Today marks the beginning of Catholic Schools Week, a time set aside at the end of every January to celebrate the remarkable triumphs and successes of the Catholic school system across the United States. This week is always special to me, especially since I began attending Catholic schools at the ripe old age of 8 weeks old at the OLQH Early Childhood daycare center in Lake Charles, Louisiana. From there I went on to OLQH School, graduated from St. Louis Catholic High School in 2007, and then earned my B.A. in Theology from the University of Dallas, the Catholic University for Independent Thinkers, in 2011. I was raised in the Catholic school system and have never known anything else, but it was never my intention to become a Catholic school teacher myself…
I considered myself “too free” to be locked down by the structure of an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. classroom, nor did I like the idea of grading papers and quantifying success by a number logged in a grade book. Plus, I’m far more comfortable in jeans and t-shirts than in “business casual classroom attire.” But, here we are, three years into my unexpected teaching career and 160 plus 9th graders call me “Miss Prejean” every day.
In my brief, yet seemingly eternal, time in the classroom, here’s what I’ve figured out: I hate being a teacher. I love teaching. What’s the difference exactly? “Being a teacher” means my priority is the classroom. “Teaching” means my priority is the students.
While the difference is subtle and perhaps even unnoticeable to those not in the thick of the “school game” day by day, it has become glaringly obvious over the past three years that the purpose of education is not to force kids to memorize facts, but to form them into independent, critical thinkers that know what it means to be a person. It is not my job to just make sure they can write a coherent sentence so they’ll get accepted to a top-notch university. I should first focus on whether or not they’re decent human beings capable of carrying on a conversation with their elders and peers. Completing homework assignments shouldn’t be about earning points to boost a GPA. It should illustrate to the student the necessity of diligence and obedience in work. Taking a test is about making sure they know the information and the way it can be applied, not just a chance for them to regurgitate facts in rote fashion. If my students can recite the Beatitudes and list off the 10 Commandments from memory, they will pass my 9th grade Theology class. But if my students are not living the Beatitudes and abiding by the Commandments, then I have failed them as a teacher.
In a lecture at Yale University in 1943, Jacques Maritain said the following: “…the prime goal of education is the conquest of internal and spiritual freedom to be achieved by the individual person, or, in other words, his liberation through knowledge and wisdom, good will, and love.”
If our schools equip students to speak well, write thoroughly, solve equations, and recite facts, then our students have been taught to pass a test. And yes, while tests must be passed in order to survive, it is not the end all be all of education. The classroom must be in service to the formation of the human person, as a whole. If we can prepare our students to make a presentation and converse with a perfect stranger, write a 10 page paper on Gatsby and pray to the infinite God who wants to listen, solve the equation and find solutions to the numerous struggles they will face, perform the experiment and remember the information necessary to complete various tasks, in all walks of life…then, and only then, will the Catholic school have succeeded. Then we will have truly taught and not just “been a teacher.”
Earning a degree and getting a job and forming a career and making money are all important…but that comes and goes. The degree will fade in the frame, the job will end, the career will be over, and the money will be spent, all in service of what never stops: being a person. Personhood is a never ending experience, and forming good people should be the business of a teacher. The soul is eternal, and so as teachers, we must care for, protect, form, and pray for that soul to become what the Creator has always intended. The point of our Catholic schools, and the reason I get up every morning to teach in the same one I once attended, is to witness to and be a model of the Truth and to help form the young people within into saints. We must help them discover who they are, why they exist, and what matters most in life. We have the amazing opportunity to truly teach them, not just “be a teacher.”