Tools for back to school

As Catholics, we know that "we are called to evangelize" and we must learn to discern when there is an opportunity to share our faith, especially in public schools.

Jennifer Elizabeth Terranova-September 10, 2023-Reading time: 4 minutes
Back to school

(Unsplash / Kenny Eliason)

For many colleges and universities, the Fall 2023 semester has already begun; however, Catholic and public schools start this week.

Parochial schools teach basic subjects like math, science, English, and religion, and, naturally, are expected to catechize, encourage students to pray the Rosary and contribute to the religious formation of students that is in accordance with the principles of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Contrarily, public schools and colleges are discouraged from speaking about God and cannot explicitly teach pupils about Jesus.

So how do teachers who are faithful followers of Christ bring His spirit into their classrooms and keep Him in their hearts?

Both public schools and Catholic ones have the support of principals, administrators, and countless other experts, but blessed are they who have the helper, the advocate, Jesus Christ, to lead their flock. While that does not guarantee an academic year without problems, it is comforting for Catholic teachers and students to know that our Lord is on hand.

In addition, they have priests, religious, and nuns to assist and guide everyone during the school season. Sr. Mary Grace Walsh, ASCJ, Ph.D., is the Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of New York and offers some advice to parents as their children embark upon a new school year. "We stand ready in assisting parents in their primary role of educating their children. That is critical to us as Catholic school leaders. And we are ready to accompany them in their formation, in their faith formation, and also to reach academic excellence in all of our schools." Experts' support is essential, but teachers must do their own 'homework' as well.

A few tips

Whether you are a veteran or a novice, a teacher of religion or traditional subjects, you should never cease learning, especially from peers. In his book, "The Catechist's Toolbox: How to Thrive as a Religious Education Teacher," Joe Paprocki, a former Catholic school teacher, offers tips, most of which can be applied by educators everywhere. Here is some advice for overt and covert catechists:

  1. Get to know the names of your participants.
  2. Arrive early and set up so they are entering an experience.
  3. Create a climate of prayer.
  4. Don't do all the talking.
  5. Incorporate variety (music, video, activities, small group, technology, etc.).
  6. Keep participants engaged from the moment they arrive.
  7. Go in with one big idea.
  8. Faithfully and fully impart our Church tradition.
  9. Pay attention to your own formation and grow as a catechist.
  10. Remember that you are not a teacher of a subject but a facilitator of an encounter.

While some tips mentioned above are unequivocally applicable in any classroom, others seem impermissible in secular ones. But as Catholics, we know that "we are called to evangelize" and must learn to discern when there is an opportunity to share one's faith, especially in public school settings.

In many urban cities throughout the United States, the student body is more diverse than ever: elementary, high schools, and community colleges are home to students of various ethnicities and religions. However, the unspoken rule at most public institutions for educators is to 'keep your religion out of the classroom- and to yourself.' But do feel free to talk about anything contrary to Catholic and Christian doctrine, which can seem akin to denouncing yourself and your identity. But Christians can thrive and remain faithful to Christ's teachings without imposing religion on their students.

Creativity in the classroom

An excellent way to incorporate some Catholic 101 into the classroom is to ask students to share their faith stories or that of their parents, grandparents, or lack thereof. In a public school and college, bringing the subject of religion up can be scary as we live in a cancel culture. However, remember that not all students are opposed to discussing these things, and they are generally open-minded and expect to be exposed to divergent viewpoints.

Creativity is vital when including any subject in the curriculum.

Teachers can require that students keep a journal of positive quotes and have them create a vision board that they will present to the class. Here is where your faith can make its appearance. Make a deal with your class: you will present your board and discuss it in detail. This is an opportunity to share your favorite Bible verses and discuss the content on your board that could reflect your faith, and how you have achieved your goals with God’s help. Remember, we are missionaries, especially in the classroom!

In a history class, have students research Mary, Joseph, and any of your favorite saints. Their virtues, character traits, and obedience to God can be part of a lesson plan, and Operation Evangelize Discreetly is underway. Non-Catholic students are often intrigued and impressed by characters in the Bible, and the students who grew up Catholic but are not practicing are reminded of their birthright.

No fear of rejection

Sometimes, there will be resistance and overt rejection. 

A few years ago, I was asked to be on the Italian Heritage Committee at a college where I still teach. The theme was Immigration. Each member was asked to propose an idea to encapsulate the Italian-American immigration story. I knew immediately that I would suggest Mother Cabrini. After all, the student body consists of 69 American, Indian/Native American, 4,804 Black/African American, 2,442 Asian, and a whopping 8,243 Hispanic students. When I submitted my proposal and reasons, I was given a cold "no." When I asked why, I was told it might be "offensive" to some of our students because Mother Cabrini was Catholic. Frances Xavier Cabrini was a devout Catholic, but her dedication to her vocation is noteworthy and admirable. She was also an immigrant who faced hardships, but her perseverance, strength, and commitment to communities worldwide transformed Italians, Americans, and many countless lives.

She didn't make it into Italian Heritage Month, but she, like our Lord, appears in all my courses every semester, somehow--some way! 

Whether you are a Catholic school teacher or an educator in a public school, remember that Jesus is the best tool for school!

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