Ten Tips for First-Year Catholic School Teachers

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My first full year of teaching was a hot, hot mess. I sort of thought I knew what I was doing (rookie mistake), yet I was equally terrified of people finding out that I didn’t know what I was doing. Unable to sleep the night before the first day of school, I read a cookbook, of all things, and finally drifted off…when I woke up, it was just hours before I was face-to-face with the tiny class of eighth graders I’d been assigned to teach. Somehow, I made it to the end of that year, but it was not without lots of grace, mercy, tears, and coffee. Here are a few things that I learned the hard way:

1. Kids have a TON on their minds besides you. Yes, you’re really important, but you have to start the year by assuming that they’re far less interested in you than you are in them.

2. Kids really don’t care about your credentials, nor do their parents. They care about whether you like them or not…and that’s pretty much it. Take time to get to know them, and they won’t care that you’re young and inexperienced.

3. Parents have no idea how hard you work as a first-year teacher, but you also (unless you’re a parent yourself) have no idea what it’s like to entrust your child to a system run by strangers with rules, consequences, and other parents (who are often really judge-y and clique-y!). Work on appreciating them for all they do after that 3 pm bell each afternoon, and you’ll discover that they’re very appreciative of what you do for their child, even if they don’t totally get it.

4. Teaching in a Catholic school is actually team-teaching with Jesus. He is the first teacher in your classroom, not you. And this is awesome, because it is obviously too big of a job and responsibility to do on your own. Talk to Him about your students, your problems, and the things that excite you. If you’re ever stuck in a meeting or situation that’s confusing or frustrating, get up the guts to ask everyone if they’re okay with you pausing to say a quick prayer out loud for help. It can be as simple as, “Jesus, thank you for [student.] I know that he/she is really struggling, and I’m struggling to know how to help him/her. Please give us your light and your peace.” Usually, you’re not the only one in the situation who feels powerless, and praying helps everyone to be honest about that fact.

5. Other teachers want to help you make this transition into teaching. You bring back lots of memories for them of their first year, for better or for worse. Sometimes this will come across the wrong way because they’ll give you too many suggestions or too much feedback; when that happens, remember that it comes from a really well-meaning place, and try to receive the kindness of the sentiment even if you aren’t ready to do what they’re suggesting. On the flip side, trying someone else’s suggestion does not mean that you’re “becoming them” as a teacher or that you’re not good enough to have your own game plan. You’re just trying something, that’s all, and it’s usually something that has worked before. I used to work with an amazing seventh-grade teacher who had the best way of offering suggestions without making me feel like her ideas were better than mine. (As it turns out, they were, but it was okay!)

6. There are going to be a lot of things that are just plain hard about this first year, so make a list of the things that bring you joy, and make those happen as much as you can. This might mean going out to recess when you’re not on duty and just playing soccer with the kids. Or maybe you love doing art projects even though you don’t teach art…that’s fine. Add a quick project into a History lesson. I discovered that I loved giving kids stickers, so that’s what I did.

7. Find things that both you and your students can laugh about. Laughter: an amazing bonder and stress releaser. I found that most middle school and high school kids aren’t that good at drawing but love drawing comic strips, and they make the most hilarious drawings. Even now, year nine of teaching, when I need to bond with a class, I will often incorporate a partner comic strip activity into a lesson and then walk around the room and point out all the silly things they’re sketching. They soak up the positive, humorous attention, and I delight in being able to take a break from monitoring behavior or comprehension.

8. You will definitely do dumb things as a new teacher, and they will probably really hurt. You wouldn’t be in this profession at all if you didn’t have high ideals and care about kids, and this is a super vulnerable role. It’s okay to take these mistakes hard, but be sure to pray about them so that you can get the Lord’s perspective. Let Him remind you that you are enough, just the way you are.

9. Make some good teacher friends. They want to help you learn the ropes and enjoy your job. It is not a waste of time to chitchat with them in the lounge if that fills you up or to stop by their room for a few minutes at the end of the day to vent or unwind. They also get it that you are just barely surviving and don’t have lots of time to talk, so if you have to duck out of a gathering early, know that no one is judging you.

10. If you impress your principal and coworkers this year, kudos to you. I’m going to be honest–I had so many meltdowns that I’m pretty sure no one was impressed by me by the end. Really, the only expectation that most principals have for you as a first-year teacher is that you finish the year. So just keep clocking in and trying…it’s pretty impressive in itself…and it glorifies the Lord.

