Sunday, July 13, 2008

Teaching Religion in a Catholic High School

Advice to new religion teachers

So we're a few weeks from opening school and new teacher in-services are taking place beginning next week.

As I prepare my remarks for these teachers, I am apt to reminisce. At the age of 23, with a graduate degree in theology from Notre Dame, I walked into my school--eager, idealistic, ready to change the world. That was 24 years ago. I met my wife in my first year of teaching, became principal at 27, school president at 39 and am now a "headmaster" at 46. Through it all, I've taught theology at least part time each semester, because more than any thing else, teaching high school kids thrills me, challenges me, and humbles me.

So what wisdom can I pass on, especially to teachers entering the field of theology or religion?

1) Be yourself.

I'm reminded of St. Francis' admonition: "Preach the gospel, and if you must, use words". Nothing matters more in our teaching of the faith than who we are as people, and few things will cripple us more than trying to be someone other than ourselves with the kids. Teens recognize phonies instantaneously, and dismiss what they say either out of disdain or (worse) apathy.

The temptation of a new teacher, especially a young one, is to "role play" as a teacher, and let this role pre-define who he is with teens. Well, in fact we DO play a role: It's not "Johnny" to the kids, but "Mr. Smith". We can't cheer at the high school games like we might have cheered at the college games (my wife taught me this quickly!), nor can we be our students' "best friends". But despite that role, we can still be ourselves within it. We should allow kids to see our sense of humor, we should be able to relax around them, banter back and forth about hobbies, opine about athletic teams, tease and cajole. Nothing has more power to change a classroom dynamic or improve my relationship with teens than if I laugh with them about a joke they've told, or a silly prank they've pulled. It's strange, but they don't expect laughter from a teacher. Be willing to be yourself.

2) Be professional.

We're at an initial disadvantage as high school religion teachers. Too often in their young lives as students, they've had religion teachers who have treated religion as touchy feely nonsense, or had textbooks with cutesy pictures and little substance (a friend once called it "butterfly theology"). I once asked my middle school age daughter what she had learned in religion, and she told me, with a derisive smile, "Love God, love each other, love God, love each other, love God, love each other..." So when students come to your class, you've got a credibility problem, right off the bat.

The temptation is to BLAST them right out of the water academically, just to show them that theology "is TOO as important as Math". But this isn't the way. Rather, make sure that what is being taught is substantial and factual, make sure that home work requirements are consistent with what other subjects require, that assessments are frequent and fair, that work is graded in a timely fashion, and that classes are well prepared and taught from beginning to end (nothing destroys the "value" of the subject matter in the students' eyes more quickly than teachers "shutting down" early. The message is the subject matter is important only when the teacher defines it to be so, rather than the teacher being in service to the subject matter). In short, teach religion as professionally as you can, as well as the best Math, Science or English teacher you've ever had. The kids will follow.

3) Aim toward sense, not sensation.

Implied in goal #2 above is a mistake that religion teachers make too frequently: they aim directly at the heart instead of the head. I believe effective high school teachers should aim at making sense and teaching content, and take the long view that the context of our teaching-- namely, a Catholic Christian community of adults who take their faith seriously, where prayer is frequent, opportunities for service abound, and yes, where religion is taught as a serious academic subject--will take hold of the heart. Designing exercises aimed directly at eliciting an emotional response discredits the class in a teenager's mind, and almost certainly in a teenage BOY'S mind.

In my mind, many textbooks and many theology classrooms suffer from a kind of schizophrenia about this exact issue: Is it my job, as a religion teacher, to lead kids to conversion? One must be nuanced in one's answer here. It's my job as a teacher working in a Catholic school community to lead kids to Christ, and as a person who is specially trained in theology, it’s my job to be particularly active within this community to foster practices that advance that goal. But my responsibility in the classroom toward this goal is the same as a Math teacher's: teach content!

One of the Catholic tradition's greatest strengths is our intellectual tradition. The underpinning of our tradition is "knowledge precedes love". That's why in some Christian traditions, one can become a Church member during a 10 minute altar call, but Catholics require a one to two year RCIA process, with lengthy instruction in the faith. Sadly, few Catholics know our intellectual tradition deeply enough to appreciate it. Years later, will they become like the seed placed in rocky soil, sprouting quickly but dying for lack of good roots? Our job is to give them roots, and that comes first through making sense.

4) What they say is more important than what you say

Here's what I mean: A wise mentor once told me that a common fault in religion classrooms is that teachers are "answering questions that students haven't even asked themselves yet". More simply, we should aim to be exceptionally good listeners. Most of us as teachers are better talkers than listeners! Listen carefully to the questions students ask, and treat these questions like they were GOLD. So, for example, rather than imposing a tightly structured, systematically sound, theologically accurate outline onto a "Catholic doctrine" class, for example, try to begin by asking students to write out any and all questions they have about their faith, and find a way of answering these questions in a systematic way. Work inductively when possible, rather than deductively. You'll find that much of what they've asked can be incorporated into a systematic outline, anyway, but you'll be answering THEIR questions as you go. Just be sure they recognize their questions as you go along!

5) Make it real.

Every book ever written about effective teaching has said as much, but here's your unique goal as a high school religion teacher: EVERYTHING you discuss needs to have a practical application, a connection to current events, a place in contemporary discussions, some information that can used, debated or discussed. In my view, a sound high school religion class talks a lot about current events, lyrics to songs, a T.V. show or current movie, an event at the school –all aimed to connect the content to something “real”. Compare, contrast and critique these things in light of what the Church believes, and allow (without trying to “force” the issue) the attractiveness of the Church's ideas, God’s grace, and the pull of the Catholic school community to "win" hearts over the long haul.

6) Stay close to the Lord

Thoughout your career, you will experience crises of confidence, exasperation, frustration, unreasonable parents, troubled teens, bad classes, poor liturgies. You will be misquoted, misrepresented and for some periods of time, mistrusted. But you will also get the unparalleled gift to see the world with wonder again, through the eyes of young people. You will be made a confidante by a young person seeking advice, feel the joy of a weak student who does well on an assignment, cheer for your students in athletic contests, beam with a near parents’ pride as your students graduate. In other words, to borrow a line from our armed services, “It’ll be the toughest job you’ll ever love”. To keep yourself rooted, to keep your ideas fresh, to be the kind of faithful person our young people need to see first hand in a world with such cause for cynicism, stay close to the Lord, both in your daily prayer and in the reception of the sacraments. If you do, the Lord will bless you in your work and you will go to bed each night exhausted, but with a smile on your face.