The Most Difficult Teaching

For the past three years I have had the pleasure and the honor of teaching at a Catholic Jr/Sr High School. Many people have said that teaching in Catholic education is easy. Less discipline issues, smaller class sizes, greater support of parents, etc. While sometimes these things are true, being a teacher in a Catholic school definitely has its challenges.

The most challenging course I teach is religion. I have three sections of ninth grade theology. In this course I want to draw my students into a closer relationship with Jesus Christ. This is the perfect class for putting faith into action. However, I’m constantly amazed at how ninth grade students can know the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong yet consistently choose to do what’s wrong!

This past week we had an all school mass on the feast of the Archangels. Father gave a wonderful homily that focused on Jesus’s core teaching to love one another (Matthew 22:35-40). He talked about being Catholic by living a Christian life in word and deed. This is not the first time my ninth grade students have heard this message, but it’s like it goes in their heads for about 30 seconds and then it’s completely forgotten.http://commons.wikimedia.com The three Archangels[/caption]

I am certain that this message gets reinforced daily but they keep forgetting or regressing. It is even the primary lesson I want my students to be able to understand and put into action when they are both inside and outside of my classroom. If I can’t help my kids to love one another and their neighbors as themselves have I failed? 

I believe that theology is the most difficult teaching we do in Catholic schools because we have to model Jesus in our thoughts, actions, and deeds as well as teach a curriculum that is literally endless. Putting others especially God first is so counter cultural. When our culture dictates that we need personal branding, that we need to use social media to keep up to date and talk with our friends, and that being a leader and an extrovert is far superior to being a reflective thinker and introvert we will struggle to put faith into action. While our culture reveres the athlete, the movie star, and the accumulation of things over living the Gospel message, our teaching and modeling will continue to fall on deaf ears. What can we do to get our kids to become counter cultural and seek to do God’s will?

What Makes a Catholic School Catholic?

This is my first Blog about Catholic schools and theology. I am a teacher at heart, but the BIG eternal questions have begun to dominate my time. The seriousness of trying to get others to Heaven has been weighing heavily on my mind as a new school year has begun.
Catholic School

First and foremost a Catholic school should be the face of Christ to the world. The very first question we in Catholic education must ask ourselves is, will what we are doing help our students to become saints? A very close second question should be, what are we doing to foster vocations to the priesthood and religious life? I teach high school theology, junior high religion, a college and careers class, and a mobile computer science principals class. I teach in a Catholic school! But, how is a Catholic school any different from a public school or a charter school? According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are three types of Catholic elementary and secondary schools.”(There) are parochial schools, which are associated with particular parishes; diocesan schools, which are associated with the larger diocesan unit; and private order schools, which are associated with specific groups within the Catholic church, such as the Christian Brothers, Dominican, Jesuit, and Marianist Orders (see full statistics here).”

In choosing to send my children to a Catholic school as well as 20 percent of my meager income, I expect that they will have theology or religion class on a daily basis because we all know from the Catechism of the Catholic Church that our purpose here on earth is to know, love, and serve God in this life so as to be happy with Him eternally. I choose not to send my children to public schools because most public schools are bigger and I want my children to be part of a smaller albeit strong academic community of disciples responding to the call of Christ. I also expect my children to learn charity by serving the culture of life through total giving of self. I expect a Catholic school to ground my children in the mission, sacramental life, and magisterial teachings of the Church. I want everyone of my students to be able to combat social relativism, know what and why the Church teaches what it does, and then be able to defend and apply that teaching to their lives.

I came across the following article recently by Jason Adams, “Raising Religious & Moral Standards for Catholic High School Students,” and after just one year of teaching high school theology I concur with his findings. I am especially disappointed that theology (the study of God) is not given the same academic status (rigor, or as I prefer, vigor) as the rest of the curriculum. This all begins and ends with the culture of the school. If the culture in a Catholic school is not clearly focused on Christ, if it is at all caustic, negative, or even doubtful about Church teachings, then students will pick up on this and theology or religion will become a touchy-feely-everyone-sing-kumbya-and-be-happy class because the tenants of our faith really don’t matter. If all a Catholic school does differently than a public school is pay lip service by “looking” Catholic and praying, then is it really a Catholic school?

In my opinion, theology is probably the most academically challenging course a student can have. In theology we are trying to understand God, to prove that He even exists. I have a lot of priest friends and one of them told me about a class where he was talking about concepts like eternity, God being outside time, and the uncreated creator. At one point he stated, “I only began to be able to understand this concept enough to explain it to others about five years ago.” His advice to me that same day was, “we all should be aware that if we don’t practice what we preach, then we begin to lose that which we once knew.” Theology is definitely not like learning to ride a bike. We will never fully understand God in a lifetime of committed theological study, but we can begin to know Him better and be able to evangelize others through this study.

One of Adams’s solutions for making Catholic schools more Catholic is,

          “Students should be made accountable for learning, retaining,
           and applying the content of the faith. They should read primary
           documents, research matters of faith and morality, write in-depth
          analytical papers, take notes frequently, and give quality individual
          presentations. They should be exposed to adult thinking about the faith
           from their teachers, guest speakers, and other sources such as articles
          from Catholic periodicals and audio/video presentations from orthodox
          theologians. Accountability for learning also means frequent testing and
          honest evaluations of the quality of students’ work. Religion courses
          should be anything but cupcake classes, considering the volume and
          complexity of theological concepts that they survey.”

This is a serious charge to undertake and sometimes stake holders at Catholic schools get sucked into the idea of the school having a “Catholic identity” but get distracted by numbers of graduates attending college (don’t get me wrong here as I want all my students and children to attend college, but not at the cost of their eternal happiness), numbers of students taking advanced placement or honors classes, or even numbers of students scoring high on state achievement tests. Many Catholic schools have a Mass, pray, and have kids wear uniforms, but does this alone make the school truly Catholic? Most Catholic schools have theology courses but at many of those schools people continue to see theology as a fluff class. The question often is, how can you assess my son or daughter on religion? So, the conclusion is that it’s a feelings course with an automatic A attached. We cannot afford to do this to our children especially in an era when Catholic church numbers are dropping drastically. In May, the publication Crux published a finding from a Pew Research survey which showed that only sixteen percent of Millennials (those people born between 1981 – 1996) identify as Catholic (see article here).

Religion should be at the heart of every Catholic school’s educational program and research has proven that Catholic schools, religious orders, and the priesthood begin to thrive when there is a commitment to the Magisterium, the principles of Catholic faith, and the moral life of the church. Students need to be exposed to the roots of our Catholic Faith and its relevance and application to contemporary living and faith issues. If Catholic teachers and administrators really took to heart what the Church teaches and the eternal implications of what we do here on earth have on the next part of our journey, then we would be on our knees daily as a staff praying for the students and families we are privileged to serve. As St. Theresa of Calcutta was fond of saying, “I see and adore the presence of Jesus, especially in the lowly appearance of bread, and in the distressing disguise of the poor.”