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For Catholic school teachers, new credential program promises formation in faith and reason

October 13, 2021 Catholic News Agency 0
Participants in the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education’s Catholic Educator Formation and Credential Program at the headquarters of the Archdiocese of Denver. / Courtesy photo.

Denver, Colo., Oct 13, 2021 / 15:00 pm (CNA).

Catholic schools’ unique goals and qualities are the focus of a new program that aims to provide teachers with the formation and credentials for the task, and the Catholic schools of the Archdiocese of Denver are collaborating with the program.

“The men and women who have responded to a vocation in Catholic education deserve to be fed spiritually and intellectually to help them fulfill their ministerial role: to form joyful disciples of Jesus Christ,” Elizabeth Sullivan, executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, told CNA Oct. 12.

The institute and the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools on Oct. 7 announced the launch of the Catholic Educator Formation and Credential Program to help prepare “well-formed” Catholic school teachers.

Sullivan said the institute’s decades of teacher formation work have helped schools achieve renewal as “vibrant communities of faith and learning.”

“The credential program draws upon and expands this formation into an even deeper grounding in the riches of the Catholic intellectual tradition,” she said.

If new applicants for teaching positions in the Archdiocese of Denver Catholic Schools do not have a state teaching license, they can complete the formation and credential program instead.

The program consists of several requirements: five courses; two retreats or workshops; and supervised teaching over 18 months. Those who complete the program will receive the institute’s Catholic Educator Credential.

The pilot program launched in August with 28 participating teachers. The program aims to become nationally recognized, with its credentials recognized across dioceses. It draws on Church teaching on Catholic education, especially as presented in the book The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools, by Archbishop J. Michael Miller, C.S.B. of Vancouver.

The institute’s certification program aims to provide “a robust alternative to state teacher licensure that provides rich formation in the philosophy and practice of Catholic intellectual tradition, which is distinct from the secular approach,” Sullivan said.

“Many have not recognized that this pragmatic, utilitarian approach undermines the wonder and mystery at the heart of faith,” she told CNA. “In addition, contemporary education is failing to form students who can think well, speak well, and write well.”

Dr. Alyssan Barnes, the director of the institute’s credential program, said that the certification program teaches educators basics, including lesson planning, literacy instruction, and effective pedagogy. She said the program also goes beyond a utilitarian sense of “best practices” by “rooting these essentials in the human person made for holiness.”

“The Lord has called us to tend his sheep,” Barnes told CNA. “What we are doing in Catholic schools is exactly that: caring for the upcoming saints of the next generation. We believe these children need not only something more than what the public school is offering; they need a different paradigm to understand the world around them. We want to support their teachers so they can convey this gift.”

For Barnes, Catholic liberal education “puts the Christ as the Logos at the center” and all truths are “fragments of this Truth.”

“Our credential program seeks to recover the Catholic intellectual tradition of uniting faith and reason – a long tradition that has shaped our world for the better,” she said. “We grow educators in teaching skills, yes, but we also focus on something absolutely essential for the Catholic teacher: developing a sacramental imagination that sees truth as one, as accessible, as communicable.”

The formation program will help educators “fulfill their ministerial role and instill in their students the joyful hope that is the foundation for discipleship,” the joint statement from the Denver archdiocese’s schools and the institute said.

The Denver archdiocese has over 35 schools, about 800 teachers, and over 8,000 students.

The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, based in Ventura, Calif., was founded in 1999 with the goal of renewing Catholic education. It aims to promote “the Church’s vision and practice of liberal learning, which puts Jesus Christ, the Logos, at the center of the content, pedagogy, and school culture.”

Its president and founder, Michael J. Van Hecke, served as headmaster of St. Augustine Academy in Ventura for 20 years. The institute’s board of directors includes Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles; Father John Belmonte, S.J., Superintendent of Catholic Education for the Diocese of Venice in Florida; and Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Its board of advisors includes Archbishop Miller; Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect emeritus of the Apostolic Signatura; Bishop James Conley of Lincoln; and Sister Mary Anne Zuberbueler, O.P., principal of Mary Immaculate School in Dallas.


