IRENE CHEUNG, PRINCIPAL OF THE MATTEO RICCI COLLEGE – By spreading the Word of God, we can inspire our students

– Marco Carvalho

Love, diligence, companionship and the ability to put themselves at the service of the world. At the beginning of a new school year, the core values that Matteo Ricci College proposes to convey to its students remain untouched. The school has currently about 1100 students and a problem at hand. The remodeling of the kindergarten facilities may require the school to further reduce the number of pupils in the coming years. Irene Cheung, principal of Matteo Ricci College, in her own words.

How did the College prep are for this new school year?  What are the main challenges that you are expecting to cross your way? The idea that I have is that Matteo Ricci College has more than one thousand students, which is a huge number. In terms of students … How many students do you have and what are the main challenges that you expect to find?

This year we have around 1100 students, from Kindergarten up to Form 6. The main challenge for us, in terms of managing such a number of students, is related to the Secondary Section, which is the section were we have a smaller number of students. This year we have only around 370 enrolled in secondary education. The majority of our students are in the Primary Section. We try to manage things so we can have a sort of balance. We try to have this balance starting from the Kindergarten. We try to, gradually, balance the classes. We try to have four classes in each level. It is our ultimate goal. Because we don’t have enough classrooms, we cannot take in so many students. We are also planning to rebuild our Kindergarten Section. When that moment comes, we will need to transfer the students here or find a suitable place. We pray so that we can have some place to settle the students. We are trying to balance the number of students so that we don’t have any setbacks in the next few years.

Is space an issue? We usually see the schools in Macau complaining about the same thing: they want to grow, they want to offer their students more space and more quality, but sometimes that’s not possible. Are there any plans for a new campus?

For the time being, we are planning to rebuild the Kindergarten. The Government encouraged us to rebuild this Section, but the Government rules also restrict the proportion. Each student needs to have 10 square meters of activity space. We already did our calculations. If we rebuild this Section and strictly follow the Government rules, offering each student 10 square meters of activity space, we will have to narrow the number of students even more. You asked if there are any plans to build a new campus… That question should be made to the Society of Jesus. Only the Jesuits can tell if they have plans to ask the Government for a new place. Right now, we have to maximize the way we use the space we have, so that we can offer the best education possible.

You were saying that the number of students in the Secondary Section has been decreasing. Nowadays, we tend to believe that the smaller the number of students is, the better the education they will be provided with. Is this the case in Macau?

The Government has been working hard to help schools achieve this goal. This is not really new. The Government has been working for quite a good number of years already, so that the number of students per class may decrease. We used to have more than forty students per class. In some schools, this number was even bigger. With the population decreasing, the Government started to promote a new policy and saying that each class should have no more than 25 to 35 students. This goal provides us with some flexibility. On the other hand, the subsidies given by the Government helped the schools to gradually narrow the number of students allowed in each class. This has been a general phenomenon for many years now. The population nowadays is going steady and the Government would probably be receptive if schools increased the number of students in each class again. Actually, the Education Bureau is asking all the schools to increase the number of students in each class. The Government is also walking hand-in-hand in all the schools to help the development of education in Macau. The Government defined several policies. I could give you the example of the “Blue Sky Project,” created so that some of the schools could move to larger spaces. The idea that I have is that the Macau Government is investing a lot and it is very supportive in terms of education.

Did this investment make it easier for school principals to hire new teachers? This was quite a big issue a few years ago. Have the prospects improved?

