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.

When Our Students Suffer: How to Keep the Faith

A Meditation on Pope Benedict’s Address to Catholic Educators at The Catholic University of America

Address delivered on April 17, 2008

I can’t count the number of times that I have worried about a student. Maybe it was the high school freshman who worked so hard to hide the cut marks on his wrist, the student who slept during every study hall and any class she could get away with because she was dealing with untreated mental illness and an unsupportive family, or the sweet, insecure kids who dilly-dallied on their way to lunch because they didn’t feel welcome at any table. Gosh, they steal our hearts, don’t they? 

I’m pregnant now and expecting my first biological child, but I feel like I’ve been a spiritual mom to many, many kids over my past eight years in the classroom. My own mom, a teacher at heart although on never professionally, has often reminded me that the greatest suffering is Mary’s suffering: standing at the foot of the cross and watching her beloved Son die. Our Lady must have felt so powerless. Absolutely powerless.

“How have you made it this far?” I’ve asked some of my more well-seasoned colleagues, pros who have been teachers for decades. It’s hard for all of us to put words around what keeps us going when we’re powerless in the face of the suffering of the one we love, even if we’re not related by blood. Pope Benedict, in his address to Catholic Educators at the Catholic University of America in 2008, said it’s all about entrusting ourselves to God. And of course, in entrusting our own hearts to God, we can give Him everyone on our hearts, including our students and their families.

I love how Pope Benedict put it:

“Yet we all know, and observe with concern, the difficulty or reluctance many people have today in entrusting themselves to God. It is a complex phenomenon and one which I ponder continually. While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in – a participation in being itself”(9).

Yes. We are all scared to entrust ourselves to a God we can’t see or hear. Sometimes it’s almost impossible for us to believe that He is a good God when we see the most vulnerable get hurt, and yet Mary believed He was good always, even when she held her dead son in her arms. Meditating on the Pietà or praying the Stations of the Cross or Divine Mercy Chaplet offer us pathways into this deep, mysterious faith, a faith that is now gloriously radiant in the Queen of our Resurrected Lord, our Regina Caeli.  

As educators, it’s tempting to use our freedom to opt out rather than opt in, to hold our students and their families at an emotional arm’s length because there is so much to suffer when you teach and share life with twenty to 120 students. But no, we must freely choose to share their struggles with them. We’re not the Savior (and never will be, thank heavens!), but we know the Savior, and we can invite Him into whatever our spiritual children experience.

Pope Benedict closed his address by saying, “To all of you I say: bear witness to hope. Nourish your witness with prayer. Account for the hope that characterizes your lives (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) by living the truth which you propose to your students. Help them to know and love the One you have encountered, whose truth and goodness you have experienced with joy”(20). Yes, we must pray each morning so that we go to school nourished and ready to witness. We must let Jesus encounter us again and again, especially in the questions and the aches that accompany all parenting, spiritual and physical. And we must account for the hope that characterizes our lives; namely, that He has risen, He is alive, and He walks with us and our students every step of the way.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. “Meeting with Catholic Educators: Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI.” Apostolic Journey to the United States of America and Visit to the United Nations Organization Headquarters, 17 April 2018, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. Address.

*In-text citations refer to paragraph numbers added by this author for ease of location.
You may find the full address here: http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2008/april/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080417_cath-univ-washington.html

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