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‘A willingness to start with ‘yes’’: How one Catholic school graduated its first student with Down syndrome

September 13, 2021 Catholic News Agency 1
Pastor of St. Augustine’s, Fr. Peter Gori O.S.A. (right) and admissions director Paula O’Dea (left) hand Abby Aguedelo her diploma on graduation day. / Wendy Agudelo

Washington D.C., Sep 13, 2021 / 15:01 pm (CNA).

Tears flowed down the faces of Abigail “Abby” Agudelo’s classmates, as earlier this year she became the first student with Down syndrome to graduate from St. Augustine’s School in Andover, Massachusetts. 

“We know other parochial schools in Massachusetts are striving to do the same today,” Abby’s mother, Wendy Agudelo, told CNA in an interview in August. “And because of Abby’s experience, other families who desire a Catholic school education for all of their children, including those containing a family member with special needs, are now looking at parochial school education as opportunistic.”

Because of her own mother’s strong Catholic faith, Wendy Agudelo had always wanted a Catholic education for all of her children. She also hoped Abby would have an academic path with “full inclusion,” and would not be placed in a classroom separate from other students. 

After Abby’s time in public preschool, however, her mother was not certain of a combination of Catholic education and full classroom inclusion.

“We noticed a divide between what we wanted for Abigail and what the school felt she should receive given her diagnosis,” she said in an email to CNA. 

It was during Agudelo’s search for a school that then-St. Augustine principal Paula O’Dea and pastor Fr. Peter Gori O.S.A. stepped into the breach, and decided that St. Augustine’s would accommodate Abby’s needs. 

“When Abby and her wonderful parents first made their inquiry to us at St. Augustine School about enrolling, the principal and I were concerned that we might not have available all that Abby would need for a successful experience,” Gori told CNA in an email. “We and Abby’s parents all agreed to give it a try and that there would be no hard feelings if things didn’t work out.” 

Gori said that Abby’s parents were “right all along” in believing that Abby would thrive at St. Augustine’s. “We received from her as much or more than she did from us,” Gori said. “It was a delight and a blessing every day and every year to have Abby at St. Augustine School.”  

Wendy Agudelo told CNA that, in general, parochial schools may not have a significant amount of resources. She noted organizations that exist to educate and support parochial schools interested in broadening their demographics. She named the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion and the FIRE Foundation as a few examples of these groups.

“Not every parochial school, or administrator for that matter, is interested in this path,” Wendy Agudelo said. “It comes with its set of challenges, but also great reward.”

She said that those who choose the path that St. Augustine’s School chose “ultimately earn the greatest return on investment.” 

“Nine years ago,” Paula O’Dea told CNA, “we didn’t have any teachers with a moderate disabilities certification. Now, we have a lot of teachers with that as their second degree, and we’ll have two full-time special ed teachers on site.” O’Dea is currently admissions director for St. Augustine’s.

O’Dea, who was the school’s principal at the time of Abby’s entrance, believes that St. Augustine’s was the only elementary school in the Archdiocese of Boston to accept a student with Down syndrome.

She told CNA that in Abby’s time at public school, her parents observed her in the corner of the classroom with a special education teacher, “not really being included in anything in the classroom.”

When Abby first arrived at the school, O’Dea said the school decided that, in order to properly live out its Catholic mission, it needed to find ways to support any student who wanted to attend. 

The school partnered with local Merrimack College to hire a student studying moderate disabilities as a subsidized, full-time teacher to support Abby. O’Dea said the school’s decision was a success, because it was affordable and effective for Abby. St. Augustine continues to have a “Merrimack Fellow” today.

O’Dea said that hiring the Merrimack Fellow was “a very small investment financially for us to have such a great outcome in the end.” She says she would recommend it as an alternative to hiring a full-time special education teacher for the classroom. 

Abby’s parents said that they stood “shoulder to shoulder” with the administration and staff throughout Abby’s schooling. They encouraged teachers at every grade level to gain more professional development and experience with special needs through local conferences and workshops. 

While working full time, both of Abby’s parents spent much of their time at St. Augustine’s volunteering at Kindergarten centers, the lunchroom, as a chaperone on numerous field trips, and as active guild members helping to run events and fundraisers.

Wendy Agudelo said that partnering and collaborating with the school “every step of the way” bore amazing results.  

“In my opinion,” Agudelo said, “it’s not about available resources as much as it is a willingness to start with ‘yes’ and work together towards a shared goal.” 

