What Makes a Good Catholic Teacher?

Our excellent discussion on standardized tests and evaluating educational systems in foreign countries got me to thinking about the quality of teaching, both in the United States in general and in our Catholic school systems in particular. In the U.S.A., George Bush has been left behind and now we are engaged, like St.Paul, in a race, one called The Race To The Top. The White House offers us the hopes of President Obama regarding improved education for 2011:

"America will not succeed in the 21st century unless we do a far better job of educating our sons and daughters… And the race starts today.  I am issuing a challenge to our nation’s governors and school boards, principals and teachers, businesses and non-profits, parents and students: if you set and enforce rigorous and challenging standards and assessments; if you put outstanding teachers at the front of the classroom; if you turn around failing schools, your state can win a Race to the Top grant that will not only help students outcompete workers around the world, but let them fulfill their God-given potential.”

Advertisement

I don't think President Obama's words on rigor and standards get enough press, and I am happy to put them up here for everyone to see. He is also not quoted enough on how he believes that more must be expected of the students themselves in the inner city. Students and parents there—not just the educational system itself—need to be called to responsibility, and President Obama has included this in his messages on education.

While for education as a whole we can and will argue about "rigorous and challenging standards and assessment," how does one encourage and evaluate those qualities of teachers in Catholic elementary and high schools, colleges and universities—the qualities that go beyond skills and teaching a subject but are important in getting Christ's message across? I know a bit about rigorous and challenging standards of assessments in general, but wonder what kind of approaches can be used to identify, nurture, and reward those teachers in Catholic schools who not only teach their primary subject well but are examplars of the Catholic message?

I am going to ask our readers here to offer their thoughts about what makes a teacher in a Catholic school an outstanding Catholic school teacher—and how do we recognize these qualities in teachers who possess and demonstrate them? What are some of the qualities needed to teach those young children in the primary grades about the faith? (We can also add to the discussion important qualities in CCD teachers.) What qualities are needed to communicate the faith as well as subject mastery in those middle school years?

Many parents who are not Catholic place their children in Catholic schools for the excellence in achievement in subject matter. In this time of thinking about Cardinal Newman, how important is it for a teacher in a Catholic high school or college to communicate his or her faith if teaching subjects such as American History, Chemistry, or Calculus?

I look forward to reading your thoughts on this important topic. These questions have made me aware that it may be a much greater challenge to teach a subject with one's faith as something that needs to be interwoven effectively with an academic subject, so thanks and gratitude are offered to all who have chosen to work as Catholic educators.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Mazzella
6 years 11 months ago
Bill,

I submit that this is the wrong question. The reason is that we have not made our parishes true Christian communities. We are told we must attend Mass but are not taught how to intertwine our lives. We use the church as a social connection but everyone one is on their own in general. Paul taught that we must build up one another in the church. We meet on Sundays. When we are gifted with good homilies it helps. But we are in general. like people at a show. We bond temporarily while basically going separate ways.

Unfortunately, Catholic schools and CCD may be all we have. In that vein a dedicated teacher who stresses the beatitudes and the Magnificat is priceless. In one CCD class that I taught for seventh graders, we discussed why most young people will not stay in the church after they are in their twenties. One young woman said it is because they do not have ccd classes like this where they are inspired to celebrate with Jesus in the Eucharist.

Any teacher or preacher who has the opportunity to teach others about the faith has a unique privilege which is doubtless more beneficial for the preacher/teacher because it is in giving that we receive. 
Crystal Watson
6 years 11 months ago
This makes me think of the few times I went to an Anglican church when I was a kid - the children didn't go to the church services with the adults but attended Sunday School.  When I was in  RCIA class and began going to Mass, I was surprised to see children there. 
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Hi Bill,

I have been reading Paul lately and there certainly is a disconnnect bewteen what went on in the early Christian communities and now. Your discussion with the seventh graders was an HONEST one and that, I think, is something to put high up on the list of what makea a good Catholic teacher. Kudos to you for teaching CCD! bill
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
David,

A paradox...perhaps by not expecting much of the laity, it is possible to view things in a kinder and gentler manner.

When I took CCD, we all got out at 2:00 from the public school and walked a mile over to the Catholic school. We were never late.....no one was going to mess with those nuns!