The Government also conceived a few policies with that aspect in mind. It will attribute scholarships to the best students, so that they can follow the path of education. In the last few years, we invited and hired new colleagues also with the support of the Government. We receive many applications every year, but it’s different from subject-to-subject. It is not easy to hire new Religious Education teachers. In areas such as Physics and Chemistry, the number of applications we receive is not very significant, in opposition to subjects such as English, Chinese, Mathematics or other more general topics, where we have many applicants. We are trying to work with the Catholic Schools Association and the University of Saint Joseph so we can provide some courses to prepare Religious Education teachers. In our case, most of our students and most of our teachers, they are non-Catholics. I would say that 98 per cent of them are non-Catholics. Nevertheless, we work so we can provide them with a set of core Catholic values and also the values that differentiate the Jesuit education. Most of the teachers, as I was saying, are not Catholics, but as soon as they are hired, we try to make use of day-to-day experiences to connect them to this set of Catholic values. Our school chaplain helps a lot. These Catholic values are, actually, intimately connected to our daily lives, the same way Jesus was a real person who lived in the real world and connected with those that surrounded him. We try to use Jesus as our example to connect with our students, to understand the challenges they face and the way they live their daily lives. This is nothing new, nevertheless. The core challenges that we face in ourselves and in our community have been very similar all over history. We are also introducing the awareness examen of Saint Ignatius, so that our students can reflect on their own experience. We feel that it is important for them to be aware of their good experiences, of their supportive experiences. One of the challenges that our youth is facing nowadays is that they take everything for granted. They feel that others need to help them and they are prone to compare themselves with the others. The awareness examen is one of the practices with which we help the students to be more grounded in themselves and to be aware of their own experience. We adopt a different theme once in a while. In the last few years, we have been using “Joyful Riccians” as our school theme. Together with our team, and having in mind the subject panels of Religious Education, we try to embrace three different aspects.  The first one, “Riccian Magis,” concerns the spirit of Saint Ignatius and how to be true to oneself, aware of the gifts that one has but also of our own shortcomings. We try to make our students aware of how they can use the gift they were given by God, not only for themselves, but also for the others. Our aim is to make them embrace the needs of the world. This year we are focusing in this first aspect, but gradually we would like our students to grow deeper in the Jesuit values, the same set of values that usually make the profile of Jesuit graduates all over the world. Our responsibility is to connect them with real life, make them aware of the challenges they will face growing up.  The students, of course, may not see this big picture, at least not so brightly as teachers and the school leadership see it. We are aware of the value of the education we provide and the way we ground it with the Catholic values and the way the Jesuits educate. Every school will provide various subjects and most of them will determine the success of their students by the marks that they obtain or the performance they have in all kinds of competitions, but one very important aspect of the Jesuit education is the growth of the whole person, not only when they are at school, but mainly to promote a lifelong growth and a healthy, lifelong relationship with themselves, the others and the world around them. This is our vision.

Most of your students and most of your teachers are not Catholic, as you were saying. Despite their Catholic inspiration, schools don’t try to convert anyone, they try to pass on the core values in which they believe, but not in a doctrinarian way. Is it easy to convey the values that you want the school to convey?

We are quite outspoken about our Catholic values. We use a lot of Bible verses. One of the mottos that we chose for this year is precisely a psalm: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.” Our students, they are quite aware of the use we make of the Bible verses. Every year we will have a Bible verse and every morning, even when we don’t have the school assembly, we have a school prayer, that is broadcasted to all the school classrooms. We will read one of the Bible passages, be it the word of Jesus or a passage from the Old Testament. By doing this, we want to help them to listen to the word of God. We believe that, by spreading the word of God, we can gradually inspire the students. Even if they don’t convert and don’t feel the need to go through baptism, we believe this is important. Our responsibility is to cultivate so that God can make the harvest. Nevertheless, some students requested to join the catechism class and last year we had three students newly baptized. This is very good, very happy news. This year, there are already some students asking to join the catechism class. We have a parents and teachers association and we celebrate Parents’ Day every year. This is a good opportunity to remind them about the school values and the school vision. The parents are aware that when they enroll the kids, that they are signing them in a Catholic school. They are not, maybe, fully aware that we are a Jesuit school, but we are telling them more about what a Jesuit school is. More and more parents are aware of what a Jesuit school is and we are also trying to help the parents to experience our values. This is another challenge: “How can we accompany the parents of our students?” If they are aware of this and they are willing to cooperate with the school, the mindfulness I was talking about won’t happen only at school, but it will also happen within the families. That will be our next step. This is my fifth year as the principal. I spent the last few years trying to build a framework. Now we are trying to deepen it and trying to develop it more. I always say to my colleagues: “We are not doing anything new, but we are making them deeper, with the help of Father Pou, our supervisor Father Beda and also the entire Jesuit network.” I feel grateful for the quick support and also the richness of the Jesuit education tradition. The Society of Jesus is really helping us to have quite supportive materials and how should we implement the Jesuit values. They even have handbooks, lots of handbooks and a lot of guidelines. The Jesuits like to write a lot of guidelines. Nevertheless, the most important is really to connect with the context. Even the pedagogy of Ignatius of Loyola is helping the school administration to be realistic: “What’s the context here? What’s the experience here? What would we like to implement or what would we like to teach?” We are invited to reflect on this experience and do our own evaluation. This is the dynamics of the Ignatian pedagogy. We also use this as an administrative reflection. I feel grateful and I am thankful also to be able to serve here, an experience that will be important to my personal growth. It allows me to grow, both with my colleagues and the students.

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