“We’re not alone and believe that the more families know, the more armed with opportunity they become,” she said. “We’re very, very fortunate to have found such great academic partners for our children, but pepper in some serious faith and a sprinkling of compassion, and nothing is impossible!” 

“Abby’s achievement is very impressive,” said Thomas Carroll, superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, to CNA. “But the biggest impact is the effect she had on the entire school community.  They all were blessed to have her as a classmate or student.”


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Amy J. Cattapan looks to wisdom of the Gospels to combat teacher burnout in new book

August 25, 2021 Catholic News Agency 0
Detail from the cover of Amy Cattapan’s “Sweet Jesus, is it June Yet?” / null

Denver Newsroom, Aug 25, 2021 / 14:28 pm (CNA).

Amy J. Cattapan is entering her 26th year of teaching this year. In her book Sweet Jesus, Is It June Yet?, Cattapan shares how the Gospels can help teachers at any stage of their career fight burnout. CNA had a chance to learn about Cattapan’s experience as an educator, the inspiration for her book, and why teachers look with longing toward the month of June.

CNA: How long and in what capacity have you been teaching?

Amy J. Cattapan: I’ve been teaching for 25 years. I started as a high school teacher, and then 24 years now at middle school. I’m starting year number 26. 

CNA: What are some reasons you think teachers leave the profession?

AJC: Teachers leave the profession, I think, mostly because they are not feeling like they can be as effective as they had hoped when they entered the profession. We sometimes start out with unrealistic expectations for what we’re going to be able to accomplish. We might think we’re going to be the next Mr. Keating in Dead Poet’s Society, or Mr. Holland in Mr. Holland’s Opus. 

We get these ideas that our teaching careers are going to be glorious in the way that we can impact all the students. And while I think we do impact the students, a lot of our impacts, we don’t see right away.  

Then, simply the frustration of not always being able to do what we believe is in the best interest of our students. There are forces out there we can’t control. We can’t control if our students have a good environment to do their homework. We can’t control things that happen at a higher level in administration. I think that lack of control sometimes also leads to burnout. 

CNA: In your book, you share your own experiences as a teacher, offer scripture for inspiration, and conclude each section with reflection questions for the reader. Why did you set it up that way?  

AJC: I decided to prayerfully read through the Gospel of Mark during a five-day silent retreat. I was teaching full-time and working on my doctorate at the time, and I was feeling some of that burnout. As I was reading [the Gospel], I was looking for inspiration I could draw from as a teacher—from Jesus—the greatest teacher of all time. 

The book naturally became this series of Gospel reflections. Then, I hope the reflection questions at the end will help the reader see how they can relate my stories and the Gospel stories to their own teaching career.

CNA: Do you have plans to do a book club or discussion group, virtual or in-person, with the book? 

AJC: There are definitely schools where the principal bought the book for the entire staff, and are going to be reading through the book with the staff over the year. I’m certainly open to doing virtual book clubs with any groups of teachers who would want to. I also have a one-day retreat for teachers at the Bellarmine Jesuit Retreat House outside Chicago in February of next year to help teachers take a day of rest and reflect on their teaching. 

CNA: Thinking back on your first couple years as a teacher, what is something from your book that you wish you knew back then? 

AJC: I wish I knew that I didn’t have to do it all. I think, again, one of the reasons teachers burnout, especially in those first few years, is because we think we have to do everything. I’ve learned to let go and let God a bit more as I’ve gotten older. 

Also, learn to pray the serenity prayer as a teacher. Take that to heart—have the serenity to accept the things you cannot change. I can’t change everything for my students. I can’t control what happens when they leave my classroom, so I have to have serenity about that. But, also have courage to change the things that you can, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two. When do I just have to let it go and let God, and when do I have to have the courage to speak up and question the status quo?

CNA: The past year and a half has been especially challenging for teachers. What have you noticed about how the pandemic impacted teacher retention? What do you hope for teacher longevity in the future after a time like this?  

AJC: It’s definitely been a very hard time. I know some teachers who made the decision to retire because for health reasons they just couldn’t come back into the classroom. For those who have remained in the profession, it has been challenging. Some people think I wrote this book because of the pandemic—teachers were suffering from burnout before the pandemic. We now have burnout on top of burnout, which is really, really hard. 