I miss them, too. bill
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Crystal,

I used to sometimes to to a Presbyterian service with a friend, and there was a separate service going on for the kids. It was good for everyone. They also had Sunday School for the adults..it was an hour long, and challenging. I don't think I've ever seen that in a Catholic Church. Once I went to Mass in Harlem (good things do come about because of the Sunday obligation) and all the kids got up during the sermon and went off to CCD class. The singing was outstanding, too. bill
Jim McCrea
6 years 11 months ago
"Instead, have religion classes outside of school hours.  Buses could be provided."

The Mormons have been doing this for decades with their Institutes of Religion.  They are usually located as close to a public school as possible and their classes are outside of regular school time.

They seem to work for them.
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Vince,

Thanks for your input. So much effort seems to go into trying to figure out what makes effective college teaching, at least in the environments I've been in (and I've seen this effort pay off big dividents for everyone), that it seems worthwhile to me. Are there courses in
Catholic Universities's education departments on "becoming an effective Catholic teacher"? don't know, suspect not, wish there were. Glad that your state is still into Civic values and hope it lasts! best, bill
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Dear Vic,

I agree that Father Murray's words belong imprinted on 24-pound archival paper with a watermark and a classic typeface! I agree 100% with you about how teaching is similar to spiritual direction and how teachers must "initiate patience with the student's own experience of himself or herself." And as you note this goes way beyond learning all the facts in a catechism.

Somehow I like the use of the word "city". It implies that there is work to be done, while "church" or "home" do suggest to me there's more caretaking and "they always have to take you in" if you go there, as Robert Frost defined "home." But in a city, you earn your keep, and you have responsibilities to the commweal.

Very, very hard to do all this, and I suspect there are some undisocvered masters at Jesuit schools and other places from whom we can learn. Until then we'll keep plugging away. bill

amdg, bill
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Hi Jim,

Glad to hear that you have experience with one excellent Catholic school out there. Yes the $1,000 seems like alot and is alot for most of us but there are many famlies in our culture who are able to swing this and better spending on this than, say, super expensive vacations or autos.

Again, I like the bus idea. best and amdg, bill
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Hi David,

Ah, but it is nice to have an ideal on this topic! bill
Michael Cremin
6 years 11 months ago
My wife is a teacher at a Catholic middle school. She makes very little money (compared to a teacher, like myself, in a public school). She teaches five different courses (I teach one). She has no benefits to speak of (health care, retirement, union protections). She works with children who have severe special education needs and behavior issues; the school offers no services for these children. Her schools principal, a person who retired from a long career as a public school administrator, is essentially doing nothing at all.

Catholic schools were built on free labor: nuns, priest, brothers, who would did the work of teachers and administrators for essentially no pay. Now that the free labor has vanished, the schools ask teachers to do more and more for less and less renumeration. The quality of teachers, too, is very uneven, since you need not be licensed to work in a Catholic school. In some instances, this is no problem. In others? Not such a good thing. My oldest child attends the Pre-K program in the school, but once she is ready for the first grade, we are moving her to our local public school. The quality of education is simply better in the town where we live. As much as we like the sense of community...we aren't going to deny our kids a high quality math, science, and technology-based primary education.

But your question was about religion. She teaches that, too. The children take part in the life of the church. Their are crucifixes on the walls, statues of saints in the halls, and you can feel free to wish someone a Merry Christmas.

I don't see how this system will last much longer.
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Hi Michael,

Very, very sad for me to read your letter.

I was once on a Catholic School Board and there was a motion to cut some of the insurance. We Board members had just been asked to support "the Bishops" by signing some kind of Prof-Life affirmation (nothing wrong with this, in my mind, but let's take a stand on other things, too.). I said to everyone that it seemed hypocritical to me to be getting us to sign something like that while at the same time going against something Pope Leo said, that full-time wage earners should earn enough to support their family. The Board didn't make those cuts, at least on that day.

So to fit this to topic, it sounds like you are saying that it is very hard to be a "good" teacher in a system that does not offer reasonable financial renumeration. I would put this in bold face here, but am not sure how to do it.

With best wishes to your wife, whom I suspect is making a big difference in some young lives.

Your prognosis is that of a reasonable person.

bill
Marie Rehbein
6 years 11 months ago
"...more must be expected of the students themselves in the inner city. Students and parents there—not just the educational system itself—need to be called to responsibility..."