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Chosen: Praying with St. John’s Gospel to Prepare for the School Year

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Each of us longs to be noticed, to stand out, to be pursued, to be desired. Each of us longs to be chosen. We want others to look at us and say, “You! I choose you for my team. I want you.” I’ve been reflecting on this longing lately, and just like those other internal longings, this is one that never truly goes away, even though it may lie dormant for a time. Created to be utterly satisfied only in heaven, it may be more apt to call it an “ache” than anything.

As Catholic Christians, we have the incredible privilege of living the “already but not yet” of the end times. In a certain sense, we are already with the Father in heaven whenever we unite with Jesus, who is there now. But we’re not fully with the Father yet, hence the ache. In the same way, we are already chosen by God, but we cannot yet feel that chosenness with the certainty that the saints in heaven do. 

In St. John’s Gospel, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus tells them many things, including this beautiful verse, Jn 15:16: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.” Wow. He chose us. He wanted us, even in our mess, confusion, and frustration. He wanted us. This choice was so intentional, so absolute, that hours after articulating it, Jesus literally died on the cross for us, the ones for whom he said, “I thirst”(Jn 19:28). Lest we be tempted to think that Jesus chose us but didn’t really mean it, he proved it by offering up his very body and blood.

This makes every Friday a precious day for us to share with our students, a day when we celebrate our chosenness by standing at the foot of the cross and saying “thank you.” A couple Lents ago, I tried reading one station of the cross each Friday as our opening class prayer, and it was powerful. Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds want to be reassured that they’ve been chosen just as much as I do. It was for these crazily lovable teens that the Lord appointed me to go and bear fruit that will remain, the verse says. Your students, too, are the fruit of your labor in the classroom–those quiet mornings when your head keeps drooping over your desk while you try to plow through a stack of papers before they come in; those loud Friday afternoons when you have to take a deep breath and remind yourself that this, too, shall pass at the blessed 3:15 bell.

Your personal relationship with Jesus is fertile ground on which they can grow as his chosen ones, and you can teach them how to remain in him through daily prayer, taking them to Adoration when you can, and looking at them the way he does. And let’s acknowledge it: There really is nothing more stunning than walking into the back of the school chapel at the end of the day and seeing one of “your kids” kneeling up in front. 

The best part? Whatever we ask the Father in Jesus’s name, he will give us! As we prepare to begin another academic year, let’s bring our class lists before him and give each student back to him. He’s chosen us, and he’s chosen each one of them. That’s a love that we can remain in with our students, now and forever.

15 Songs to Help You Stay Strong as a Teacher during Coronavirus

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Whatever your district, bishop, or principal has decided about how you’re going back to school (or not back to school) this fall, it’s going to be different. Remember back when we thought this was just a temporary fix and everything would smooth over during June, July and August? Ahhh, those blissful days of our ignorance!

Worship music can help you to stay strong when you’d rather just curl up on your couch and binge-eat sugary cereal (introverts, unite) or run outside and talk to everyone in sight because you miss your students so much (extraverts, unite.) These songs remind me of why I do what I do…because after all, we love Jesus, and we want everyone to know Him, especially our students and our families, even when circumstances get tough.

15. Need to refocus on your mission?

Check out Ryan Stevenson’s The Gospel–”The Gospel makes a way,” he sings, and it does, even when we can’t feel it or see what’s coming next.

14. Is this one of those days when you want chocolate, wine, and hard liquor at the same time, but you already did that last night, so you’re not sure what’s next?

(AKA Parent Teacher Conferences Night 2.)

You do have to be willing to be pepped up, but if so, the cheery and retro feel of Like You Love Me by Tauren Wells just might do the trick!

13. Anxious about how to cover up your insecurities as a teacher in all this uncertainty?

Jason Gray’s “Remind Me Who I Am” is so reassuring. It will gently lead you right into prayer.

12. Want to feel cool? (I mean, you already are, but adding little rap won’t hurt your ratings.)

A true classic, Toby Mac’s Speak Life will remind you of the radical, life-giving power of each of your words.

11. Plagued by fears about last year or next month? Trying to be more mindful (in the right kind of Catholic way)? 

The simple message of Jeremy Camp’s Keep Me in the Moment will resonate with your desire to take all of this one moment at a time.

