Browsing The Northern Cross

Schools: Creating an immersively Catholic environment in our schools 

By David Douglas 
Guest Columnist 

One of the hardest parts of running a Catholic school mission is to create an immersively Catholic environment, and the biggest piece of that is finding practicing Catholics willing and able to teach. 

For one thing, our parish schools are not well calibrated to the financial realities that go with the system that mints teaching licenses. With some variety, most new teachers will have a four-year degree that includes a licensing component. They may have earned an undergraduate degree, then decided afterwards to earn a teaching license through a focused licensing program like the one offered at St. Scholastica. Either way, the price of entry to the field for most teachers is significant debt. Even for teachers with interest in Catholic work, loans come due, and then it is hard to justify continuing employment at a parish mission where the salary is half what tax-funded state schools can offer. 

Furthermore, today in Minnesota a teaching license means that a person has been indoctrinated in very un-Catholic worldviews. The teachers who finish the program are the ones who, for whatever reason, have best managed to stomach these worldly ideologies. I meet promising university students who say they are leaving the teaching track because they feel it compromises them morally. That means the students I want most aren’t the ones getting licensed. It’s a pickle. 

Nevertheless, I see a few strategies to address the challenge. 

Number one: Pray as Jesus asked when he said, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest.” I pray a morning offering with the K-4 students at every morning assembly, including the intention that workers be raised up to bring in the plentiful harvest. 

Our pastor, Father Nick, leads a more specific prayer with our whole parish for the return of consecrated religious sisters to the community. The need for sisters can’t be overstated, but there is a chicken-and-egg component to it. Catholic school plays a role in their return. We must build immersively Catholic learning environments that invite children to fall in love with vocational thinking before we will see the return of vocations. 

Number two: Seek alternative ways of preparing teachers. Increasingly the Catholic educational world is providing us with resources to do this. When I encounter someone who is knowledgeable, conscientious, and also a practicing Catholic, I suggest considering Catholic school teaching. They object that they do not have a teaching license, but the key in Catholic education is to love and wish to serve Christ. Then, be sure you love children and love the idea of sharing the knowledge that builds toward a living relationship with truth. Never forget that the technology and sciences that bless the world so famously today came from the Western educational tradition that bore remarkable fruit for 2,500 years before the new secular teaching theories (which have not really improved even basic outcomes like literacy) began prioritizing licensing in the USA. 

Teaching is more of a craft than a profession; with proper guidance it can be learnt by doing; and as a Catholic you have the greatest intellectual heritage available in the world to draw from, which the public schools are not using. The Western tradition is a distinctly Catholic heritage. Learning about it and learning to teach from it are fun endeavors that we have developing programs and resources to support. 

Finally, every school should consistently study the blueprint for successful Catholic education that we have in the documents of the Holy See and should take the blueprints more seriously than we take any preconceived notions we have about how a school community ought to look. 

For example, Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, compiled a well-known compendium of Vatican documents on education, in which we find the simple observation that “The Gospel of Jesus Christ and his very person are to inspire and guide the Catholic school in every dimension of its life and activity.” We made a splash at Queen of Peace when we instituted daily Mass for students, but that should be unexceptional in the project of allowing his person to guide every aspect of the school’s life. 

Besides, what lessons do I teach if I tell students to believe that Christ is willing to come, truly and personally, every day, in our church, but on most school days it’s more important for them to be “doing something academic” while he comes? Fulton Sheen said, “Live what you believe or you will wind up believing what you live.” Showing up as a community at Mass when it’s available, as opposed to when it seems convenient, gives powerful witness to what we believe. That honors God and impacts kids. Since the sacrament is a real point of contact with grace, it also impacts adults — like teachers. 

Even if she has a faculty who is nominally or only partially Catholic themselves, a conscientious leader can promote a culture that presents Truth. The Mass is the best foundation. 

Other very accessible tools are the liturgical calendar and occasional use of Latin in prayers and chants, especially if the school can’t muster a full-scale language program. My teachers may not be personally interested in earning an indulgence for souls in purgatory on All Souls’ Day; they may not care if it’s the memorial of some minor saint like Turibius. But since I present the school as a Catholic cultural program, I can justify asking everyone to celebrate our calendar (and celebrate in a Catholic way if there are secular alternatives like Santa, groundhogs, leprechauns, or Easter bunnies). All it takes is willpower and Google. 

I say, “If you can imagine working at the Ojibwe school without complaining that students learn things the Ojibwe way, don’t use a different measure for our Catholic ways.” Even teachers who don’t identify with our culture personally should be able to support it on the level of basic professionalism. 

The best thing is that, over time, these culture-building observances change lives. The kids here love Jesus, and I have seen teachers become practicing Catholics because of our school. When school leaders put God at the center in the ways we can control, he provides for the things we cannot control. The Lord of the harvest hears our prayers. We see his blessing breaking forth in our schools, and from the schools to the whole life of the Catholic community, and then to the world. 

David Douglas is principal of Queen of Peace Catholic School.