Bill, I agree that a lot of people undermine themselves, but those who live in the inner city have a culture surrounding them that is not encouraging.  I am afraid that those parents who hear President Obama's message will transform it into emotional abuse of the kind I saw this morning coming out of the mouth of the mother of that man who just became famous for being homeless and having a great speaking voice.  This is not to say that this woman was part of the inner city culture, but to say that an awful lot of parents do not know how to encourage their children and equate berating them with "calling them to responsibility".

If the Catholic school can do anything, it should be able to make the child feel loved.  However, that does not necessarily happen even though God's unconditional love is so much a part of Christian teaching.  My children still complain of the third grade teacher they had in Catholic school who was so nice when parents were around, but would tell the children that she didn't like them when there were no parents present.

On top of that, the Catholic school is more inclined to emphasize status symbols, like what colleges their alums get into, than it is to emphasize that their students should find careers or ways of life that they find meaningful and fulfilling.  My oldest son had very high SATs and the principal of his Catholic middle school expressed disappointment because he chose to go to the College of William and Mary.  I said that he was the only one in our family to be rejected by Harvard, which comforted her.  I did not say, he was the only one who ever applied.
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Hi Marie,

As you point out, there are some-too many-who will mistake setting "standards" as an excuse for cruelty or abuse. Yet, on the other hand, many feel that loewering standards because of this may become an excuse or even a justification for having an easier job to due. We see this debated everywhere that education is discussed! Sadly, as you point out, hypocrisies can be present in Catholic schools....best, bill
Marie Rehbein
6 years 11 months ago
Bill, I don't think standards alone are enough.  I think so many children do not have the emotional support they need in order to do well.  I think that meeting children's emotional needs allows them to indulge their natural curiosity and makes them better learners. 

I think this topic could also go in the direction of education as indoctrination.  Is the purpose of the Catholic education to create Catholics?  Is the purpose of public education, by comparison, not simply to create good citizens?

The question as to what makes a good Catholic teacher can be looked at from the perspective of the student, as in what kind of teacher leads to the student's learning the most, or from the perspective of the entity that is sponsoring the education, as in whether the students have absorbed the values of the sponsor.  Were you thinking in terms of the former or the latter in asking the question?
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Marie,

Perhaps one might say that one trait of an effective school teacher is to create an atmosphere where the child feels loved and accepted?  bill
Michelle Russell
6 years 11 months ago
I think first we should look just at what makes an outstanding teacher, for these qualities are going to be present in an outstanding Catholic teacher as well.  To my mind, the paramount quality is passion - teaching must be a calling, not just a job.  The passionate person inspires, excites, draws others toward themselves.  Haven't we all known at least one passionate teacher, whom we remember fondly?  Who perhaps changed our lives, our ways of thinking?  What if the teaching ranks were filled with passionate, charismatic teachers?  After passion, would come love of learning, and an ability to instill that love into others.  Then, naturally, love of the person/people being taught, being in this case children and young adults; the ability to encourage from that base of love.  Another important quality would be flexibility and acceptance of different ideas, concepts; out of the box thinking.  Last of all would be technical knowledge.  The Catholic school teacher should endeavor to instill the understanding of God's love and acceptance of all His children, and what that means for us as we live our own lives (age-appropriate, of course!); where our faith fits into each "subject" area, and how that faith informs our actions and our thoughts. 

How can one quantify this in order to reward and encourage the really outstanding teachers?  Is academic achievement the only marker of success?  Are test scores the be all and end all of what makes a good school or a good teacher?  I do think it is important that these are measured so that weak areas can be addressed and strong areas rewarded.  But is this the measure of what would truly be an "outstanding" teacher?  It is a part of it, to be sure, but there are many other intangible qualities which I am not sure how to measure or assess, but I think we know them when we see them.

I could go on, as this is a subject dear to my heart, but instead I will recommend two books, both by John Taylor Gatto:  Dumbing Us Down, and A Different Kind of Teacher.  I will close my thoughts with a quote from the latter book, which, I think, sums up my thoughts on what is learned from what we may call "outstanding teachers":

"To be educated is to understand yourself and others, to know your culture and that of others, your history and that of others, you religious outlook and that of others. If you miss out on this, you are always at the mercy of someone else to intrerpret what the facts of any situation mean."
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Michelle,

Wow! Great thoughts (and I hear an echo of what Marie noted, too)!

