While I have spent most of my teaching career in Catholic Education systems in Saskatchewan and Alberta, I did not grow up attending Catholic schools. I was one of those people who didn’t discover that sense of “it just feels different” in a Catholic school until I began my teaching career at Father Gorman School in Lloydminster. Now don’t get me wrong – I had a wonderful upbringing in rural Saskatchewan. My little school was not a Catholic school but I loved it with all my heart. And the truth is, I always felt I was “very Catholic” based on my connection with our little church, St. Mary’s. Many of my memories of growing up are tied to that church. We attended Sunday Mass and gathered for fall suppers, wedding receptions, and potlucks after the celebration of First Communion and Confirmation. While I always proudly identified myself as a Catholic, I can see now that I basically grew up as a “Sunday Catholic.” Going to Mass was non-negotiable and my mom and dad saw to it that all of my siblings and I received all of our Sacraments. I said my nighttime prayers and we had books about Jesus in our home, along with a crucifix and religious statues. Beyond that though, I don’t remember thinking a lot about my faith on a daily basis.
My first taste of Catholic Education came in 1986 when I started my teaching career and I quickly “got it.” For children who are blessed to go to Catholic schools, they are immersed in their faith every day. I learned how blessed my students were to be able to pray together every day. They got to know God more deeply because we could read the Word of God together. My students learned to serve their brothers and sisters through acts of social service and social justice. Perhaps most importantly, they had the opportunity to celebrate the Eucharist at our school Masses. These experiences, and so many more, happen in every Catholic school in Alberta.
In our Catholic schools today, our students are not living a “Sunday Catholic” kind of life. They are learning to know our faith deeply and they live their faith every single day. I can think of no better description of what is happening in our Catholic schools than with the words from the Gospel of Matthew. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before human beings, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Our students are the light – they are shining brightly every day, not just on Sundays, because of the good and holy work that is happening in our Catholic schools. I am proud to be part of the story.
Written by Joann Bartley, Director of Religious Education
Holy Spirit Catholic School Division
Then, after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. Luke 2:46
Of all the stained-glass windows we have at St. Mary’s University here in Calgary my favourite may well be an image of the Christ child with the ‘doctors’ of the temple (Luke 2:41-52) which is installed in our Library, St. Basil’s Hall. As a youngster this was always among my preferred stories, both because it showed a 12-year-old Jesus going off on his own, stressing out his parents the way I always did mine, and then having an impact, intellectually, with adults. It was more than that, of course, but back then, as a child, I was struck by the confirmation that kids might have a place in the greater scheme of things, and that even though we didn’t have the power of Divine inspiration, God could speak through a young person on matters of importance. Young people mattered, and they had a voice.
Clearly, the depth of the liturgical moment was lost on me, and there is so much else to understand about this passage of the Bible. But my childhood delight in this story wasn’t completely wrong either. And it’s especially relevant in the context of Education. Jesus is listening to the elders of the church, but also asking questions, even advancing new knowledge. Here is Jesus boldly interrogating the established tradition and communicating deep truths in a context where he was unquestionably underestimated. This in an environment where he would normally be dismissed, taken for granted or expected to be silent. I would like to think that, despite his divinity, it took courage and incredible self-belief to do what he did.
There is another important aspect of this lovely story. In re-reading Luke, we can see that the child Jesus is in conversation with the rabbis. Here is the Christ child initiating what we might now call a Socratic dialogue. And here are the rabbis modeling good teaching, listening to and valuing the opinions of the child. Here, more than ever is a powerful story that teachers can and must remember to learn from their charges — that learning is a two-way street.
In a speech to our in-coming Education students, I used this example to frame their anticipated journey. I discussed the extraordinary gift that their future profession lays out for them, but one that will not be without its challenges and hurdles. I noted that there would be days when they would feel entirely unprepared for what they had to do, ‘when you will feel more like a cop than a teacher, an exhausted guardian rather than an inspired motivator.’
But the reality is that the work they will be doing if it’s fed from the heart, has the potential to transform and uplift like few other professions in this world. Their students will represent all aspects of society, and they will need love, inspiration, discipline, and humour. The students may feign disinterest while secretly marvelling at the world the teachers are opening up for them — even though they might not be able to tell them that in the moment because it wouldn’t be cool. They will find, as I did, that the letters of thanks come years, sometimes even decades later, by students who were inspired by them, but who have only just put the pieces together.
The reality, of course, is that prospective student teachers need to be prepared for the classroom, mind, body and spirit. They need to have real-world experience, but also a wide context to understand the diversity of experience that they will face. It is the job of a university to do just that: to offer depth and breadth, context and meaning, the chance to succeed and even at times to fail. Of all things, perhaps compassion is the most important thing for all teachers to take into their classrooms because we live now, more than ever, in a wounded world.
As a consequence of this preparation, though, when they go out into the real world they will be amazing: in their knowledge, in their passion for ideas, and in what they are prepared to give back to their students and their community. It will be important for them to identify some strong role models early on so that they have a base of reference — especially when the going gets tough. And to my mind, there can be no role model more inspirational than the child in that stained-glass window. When our new teachers do get into the classroom, they should do what Jesus did in his: speak truth to power; challenge established ideas; understand the rules but not follow them blindly and inflexibly; and inspire people to look at the world through a different lens, with heart, with passion and with commitment. If they do that, their success is guaranteed.
By: Dr. Gerry Turcotte, President & Vice-Chancellor of St. Mary's University
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers