Research Is Moving Mercy Education Forward

Tania Hicks is an outstanding teacher of English. She is also our much-loved Dean of Students, Year 7. These roles are time consuming and emotionally intense. So, it is a wonder that over the last three years, Tania has also managed to complete a Doctorate.

In mid 2017, Tania began her Doctorate at Notre Dame University. She is very close to the end of that journey so we asked her about her thesis, motivation and the impact this intense study has on her personally and professionally.

Why was a doctorate a priority for you?

Pursuing further study seemed a natural progression for me. As a young child I loved doing school projects and researching interesting topics!

I remember sitting at the graduation ceremony of my Master of Education in 2016 and thinking, there’s more I’d like to learn to contribute to the education of our students.

My area of research is in spiritual growth. As teachers we make assumptions about how student spiritual growth is fostered in the school environment….we base our assumptions on anecdotal evidence. I wanted to make a contribution to the empirical literature in this area – as little is known yet much is assumed about the topic, and I was keen to honour the voice of students – to hear what they think fosters their spiritual growth throughout the school journey.

The study arose from a desire to know how spiritual growth occurs in the context of Mercy girls’ secondary schools in WA.

What is the subject of your thesis?

The influence of Mercy schooling on student spiritual growth: The perceptions of post-school women.

The process involved a fine-grained analysis of a small sample of alumni from the three Western Australian Mercy Education secondary girls’ schools. I am indebted to these young women who gave of their time and personal thoughts, reflecting on how their secondary schooling influenced their spiritual growth.

In the context of this study, spiritual growth is a positive force propelling a deepening awareness of a sense of meaning and purpose that may stem from connectedness with oneself, others, the wider world, and possibly with God.

The great thing about spiritual growth is that it’s an intensely human experience. My study considered what lies at the heart of spiritual growth occurring in the school setting; and explicitly, how does Mercy schooling influence student spiritual growth?

I think it’s especially significant that spiritual growth results in positive health outcomes, such as an improved sense of self-efficacy, that provide protective factors in facing life challenges. Spiritual growth strengthens human development, builds resilience and aids identity formation during adolescence. The capacity for spiritual growth is inherent in every human being, yet it needs activating and awakening – especially during childhood and adolescence…and this is where education can make a remarkable contribution to students’ lives.

We are privileged in the Catholic school to be well placed to offer this spiritual nourishment to those students in our care, and of course, it underpins our mission as educators.

Spiritual growth may protect students from contextual factors that erode their mental health. Many young people in today’s society suffer from spiritual poverty, and perhaps we need look no further than the mental health problems many young people face on a daily basis – so research in this area is pertinent.

What has surprised or delighted you in this process? 

The process is gruelling at different intervals, especially when working full-time. To be honest, there have been times when I have felt at breaking point! It’s at these times I’m eternally grateful for my husband and daughters who have been a tremendous support. They sense when it’s time to deliver a cup of tea to my desk. And my supervisors have been incredibly supportive in giving their time, wisdom and endless encouragement. 

I’ve learnt the importance of being present in the moment – of experiencing the joy in everyday life. More so than ever before in my life, I’ve learnt not to delay happiness. I’ve enjoyed the study process and the richness of life along the way….trying not to merely think about crossing the finish line. It is really all about the journey!

My faith life is integral in all that I do and I feel this study has nourished me in a spiritual sense. It’s been uplifting and life-giving.

Where are you in the process? When do you expect to graduate?

This journey is nearing an end. Presently my thesis is under examination. I am really looking forward to being able to report my findings early next year to Mercy Education and the three schools involved in the project.

I’m particularly excited by the prospect of being able to share my findings with classroom teachers, those teachers who work tirelessly ‘at the coalface’ teaching, encouraging and caring for their students. I feel they do not always realise the enormity of their influence on students. They are a significant force in shaping student spiritual growth.

What impact will your doctorate have for you professionally and personally?

This study has already had a profound impact on me. Professionally it has extended me to move beyond my comfort zone by providing me with many opportunities for which I am grateful. Last year while on long service leave not only was I able to devote myself full-time to study, this time also enabled me to travel to Sydney with peers from the Catholic Institute of WA and the University of Notre Dame, where I made a presentation at a national academic conference of Religious Educators. It was a wonderful opportunity.

I was really looking forward to participating in a conference in Ireland this year; however, Covid-19 put this on hold! Fortunately, though, I’ve been welcomed into a group of researchers (GRACE: Global Researchers Advancing Catholic Education) with whom I look forward to collaborating with in the interim. Just last week we had an online meeting with a view to regular contact. It’s reassuring and heartening knowing that people across the nation, and globe, are passionate in supporting Catholic education, particularly in these challenging times. There’s a wonderful spirit of collegiality.

Personally, the journey has been a labour of love! I’ve relished the opportunity to pursue further study in an area I’m intensely interested in. It has extended me in so very many ways. I feel very blessed to have been able to conduct this research. It’s my sincere hope my study assists in the continual improvement we as educators in the Catholic school strive for in enriching the spiritual growth of our students.

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