"The Catholic school teacher should endeavor to instill the understanding of God's love and acceptance of all His children, and what that means for us as we live our own lives (age-appropriate, of course!); where our faith fits into each "subject" area, and how that faith informs our actions and our thoughts."

In meditating upon what you have written, two Catholic teachers who I had come to mind. maybe I will write about them sometime.

best, bill


Crystal Watson
6 years 11 months ago
I didn't go to a Catholic school and if I was a parent, I don't think I'd send my child to one, in part because I'd worry about some of what they might be taught (do teachers in Catholic schools tell children that homosexuality is an intrinsic evil, for instance?).  All that I know of  Catholic schools is that, as Michael mentioned, the standards for becoming a teacher are much lower (as is the pay) at a Catholic school ... my boyfriend after college got a job teaching at one.  And also that  they seem to cost an arm and a leg to attend .... my friend from church must somehow each year gather the money to send her two grandchildren.

The teacher I loved best was a philosophy professor in college (not a Catholic college).  He gave us books to read like  James' Varieties of Religious Experience,  Augustine's Confessions, Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor, Plato's Republic, etc.  He was kind and supportive, honest and open-minded, and exemplified the virtues he taught.

I think that question Marie asked is a really important one - what is the primary goal of a Catholic education?  Does trying to turn people into good Catholics mean that the information taught is shaped with an agenda?
RUTH ANN PILNEY
6 years 11 months ago
What makes a good Catholic teacher?

The teacher ought to be a good human being, a good person.  Such a person is virtuous. 

The teacher must be Catholic.  This would be a good person who has been baptized and received all the sacraments of Initiation and any other sacraments that apply to their state in life.  He or she would practice the faith with integrity, and be striving to grow in the faith.

The teacher must teach well.  He or she would possess the skills needed in the subject-matter being taught, through education and experience.  Also, the good Catholic teacher would have the social skills to deal with the students in a caring way and to apply necessary discipline or control of the situation so the environment is conducive to learning.

The person I am trying to describe would be like this regardless of pay and benefits.  Those things are extrinsic to the actual qualities of the teacher and I think making more or less money would be irrelevant to the quality of the teaching and the quality of the teacher's character.

I think charisma is a personality trait, not a character trait.  Some have it.  Some don't.  I do not think charisma is required for a teacher to be a good teacher.  I think passion is a good quality for a teacher when it means enthusiam for the task of teaching and the ability to motivate the students to put forth consistent effort to learn.
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Crystal,

Rather than offering my thoughts on some of what I think are the "qualities" of a good Catholic teacher (and I have many), I thought I'd ask for some thoughts...and instead some of the discussion seems to be turning toward complaining about Catholic schools or even questioning why we have Catholic education.

So I'd like to redirect it back toward that point!

I think those qualities you mention....kind and supportive, honest and open minded...would certainly be among those. bill
we vnornm
6 years 11 months ago
Ruth Ann:

"He or she would be practice the faith with integrity, and be striving to grow in the faith." Yes, I have had CCD teachers and Catholic college teachers like that in my life, they were inspirations to me years ago and I still remember them today. And you wrote "practicing with integrity" which is much different than just talking about something. To combine this with teaching a topic well and being able to control the innumerable situations that come up in a classroom is a difficult task indeed. thanks, bill
Vince Killoran
6 years 11 months ago
An interesting question.  I'm not certain that, beyond expecting to be paid below average salaries and the boiler-plate contract language to be a good Catholic role model, much thought has gone into this issue. The exception may be the programs in many Jesuit high schools to educate its lay teachers in Ignatian spirituality.

I have found the CCD teachers at our parish to be very nice people who are not very good teachers. They are vetted by the pastor for assurance that they toe a narrow, conservative line in the classroom.

