatter. A year 11 student looks at a crucifix and asks me what the sign INRI at the top of the cross means. It stands for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. The conversation moves into linguistics: ”How come ‘I’ stands for ’J’?; into truth and fiction: was the sign accurate?; into bullying, or anti-bullying: were they humiliating Jesus and how did he respond?’ Lunchtime in the chaplaincy ends with silence and prayer.
The Somerset school chaplains gather with the National Coordinator of School Chaplaincy after lunch. We celebrate communion, enjoy the aforementioned cake and discuss the next steps for chaplaincy across the county and nationally; the joys and challenges, how we can secure funding and how to make the best possible connections with other parts of the church. It is a good meeting but means that I sadly miss my usual duty on the school gate at the end of the day. Being on the gate is a great opportunity to touch base with students, and to pray.
As I return to the chaplaincy at 5pm I see a box of chocolate biscuits waiting for me, a very generous gift from one of the many members of our wonderful site team, who said in an accompanying note, ”you are always there to listen, and we all know that you like chocolate.” I do! I also get an email from a student at an FE college, where I have just started a chaplaincy. She had heard other students talking about me on the bus home and giving me that ultimate teenage compliment, “the new chaplain is chill”.
I get home and see my family and then lead an evening discussion group for people considering leadership within the church; and hear the exchange about cake and prayer with which I started this piece. There are the inevitable emails to close the day.
This was Thursday 6 October. No two days in the life of a chaplain are the same, it is a wonderful and distinctive role. Yet every day includes what one year 7 student once told me is the job of the chaplain: ”to listen and care, to pray for and bless the school.”