I’m praying that with my book and with others who are reaching out to teachers and supporting them, that teachers can find the strength to keep going. Hopefully, by God’s grace, this will just improve us as educators by opening us up to new possibilities for education and giving us the courage to keep moving on.

CNA: Can you tell us a little bit about the actionable items you included in the book that could make it a better environment for teachers?  

AJC: There is a chapter in the book about how Jesus set the stage for learning. In that chapter, one of the things I talked about is the fact that he really got to know the people he was talking to, the people he was teaching. As teachers, if we’re really going to impact our students, we need to have relationships with them where we meet them where they are. We need to know how to speak to them. It’s about getting to know them and reaching them in a way that they’re going to understand, so that they can really grasp onto whatever the content is that we’re sharing with them.

CNA: It appears that there are some harder months as a teacher, notably October and February. How would you talk to a new teacher about what to expect in those months that are seemingly impossible to get through?

AJC: Many years ago, I had a principal who, during a faculty meeting in the middle of February, said, “Well, here we are in February, the armpit of the school year.” It’s a pretty terrible month. But you know, sometimes just joking about it helps. Now, I joke with teacher friends about it, and realize, okay, I’m aware that this is a tough time, but we’ll get through it. We’ll have March and April, and June will come eventually. 

That’s also why we scheduled the one-day retreat in February. It’s a terrible time of the year. We need a chance to get away, to do something different, and to spend a day not grading papers or planning lessons. Just like Jesus would do by going off to a mountain to pray right after he healed a bunch of people, we need to take those mountain-top moments too when we get into those “armpits of the school year” kind of moments. 

CNA: Is that how you came up with the title, Sweet Jesus, Is It June Yet?  

AJC: Sometimes we hit that point in the year where we mutter to ourselves, “Oh, sweet Jesus, isn’t it June yet?” We all get there in February. I wanted it to have a little bit of a humorous feel to it because I hope my stories come across as being a little humorous and lighthearted at times. One of the greatest ways we combat burnout, I think, is through a sense of humor. 

CNA: What are some daily routines or reminders that you would offer to teachers as a way to combat burnout? 

AJC: One thing I do is I always make sure to pray for my students, my coworkers, and everyone involved in education. Then, throughout the day, I try to offer it up whenever I have a challenging moment, to take a deep breath and say, “Ok, Lord, I’m not sure how to respond to this student right now, or I’m not sure what to say in this faculty meeting.” A quick little, “Come, Holy Spirit,” can really lift your spirits when you realize you’re not alone in the classroom. Jesus gave us the advocate. He gave us the Holy Spirit to help us, so call on Him.

CNA: How can teachers support other teachers?

AJC: We have to make time for adult conversations. We spend our days with the kids and we love them, but we also need to take time—even if it’s just five or 10 minutes—to seek out a coworker who you know is a positive influence and speak words of encouragement to each other. We need to connect with each other in that way.

For teachers who maybe aren’t in a great school situation, don’t be afraid to seek help outside of school. There are many professional learning communities online. There’s a great Twitter chat that happens on the first and third Saturdays of each month with the hashtag #catholicedchat. It’s a great group of teachers. 

CNA: What about non-teachers? How can people who aren’t teachers support teachers?

AJC: For non-teachers, give the teachers in your life some grace. When they come home and they’re exhausted and they can’t even talk about it, don’t take it personally. We appreciate it when people say, “All right, you’ve had a rough day, haven’t you?” Just give us some grace in those moments when we’re feeling burned out. 

CNA: Who is in your support circle? Who builds you up so you can keep going in your work? 

AJC: I’m fortunate in that I have a few different circles that I can turn to when I need support. Some of my family members are involved in education in different ways. I have coworkers I can go to, and I have teacher friends at other schools, which I think is really helpful too, to hear about what is happening at other schools. 

CNA: It’s clear that your book is a faith-based book. Do you see it going beyond Catholic and Christian education into secular schools as well? 

AJC: I think anybody who is familiar with the Bible stories or has an interest in Jesus would get something out of it. I’ve also heard of some homeschooling parents who were like, I want to check that out too. I think anyone who’s involved in any sort of education, any sort of teaching, whether it’s directly of the faith or just any kind of content. There’s a lot of burnout in lots of levels of education, and people are hungry for anything that will give them a little encouragement.