BTW, David's argument that "[p]ublic schools are no longer allowed or expected to teach civic values" doesn't ring true in my state.  "Civic values" is the centerpiece of social studies education.  Political and religious critics, homeschooling an cyber-schooling forces, and the pressing demands of standardized testings, however, makes it increasingly difficult.
Jim McCrea
6 years 11 months ago
I know of a young girl (aged 7) who goes to a Catholic school for $1,000 per month.  (Dont' scream - the parents can afford it and there is a large number of kids there on virtually free ride scholarships.)  She is bright and is being challenged substantially at the school.  And, yes, she is getting her "Catholic ABCs" there, too.  Her mother is a nominal Catholic and her father claims to be Buddhist, but I think he is just religiously lazy.  They both seem to understand that this is the kind of education that they want for her.  In this case the school is good and there for her.  It's an affluent suburban school in a parish of 3,500 families (can that still be called a parish rather than a mini-diocese?) and they have lavished major dollars on the school, the teachers, state of the art teaching aids, including computers.

I don't know how that stacks up against other Catholic schools, but I suspect that it is an exception to the broader rule.
Lindsay Blevins
6 years 10 months ago
I noticed this article after posting on the one for the assignment and I find it very interesting. I attending Catholic schoolf or 10 years, the same school my mother now teaches at. I completely agree that Catholic schools are often on the same level at private school. Many non-Catholic parents did send their children to our school for the academic opportunities. I had one teacher in particular whom I consider a Saint. There is a joke around school that she had a secret bed some where because you will always find her there doing something to better the school or the church. She went above and beyond the duties required of a teacher; certainly beyond what she was getting paid for. My mother once made a good point: Catholic School teachers are rarely paid even close to those who teach in a public school. The budgets are just no where near those of schools funded by tax dollars. These teacher usually choose to be at Catholic schools for the environment and attention to faith and accept a smaller paycheck to do so. I have had many teachers who paid for things for classroom activities and field trips themselves. I've had teachers who have given up an enormous amount of personal time to lead extracurricular activities because no one else would and there was barely any money to sponsor them in the first place. This is not to say that teachers in public schools don't do the same, however, in Catholic school I have personally experienced amazing teachers who have dedicated their lives to live in God's image and lead children toward being good and kind adults.
Christine Castellana
6 years 10 months ago
I was raised Catholic, but went to public school. I did have the opportunity to attend CCD classes for those years leading up to my Confirmation.  I learned best from the teachers who showed compassion for the students and who were not afraid to admit their own flaws.  I also liked how they taught without using scare tactics, with the exception of maybe ONE teacher.

Now, since I have never been to Catholic school, I really do not know what it is like.  I have talked to older people who went during the 30s and 50s and it sounds pretty frightening!! I've heard about the nuns slapping the children across the face and pulling on ears and really hurting the kids. If I had that happen to me, I'd probably be turned off from Catholicism for the rest of my life! Its 2011 though, so I am sure that is now completely different.

But to get back to the point, I will like to share my thoughts on how a Catholic school teacher should be when teaching subjects like History, Calculus, etc.

I believe that the teacher should focus on the task at hand and have 90% of the lecture be solely about the topic. The parents of these children have the goal in mind to send their kids to college, so the kids have to be competent in these fields.  The teacher could incorporate the teachings of Jesus in some way, perhaps asking the class what they think Jesus would think of a particular topic, or maybe ask the class if they can draw any parrallels between the topic and the Bible.  If it's a Math class, maybe a word problem could be worded in a particular way that could spark a discussion relating to Catholicism. It shouldn't be over the top, though. The students will get their fix of theology elsewhere in the curriculum. For example, some classes are hard enough as it is, like Physics and Chemistry. Adding in some Catholicism could get downright confusing!

I think in order for a Catholic school teacher to truly be respected by the students, they should be compassionate, caring, and honest with their students.  I admire those people the most. Sometimes, young Catholics have a negative view of adults (mean teachers, strict parents) because they feel as if Catholicism is being forced on them in an authoritarian kind of way- that is how I felt at least growing up sometimes. I truly am interested in my faith when it is presented to me and discussed with me from a person who cares about humanity and who truly loves the Church. Any teacher with a warm heart would benefit the students. Cold-hearted teachers may turn the students away.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Pope Francis waves as he arrives to lead his general audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Dec. 13. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)
"We don't go to Mass to give something to God, but to receive from him that which we truly need."
A reflection for the second Thursday of Advent
Elizabeth Kirkland CahillDecember 13, 2017
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" hits theaters on Dec. 15th.
Jason WelleDecember 13, 2017
I never wanted to be a priest. But here I am. Newly minted Father Brendan, and still wondering how I got here.
Brendan BusseDecember 13, 2017