For the next month teachers and school leaders will be preparing to welcome young scholars and saints in formation at Catholic Schools throughout the country. Forming Saints and Scholars is hard work, I hope and pray that our Catholic school leaders and teachers will be rewarded greatly for the days and nights they spend toiling in the ministry I like to call Our Father’s Business.
Last week I had the opportunity to welcome new teachers to the to their ministry in a Catholic school – many of them will be first time teachers. I spoke to them about the Trinitarian aspects of a Catholic School and how successful Catholic schools are about relationships – relationships – relationships. By the time the day was done, the cohort of new teachers adopted a mantra of “Not Under my Watch.” Imagine several hundred new Catholic school teachers being asked:
- Will it be said that in your classroom children were denied an opportunity to encounter the Risen Christ?
- Will it be said that the test scores of your children declined during the 2015-2016 school year?
- Will students in your classroom withdraw from school because parents are dissatisfied with your willingness to partner with them on behalf of their child’s education?
And all responding with an unequivocal – “Not Under My Watch.”
Teaching is a noble profession! Nobility includes in its meaning the very notion of beautiful. Therefore, noble work is beautiful work. But what is beautiful can be sullied. While working at the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education Program I was often presented with opportunities to talk to new Catholic school teachers. Below are some of the thoughts I would share with them in an attempt to help each new teacher maintain the beauty and luster of his/her own vocation as a Catholic school teacher. I share them here today so that Catholic school leaders across the country can use as appropriate and share with new teachers. Some of the thoughts might be good for veteran teachers to hear again as well.
- Stay close to the Lord. Throughout your career, you will experience crises of confidence, exasperation, frustration, unreasonable parents, troubled students, bad classes, poor liturgies. You will be misquoted, misrepresented and for some periods of time, mistrusted. But you will also get the unparalleled gift to see the world with wonder again, through the eyes of young people. You will be made a confidante by a young person seeking advice, feel the joy of a weak student who does well on an assignment, cheer for your students in athletic contests, beam with a near parents’ pride as your students graduate. To keep yourself rooted, to keep your ideas fresh, to be the kind of faithful person our young people need to see firsthand, stay close to the Lord, both in your daily prayer and in the reception of the sacraments. If you do, the Lord will bless you in your work and you will go to bed each night exhausted, but with a smile on your face.
- Be yourself. If you’re young, you’ve probably never been called Mister Jones or Miss Smith, and that will take some getting used to. But you can be yourself within this role. I have never agreed with the maxim “Don’t let them see you smile until Thanksgiving.” The fact is, students respond better to authenticity. It’s OK to laugh at something the students say which is amusing—in fact, it’s quite disarming to them. It’s OK to let the students see you having fun.
- Admit your mistakes and learn from them. Zero in on your strengths, not your weaknesses. (Remember — nobody’s perfect!) Principals also suffer from human frailty and need time to learn. School leaders need to be supported not weakened by behavior which is destructive to the Catholic School community.
- Remember, it’s not about you; it’s about the students. So learn how to spell the word “concupiscence”. Concupiscence is a tendency to put yourself first. Only divine grace enables us to rise above it. But unless you declare war on it, you are bound to succumb to the illusion that teaching is all about you.
- Be professional. Model desired attitudes and behavior. Make sure you dress in professional attire. Remember that you teach students first, and then you teach whatever academic discipline you learned. You are a role model for the children and partner with the parents in the formation of each child.
- Empower your students and engage them in the teaching/learning process. Listen — both to what the kids are saying and to what they’re not saying. Make sure that assessments are frequent and fair, that work is graded in a timely fashion, and that classes are well prepared and taught from beginning to end – every minute matters!
- Don’t “go it alone.” Get to know all the teachers in your school and make friends with the cooks, custodians, aides, and secretaries. We are all formators of children, just each with a different role to play. Volunteer to share projects and ideas, and don’t be afraid to ask others to share their ideas with you. Understand that the learning process involves everyone — teachers, students, colleagues, and parents — and get everyone involved. Seek the advice of your colleagues, share your frustrations with them, and ask questions. Remember we are promised that whenever two or more are gathered in His name that he will be with us to enlighten and guide us.
- Dive in! Don’t be a person who clocks in at 7:30 and clocks out at 4 each day. Come to afterschool activities. Nothing connects you with your students faster than to be able to say “Nice hit,” or “great singing,” or “I was impressed with your artwork at the show.” You can’t be at everything; but make a point some days to just stop in at after school care to say hello. You’ll see kids in a whole new light, and I think you’ll enjoy it, too.
- Consider your roll book a prayer book – Pray for your students and their families. Your most important work is to bring a piece of heaven into the classroom with you.
- Think before you speak; if you do, you won’t speak very often, for there is a great deal to think about in education. Have the courage to try something else if what you’re doing isn’t working.
- Thirty plus years from now, your students will not remember all that you taught them, but they will remember who you were and how you treated them You have a choice to become a minister of justice or an angel of peace. Be an angel of peace.
- All the knowledge we give our students is in vain if they receive it without knowing they are good and loved by God. Each day is an opportunity to channel the divine love. Don’t waste an opportunity to do so. Every minute counts!
- Keep a journal and take pictures. Some highly regarded Catholic school teachers share excerpts from their journal and images from the week with parents in a weekly email blast.
- Remember that a good day is not necessarily smooth, painless and hassle free.