10. Morning person? Because you will hate this if you’re not:

Good Morning by Mandisa is the kind of song you can blast in your classroom to get you pumped for the day. You know who you are.

9. NOT a morning person? Need a boost to get out of bed for Day 1 of Inservices?

Not only is the piano accompaniment on Mat Kearney’s Air I Breathe gorgeously invigorating, but the poetic lyrics will help you reclaim the Lord in all His goodness and power.

8. Discouraged by how long it takes to make literally ONE bulletin board in August?

The lyric video of The Afters, Broken Hallelujah, is seriously stunning. 

7. Getting too full of yourself? Or down on yourself?

“Nobody but Jesus” by Casting Crowns will pick you right back up again. It’s all about setting ourselves aside and letting Jesus take the stage, which is perfect as we prepare to take the stage in our classroom or on our Zoom screen this fall. Plus the girl riding the motorized scooter is just cool.

6. Worried about your school, city, or country? 

You’ve probably heard You’re the God of This City by Chris Tomlin before, in which case you know it’s perfect for such a time as this. If not, you’re in for a treat.

5. Want to feel empowered by the Holy Spirit and Sara Bareilles at the same time?

Because who wouldn’t, honestly. Her music video for Brave is amazing. My hero is the old guy in the red shirt and white pants…someday I hope to be as much of a rockstar as he is.

4. Piles of emails, forms, masks, and dirty tupperwares littering your desk already?

Give it all to Jesus with David Dunn, whose Have Everything reminds me of the zeal of my early teen years AND makes me want to get up and dance. (By myself, that is, because I am a bad dancer and now have adjustable blinds on my door for situations like this.)

3. Wish someone noticed all your hard work? It’s easier during the pandemic to feel overlooked.

 Over and Over by Riley Clemmons is a great find. The Lord chooses us over and over again, and this is our hope. Riley’s voice is so rich! 

2. Trying to be grateful but not doing that well at it?

Micah Tyler always makes me smile, and his Amen is no exception. He will draw you into praise and celebration, even when you’re surrounded by sanitizer (or “hamitizer,” as my three-year-old niece calls it, which evokes images of hamsters rubbing their paws together in a very antibacterial fashion.)

1. Just need to have a good cry?

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve played I Know by Big Daddy Weave while worrying about a student or parent issue. SOAK THIS IN. It is an incredible call to faith and opportunity to give God everyone who is on your heart and everything that breaks your heart.

Why I’m a Catholic School Teacher: Making Home Happen

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Well guys, I went to Catholic school, so there’s that. My third grade teacher was amazing, and I know this because this was supposed to be a bummer of a grade for me: I was the quiet girl who had to sit next to the “bad kid” the whole year (he was actually pretty nice but really impulsive.) Even so, I have the BEST memories of third grade, especially of my teacher reading to us in the afternoon–chapter after chapter of The BFG or James and the Giant Peach. I would sit at my desk, utterly content, just listening and relaxing. And in the midst of my small but crazy third-grade life, I felt like I was in the safest of safe havens.

Home. Isn’t that what all of us want to experience? Yes, our greatest yearning for heaven is, at its heart, a longing for home, that place so intimate and familiar that we can practically close our eyes and be there. And I would argue that the Catholic school is, at its heart, a little taste of the conventional home that so many of our students lack today. It is a place where they can become the happiest and holiest versions of themselves, both on earth and someday in heaven. After all, heaven is the goal of Catholic schools, and nothing less. Every student of a Catholic school is simultaneously at home and “on the way home”, as is every teacher.

Home became real for me as a brand new high school teacher one day when one of my students, a roughTennessee mountain boy who always had mischief in his eyes, started trying to learn. Before, he had flirted or avoided or slacked, but this time he was actually making an effort. I thought back to when I was preparing to administer a practice ACT to him and his classmates a few weeks earlier, and I knew exactly what was going to happen: Jim, we’ll call him, would “Christmas tree” the entire test and be finished in a mere half hour, then spend the rest of the time sleeping or annoying his peers. I recalled that he’d mentioned turkey farming as a hobby (not a shocker in east Tennessee), and so in an effort to placate him, I printed off profiles of different kinds of turkeys for him to read through after he finished his holiday-themed “test” the next day. True to form, Jimmy exerted almost zero effort, but he did read the packet I nonchalantly dropped on his desk afterwards. And he loved it. This led to many conversations about his life outside of school, which eventually led to openness to learn in school. At the end of the year, I received the most sincere “thank you” I’d ever imagined could come out of the lips of a hardened seventeen-year-old. Somehow Jimmy found a home in my classroom, and all I wanted to do was to open this home to more and more teens.

