TORONTO - The Basilian Fathers are working on a professional development curriculum for teachers that will focus on the distinctiveness of Catholic education.

“We are moving from being the teacher of the students to the teacher of the teachers,” said Fr. George Smith, C.S.B., who pitched the new curriculum at a Basilian conference held last March. “It’s easier for us to be the teachers of the teachers because there are fewer of them (than students).”

Using contemporary adult eduction techniques, which Smith described as “animation and facilitation,” the course aims to re-evangelize teachers, including those in administrative positions.

“We want to bring teachers together to explain what they do. Hear what is distinct about the school that we teach in,” said Smith. “It’s about empowering teachers to stand up and say ‘I’m a teacher in a Catholic school and here is why.’ ”

Expected to be ready for the fall of 2013, the curriculum will first appear in North America’s three Basilian-owned high schools: Toronto’s St. Michael’s College School, St. Thomas High School in Texas and Catholic Central High School in Detroit.

The curriculum will be explained to staff by two Basilian Fathers who will facilitate the program. They will be among 10 to be selected for the role during a Basilian conference in Houston in December.

During the professional development days, the Basilian facilitators will offer their opinion of what a Catholic education should be. The aim is to have teachers re-energized about their faith, which Smith said has become “lukewarm” for most.

In the paper he presented in January, Smith blamed advances in social communications, scientific and technical research, problems of globalization, new and emerging political, economic and religious forces and secularization for weakening the faith among teachers. By reigniting the teachers’ faith, Smith hopes to see a trickle-down effect throughout schools.

“I really see this as a wonderful example of the New Evangelization,” said Smith. “We’re trying to create an environment where children feel as if they’re in a community of faith.”

Although only Basilian schools will be offered this service at first, the intention is to make it available to publicly funded Catholic schools in the long run.

“When I look five years down the road I would like to see this (curriculum introduced) into areas with socio-economic challenges,” said Smith, calling this a preservation of the Basilian roots of educating the impoverished.

But this is about more than preserving Basilian ideologies, said Smith, referring to the “educational  emergency” of a Catholic school system that is growing weaker in the faith, a topic Pope Benedict XVI has often discussed.

“We are convinced that if our teachers don’t know why Catholic education is distinctive, then Catholic education will disappear in this country within a generation,” said Smith, adding that it’s the Catholic system’s attention to values which sets it apart.

School, parish, family come together to form a Catholic community

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Catholic schools exist to assist committed families and their parishes celebrate and live their faith in our communities. But people sometimes say this triad of school, church and family is no longer functional. Yes, it can be challenging to keep all the partners working in harmony, but it is a challenge we must never abandon because the result of failure is a weakening of our faith community.

When examining the early Church and how Jesus lived with His disciples we find six consistent elements of their life together. They were welcoming, celebrating, learning, reconciling, serving and praying with each other and the larger community. We must seek the same things in our parish-school relationships.

There are many teachers, parents and priests working to make this relationship more meaningful. It is a task the entire Catholic community must embrace if it is to achieve continuous improvement of our schools. At Vatican II, the Church shifted its emphasis from institution to community. Its Declaration on Education said a “Catholic school is distinguished by an attempt to build community, permeated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and love.” But this concept of community should never be truncated to just the local school. It must include the larger concept of community, embracing the parish, the school and the family. We cannot think of our Catholic community without recognizing that a community only exists if it includes all three of these pillars.

Building this community requires hard work and common sense. First, it obligates us to see the importance of this relationship and strive to make it work. It means abandoning traditional ways of doing things and not imposing our will on others (“thy will be done,” not my will be done.)

Second, let’s recognize our strength when we work together, acknowledging each other’s importance but not exclusive right. It is precisely because we form a partnership that we should be freed from the egoism and self-centred and controlling ways that often mark the secular world.

Finally, we need to seek opportunities to illustrate this partnership to students, teachers and parishioners. Our community must see the concrete ways this relationship can be made viable and enriching for all. We become stronger as a Catholic community when we give words to what we profess. But we must be mindful that this relationship is often fractured when adult concerns are imposed on our schools and when we ignore the unique role filled by Catholic schools.

The need for parish, school and home to work together has never been greater. Below are suggestions to help achieve that goal:

  • o At registration, principals should invite the parish priest to help greet new parents.  There should be a letter of welcome from the pastor as well as the principal, and recognition that registration is an opportunity to demonstrate to parents the importance of co-operation between parish, school and home.

  • o Meetings are a reality of modern life so make them productive. The local priest should be invited to address the faculty at one of their first meetings and the principal should be invited to speak to the Knights of Columbus, Catholic Women’s League or the parish council. Principals and pastors should meet quarterly, possibly over lunch or breakfast.

  • o Schools should be unwavering advocates for the parish and likewise the parish for its Catholic schools.

  • o While there may be issues of a larger nature confronting the school system or Church, work at improving one parish and one school at a time.

  • o Building relationships is essential, so even in large parishes one priest should be designated as the contact for each school and, likewise, the principal should be the main contact with the parish, not a chaplain, other school administrator or teacher.

  • o The parish bulletin should provide space each month for information about what is occurring in schools from a religious perspective, and the school newsletter should provide space for the pastor to provide information about the liturgical cycle, upcoming feast days, prayers, etc.

  • o Schools and parishes should work together on holding missions or retreat days that can include a talk by the local priest, student involvement and community prayer and fellowship.

  • o Create a pastoral plan in September that outlines events that the parish and school will do jointly and publish the calendar in the parish and school bulletins.

  • o Parishes should provide a bulletin board for schools to show off student achievements and share school news, and schools should do likewise for parishes to promote church events.

  • o All school newsletters should contain the parish Masses and organizations and all parish bulletins should contain school information.

  • o In the event of significant curriculum changes, school officials should discuss them with the priest, just as the priest should discuss with principals any new approaches to the celebration of the sacraments.

  • o Link parish youth ministers with the local school and work together on events and ministry.

  • o Priests should regularly proclaim from the pulpit the value of Catholic education, and become regular visitors to secondary schools. The local priest should not be a stranger to the community.

  • o School councils should have a parish rep to facilitate two-way communication, keeping the pastor informed on school matters and the school informed on parish issues.

  • o Vocation days or vocation weeks should be a hallmark of our schools. Schools should have a vocation plan beginning in elementary school that stresses lay vocations and the vocation to religious life.

  • o Schools should encourage faculty after-school retreats as a way for staff to link to the local parish and engage in prayer, socializing and sharing a common mission.

  • o Schools should consider holding drop-in Fridays, where a parish priest can drop by as school is dismissing to talk to staff. No agenda, just coffee, treats and dialogue between the staff and the priest.

  • o Involve the local school trustees by inviting them to meet with the Knights of Columbus and Catholic Women’s League, address the parish after Mass or speak at schools on an information night.

  • o The pastor and the principal should be on each other’s speed dial.

People looking for perfection in our Catholic homes, schools and churches will be horribly disappointed. They all are populated with struggling people. So make a list of complaints if you must, but then tear it up, because there is already too much to do and so much at stake.

(John B. Kostoff is the Director of Education for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board and the author of Auditing Our Schools.)