A Discussion with Brother Jean Marie Thior, National Secretary of the National Office of Catholic Teaching of Senegal, Dakar, Senegal

With: Jean Marie Thior Berkley Center Profile

July 29, 2015

Background: As part of the Education and Social Justice Project, undergraduate student Sabrina Khan interviewed Brother Jean Marie Thior, the national secretary of the National Office of Catholic Teaching of Senegal (Office National de l'Enseignement Catholique du Sénégal, ONECS) and a member of the Congregation of the Brothers of Saint Gabriel. In this interview, conducted in July 2015, Thior discusses his role at ONECS and the future of Catholic education in Senegal, including its role in promoting interreligious understanding between Christian and Muslim students.
Can you introduce yourself?

My name is Brother Jean Marie Thior. I am a member of the Congregation of the Brothers of Saint Gabriel, and I have been the national secretary of the National Office of Catholic Teaching of Senegal for four years.

What are your daily responsibilities?

The national secretary primarily coordinates all of Catholic education’s activities across Senegal. Our mission is also to implement education policies throughout our systems in Senegal. The national secretary must also represent the Catholic education system in front of the Senegalese state, specifically, the minister of education. The state is a partner of Catholic education. Because the state cannot cover all the needs of education in the country, it opens the door to the private sector, which shares its ambition for ensuring the needs of young Senegalese.

Additionally, this representation extends to the West African Francophone region, as well as the International Office of Catholic Teaching.

Does the state subsidize Catholic education?

At the end of the school year, the state gives subsidies to the entire private sector in education. That means, to all Catholic schools, secular private schools, and authorized French-Arab schools. So, effectively, we receive a state subsidy. However, to benefit from the subsidy, your establishment must be recognized by the state. The award of a grant is determined by criteria such as scholarly results, the qualifications of the teachers, etc.

In your opinion, what qualities are necessary to being a good teacher?

To be a good teacher, you have to first love your job, because not everyone is made to be a teacher. If there is love, the work will be well done. The second condition is to have professional dedication. That includes things like punctuality, regularity, and well-done work. Also, you need to be a “people person” who is capable of working with others, because a school is a family, in the spirit of a family. When you have the spirit of a family, the work becomes profitable. It’s like a factory in which the workers must work as a team. The fourth condition of being a good teacher is to actively seek to improve your knowledge. Each year, the teacher must be able to renew his teaching, course content, to motivate students. If we always do the same thing, it becomes routine. In the end, a good teacher is someone who is a good role model, someone who dresses appropriately, speaks appropriately, and communicates with parents and with students. This is very important in the mission to educate. To better educate students, we find that teachers must be role models, who know how to convey universal and Christian values.

What is the importance of a Catholic education for youth?

The importance involves the participation in the development of our country. For a country to be developed, its citizens must be well educated. The other aspect of Catholic education in Senegal is the ability to transmit “Who is God?” to allow youth to know who God is. For Catholics, we learn “Who is Jesus Christ?” For Muslims who attend our schools, we help them, through our pedagogy, to better love the God that they believe in, in such a way that Catholicism and Islam can cohabit harmoniously and fraternally, and with the greatest respect for their brothers. That is precisely the importance of Catholic education. We are not competitors, but partners, in the Senegalese education system, and we help the state so that the country may develop and living together continues to be a reality.

What is the greatest challenge to Catholic education in Senegal today?

Today, one of the greatest challenges is being able to continue to transmit values like kindness, respect, attention to others, courage, a good work ethic, and other moral values. I say this because today, with globalization and the omnipotence of the Internet, students must not get lost; they must remain lucid, capable of mastering and evolving in a world with a bright future.

Another aspect is the teaching of religion. Today, we have the tendency to teach cognitive knowledge like mathematics, French, English, geography, or history. These subjects are necessary for intellectual growth, but nothing can replace religion. A man without religion is a lost man. A man who has religion is able to transmit love and to contribute to peace in the world.

In general, what do you think attracts Muslim parents to Catholic schools?

Overall, Muslim parents who choose Catholic schools are very grateful to us and thank the Church for participating in the education system in Senegal. Parents are also very happy to enroll their children because our school symbolizes a place of Muslim-Christian dialogue, because we allow youth of different religions to be able to live together. Additionally, parents also enroll their children for reasons of stability; we do not experience strikes in Catholic schools.

Can you explain the Muslim-Christian dialogue in your schools?

The dialogue in our schools permits people to know the religion of someone else and to also recognize the person himself and to respect him within his religion. At school, you frequently hear students wish others happy Eid, Ramadan, Christmas, Easter, Tabaski, etc. Muslim-Christian dialogue is also a social dialogue: living together, working together for the development of the country, sharing together joyous and unfortunate events, and uniting for good causes. Doctrinal dialogue is a little more difficult. If I say, “Jesus Christ is the son of God,” I say it because I am Catholic. But, I cannot force a Muslim to espouse the doctrine of my faith.

While teaching, when you encounter difficulties, where do you find the motivation to keep going?

There are two things. First is the spiritual and fundamental aspect—prayer. In both morning and evening, I pray and reflect on my experiences from that day. When I encounter difficulties, I always ask God to accord me the force to continue the task with which He has entrusted me. I also prayer for others I met that day with their own difficulties.

The second aspect, which is a little more difficult, is to not be discouraged easily. Wherever you work, there will be difficulties. But if you love your job, you will be able to persevere despite the difficulties. You must be determined. A discouraged teacher is a bad role model for students. Teaching is one of the most difficult jobs, but also one of the most important, because everyone is affected by it, whether it is education within the family or within schools.

Does education play a role in the advancement of women?

In the beginning, education favored boys. Senegalese tradition had women stay at home to take care of children. However, in the past few decades, many international organizations have mobilized to favor education for girls by funding scholarships for them. Today, I rejoice in the fact that females are more numerous than males are in the Catholic education system. It’s a great joy. It’s more than parity because females outnumber boys. It’s a sign that our mentality has evolved.

Furthermore, we recognize today that girls have good intellectual capacities. I believe that Catholic education is going to continue to encourage the enrollment of female students. If we find partners for girls, especially in rural zones, to ensure that they go to school, our joy will be even greater.

Do you think there is a link between Catholic values and knowledge or education?

There is a link. School is a place where we transmit knowledge, but we also teach values. Teachers must possess these values intellectually, but also in their hearts and in their behavior, to be able to transmit them to the students. The day we stop transmitting these values will be a catastrophe. The values must always be transmitted to correspond with our mission: the education of man and of the whole person.

Is there something you want to add that we haven’t discussed?

I would like to emphasize that Catholic education in Senegal is present throughout the country, even in certain villages where the Senegalese state is not present. It is important to us that Catholic education be close to the population.

Another aspect is that we welcome many students who come from poor families. We do anything we can to allow students to study at our schools even if they do not have the means. Here, I would like to also thank our partners that give us funds needed to cover scholarships. I know that they have made many sacrifices for us. I would like to express my sincere gratitude for these beneficiaries.

I would also like to emphasize that in Catholic education, we have not only general teaching, but also technical and professional training. Catholic education is launching itself slowly but surely into technical and professional training, which deserves a place in the education system.

Similarly, we are in the middle of developing instruction for handicapped students, especially the deaf and the mute. We have begun to make small steps in one of the establishments in Dakar, but we are in the process of developing more programs in the years to come. We hope to install specialized education for handicapped students.
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