What about you? In Revelations 2:4, the Lord warns us against forgetting our first love. I’ve found that I often get discouraged when I forget the “whys” for what I do. So why are you a Catholic school teacher? What was your “first love” about this vocation/profession? Leave a comment below, then take time today to grab a coffee or iced tea and journal for a few minutes. Save the entry for more trying days ahead.

Summer Reading for Tired Catholic School Teachers

Summer Reading for Tired Catholic School Teachers

It’s summer and you’re excited, but you’re also super tired! Welcome to being a Catholic school teacher–or any school teacher, for that matter. Here are some books to uplift you, make you laugh, intrigue you, or help you improve your practice. I put calming books at the beginning of the list for winding down in June/July and more invigorating reads near the end to ready you to return to school…but don’t think about that now! 🙂

Also, I linked each title to a quick, easy & inexpensive place to order it–Half Price Books online, if possible; otherwise, Amazon.

In the School of the Holy Spirit–Fr. Jacques Philippe

This book is from one of the best spiritual masters, Fr. Jacques Philippe. He is an expert in coaching people on finding peace and hearing God’s voice. Take this to the lake and read it in the early morning by your lonesome, or throw it in your bag to take to Adoration some afternoon.

The Coddling of the American Mind–Gregg Lukianoff & Jonathan Haidt

Did your end-of-the-year rant end with, “Why won’t parents let their kids experience natural consequences?” Do you wish you could snowplow the snowplow parents and bulldoze the bulldozer parents? This book offers the science and psychology behind why kids are becoming less resilient, as well as how cognitive behavioral therapy can help to change their patterns of thinking. You can use the suggested strategies on yourself this summer and try offering some of them to your students as conflicts arise in the fall.

The Mindful Catholic: Finding God One Moment at a Time–Dr. Gregory Bottaro

Having trouble letting go of all the anxieties of the school year? This volume, recommended to me by an experienced spiritual director, is all about living in the moment without subscribing to some of the weird mindfulness practices out there. Jesus is present in the Eucharist and in the now. So if you’re like me and get tempted to use summer as a “catch up” season, take a deep breath and be. Just be.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking–Malcolm Gladwell

I think about this book regularly because of the degree to which it changed my awareness about intuition. Gladwell incorporates enticing psychological studies into his assertion of the brain’s capacity to work intensely, even when we don’t notice it. You’ll appreciate this book as a teacher but also as a spouse and parent. If you’re nervously anticipating an awkward grad party (aren’t almost all of them awkward?!), this book will give you lots of easy and interesting tidbits to share in those random conversations you’ll have at the sheet cake table.

Kristin Lavransdatter–Sigrid Undset

Looking for one book that you can read and delight in the entire summer and beyond? This classic will deepen your faith and make you want to travel to Norway, with its gorgeous landscapes and passionate people. Though set centuries ago, Kristin’s story will captivate you. Undset’s style is rich and nuanced; you will find yourself catching your breath at suspenseful vignettes, feeling with Kristin in her ache for God and His mercy, and settling into a family that will become your own over the course of this saga. You can buy it as a full trilogy; or, if you’d rather have a lighter beach bag, you could try one volume at a time. However, you’ll undoubtedly find yourself craving more pages and more tall glasses of lemonade on the side.

French Women Don’t Get Fat–Mireille Guiliano

This is the most feel-good eating book ever! It’s all about truly savoring your food in moderation and not using exercise as a form of punishment. If a flavorful dinner finished off with a glass of wine and a leisurely walk through town sounds refreshing to you, get this immediately.

Pearls Before Swine

Sounds holy, but it’s not. This is a compilation of comic strips, and it is awesome. When I was little and my dad would get home from the office, us kids would race to see who would get the paper first so that we could read the comics. I don’t think “Pearls Before Swine” was added to the page until I was a teen, but I absolutely savored it once it did arrive! If you like sarcastic humor and cute animals, you will relish this! Pro tip: Try not to read the whole book in one night…or if you do, be sure to mark your favorite pages with post-it notes so you can return to them frequently.

Consoling the Heart of Jesus–Fr. Michael Gaitley

If you ever look back at your day of teaching and say to yourself, “Well, bombed that one,” this book is for you. Fr. Michael Gaitley shows you how to give Jesus everything–failures and successes alike, in a marvellously unique and well-written mini-retreat. He suggests you do it over one weekend, but I usually take several weeks to ponder the contents during my morning prayer time. 

Things Fall Apart–Chinua Achebe

When you’re ready for some good literature that doesn’t feel as dry and difficult as some “good literature,” pick up Things Fall Apart. Neither long nor dense, this work of art will elicit tears, anger, or both. More importantly, it will awaken your compassion for the plight of native people who have everything to lose at the hands of their oppressors. Surprisingly, this is not too sad for a summer read, as you will likely find yourself in need of a dinner topic some night, and the plot is easy enough to explain to your friends you haven’t yet read it. You’ll be able to then dive into some deep questions about race, religion, identity, and hope…all of which are very applicable to our struggles today.

Unbroken A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption–Laura Hillenbrand

GAHHHH! This book is the BEST! An Olympic runner, a plane crash, sharks, a prison camp…all in one. I recommend this book all the time, especially to sophomore and junior boys looking for leisure reading. One caveat: The prison camp section is quite graphic, so if you are going to pass it on to one of your teens, do preview those chapters beforehand.

Ten Poems to Change Your Life Again & Again–Roger Housden

Okay, okay. I admit it. I’m an English teacher, but poetry is sometimes really dry for me. Roger Housden, however, opened my eyes to the power of modern, personalized commentary to bring life and meaning to poems both old and new. Rather than a volume chock-full of poems alone, this simply presents ten works of art and offers a light, thought-provoking essay after each one. It’s sort of like taking a guided tour through a museum rather than attempting to make sense of its treasures on your own. And if you like this compilation, Housden has other, similar titles…and they all have beautiful covers, so they can sit at the top of your front porch stack in all their glory.

Shirley–Charlotte Bronte

If you’ve read Jane Eyre, you know that Charlotte Bronte is a master. You probably haven’t heard of Shirley, though. Wait no longer–this delightful historical fiction piece is about strong women, farmers revolting against machine-makers, and a unique female friendship between two unlikely women. There’s also some romance sprinkled in for good taste. It does start out slow, but it’s worth the wait. If you root for the underdog, you will be enamored with Caroline Helstone. And if you like ambitious women, you’ll be the #1 fan of Shirley Keeldar. 

St. Dominic: Preacher of the Rosary and Founder of the Dominican Order–Mary Fabyan Windeatt

Pretty sure Mary Fabyan Windeatt wrote this for that doleful day in August when you wake up and realize that no, summer vacation will not last forever. Especially if this happens to you on August 8th, the feast of St. Dominic! Fervent about souls, the Gospel, and the adventures into which the Lord invites us, St. Dominic is the ultimate saint to get you revved up about education and evangelization! I know this is a children’s book, but what’s wrong with that?!

Proust & the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain–Maryanne Wolf

If you want to impress people, definitely bring this book to the pool! I’m not going to lie–I read this book during my honeymoon in Cabo last fall, and I was super proud of myself, although I’m sure absolutely no one around me cared! (I wasn’t ignoring my husband; I promise. He was very into Sudoku.) Seriously, though, this is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in a long time! It’s a cool combination of history, science, and psychology, and it helped me understand the struggles of all children in learning how to read, not just ones with diagnosed learning disabilities. Take this in small doses and with less alcohol than you might typically sip. Or perhaps that is an indication that you shouldn’t read it at the pool at all? 🙂

The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools–Archbishop Michael J. Miller

Another inspirational read in the week or two before workshops. Remember the love you had at first, as a young teacher, and return to that in your heart as you read these inspiring reflections on your vocation in one of the Church’s most necessary and formative apostolates!

Girls on the Edge/Boys Adrift–Dr. Leonard Sax

Get ready to nerd up! Both of these books, written by a doctor who has worked extensively with teenagers, are excellent. As a high school teacher and coach, I thought I knew what my students were going through, but Sax opened my eyes to many struggles beneath the surface for our beloved teenagers. Even if you’re not a middle school or high school teacher, you’ll still learn a wealth of information about the culture that all of our children are living and breathing. A great book for the plane, this integrates stories, principles and science in a very readable and engaging manner.

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