My first time teaching religious education was as a 22 year old, living at home with my parents after college, working in my first (miserable) full-time job and trying to plan a wedding remotely with no friends within a 45 mile radius. I was looking forward to a bright spot in my week of sharing Jesus with sweet rosy-cheeked children as we sang songs and read bible stories.
And then I got the call….I had been assigned to sixth graders. Trying to fake my own death was not an option at the time, but believe me it crossed my mind. The images of my sixth grade year were haunting enough to last me a lifetime, and I could not believe that God might think I’d be capable to revisit this point in time, the height of all my own insecurities. Is it possible for God to be desperate?
I summoned my courage and went to an old Religious Education building in Houston, flicked on the lights in a classroom and took a look around. I looked at the empty tables and chairs, took a deep breath, and said a prayer.
My Dad was a former Jesuit who taught at Catholic Universities and my Mom was a DRE. And with that as my own background, I figured I’d just wing it. ( Bad idea, by the way). Totally underestimating my need to plan ahead, I hadn’t even cracked open the book yet for the first class. (I know!!!) A group of sixth graders tumbled in at 7pm laughing with each other and taking no notice of me. I wonder, will they smell my fear? Would I land on something soft if I tried to jump out the second story window?
Clearing my voice I introduced myself and say, “I thought we might begin with a prayer, and then I have an activity for us to do together.” People are still talking, pulling up chairs and gathering in groups. Social hour has officially begun. I try again, loudly, more animatedly, and move about the room a little. People start to look up at me, some quiet down.
I think to myself “Hey, I’ve watched the movie Stand and Deliver, surely I can figure out how to teach a rowdy bunch of middle schoolers.” I begin drawing a picture on the board (by the way, I can’t draw). Some less than favorable commentary in hushed tones is being shared across the room about my drawing. I don’t blame them, but I keep that to myself and continue. I hand a piece of chalk to a student and ask them to find a way to represent the second day of creation. I assign another student to open the bible and begin reading Genesis. The mural continues on the chalkboard as the story of creation is being read. A boy is still cutting up in the back, so I pick up the bible and hand it to him and ask him to finish the chapter.
The bell rings, everyone runs out, one girl did a cartwheel. No one says goodbye, or thank you. I thank God for letting me live to see another day. And I return the following week, this time with a prepared lesson plan.
I’d be exaggerating if I said that as soon as I had lesson plans, I had much more success than my preferred ad lib style, or that the kids suddenly respected my newly-established authority and we instantly bonded. The truth is, I often came home with my stomach in knots after having to discipline for an entire hour, and the next morning I was often a heart beat away from calling the kind, frazzled DRE and saying “find me a replacement, you got the wrong girl.” I came to dread Tuesday nights at 7pm with all the stress in my life at that time.
My parents advised me to hang in there, and gave me some constructive feedback. Despite my imminent mental breakdown, I did not want to abandon those kids. I knew if I left they’d have to cancel the class. I took my concerns to prayer and God revealed to me what I already knew. The kids were not “bad.” I was just ill-prepared. I had no formal teaching experience, and I thought I could just come in and be fun and loving and that would be enough to grip their attention so that I could feed them the faith. Not so.
I reached out of my shell and began to network with other catechists and asked for some advice. I came up with a few cool incentives for good behavior. When I figured out how to cut through a few barriers, I was finally able to do the part I loved – to engage the kids and share our faith. I loved watching them react to the stories of the saints, and hearing their questions after I explained parts of the Mass (many times having to look up answers myself in real time – pre-smart phone era). Some had not even opened a bible before, many did not even know the Our Father. I assigned prayer pals and the transformation over a few months was astounding. My eyes were opened in ways that they needed to be opened. I thought about these kids as the week toiled on, in my purgatorial 8-5 job, as I was making phone calls to arrange wedding details. They became the bright spot I always imagined they would be.
A mere 12 years later, I’ve grown in my knowledge of our faith and learned a great deal from working alongside experienced teachers, and I’ve even been able to use my studies of the Psychology of learning and early childhood development. Each year there is a new mystery of our faith to ponder, a beautiful breakthrough to be had, an opportunity to touch a child’s heart and mind and make a profound impact on their life.
Most Catechists do not have formal backgrounds in education and theology, but that should not deter practicing Catholics from accepting the call to share the legacy of our faith. For many of these children, this is their only exposure to the bible, to love and to Jesus. Many of us are worried about the time commitment with our busy family schedules, but God always provides what we need when we are faithful, and blesses us even more. The Body of Christ needs you!
Beth Cowles, an educator and DRE at St. Anthony’s Parish in Bryan, Tx gives these tips to her Catechists at the beginning of each year.
- Love God: not just the general “I love God, because He is God”, but an actual relationship, actively loving God – your call to be a catechist didn’t happen by accident!
- Pray: for yourself, your family, your students, their parents, that God will speak through you; pray with your students…not just Our Father, Hail Mary, etc., ask them for their intentions…it will give you insight into their little minds/lives more than a class discussion!
- Love the kids: not all of them are easy to love, love them anyway.
- Introduce yourself to the parents: it’s much easier to get things accomplished in 1-1.5 hours if parents know you and you know them.
- Plan your lesson ahead of time: not 30 min before class starts, but at least 4 days before…give yourself time to ruminate on your plan and time to allow the Gospel to work itself into the plan. (If you teach on Wed. nights, then a Sunday afternoon planning time is perfect. If you teach on Sundays…plan a week ahead…Sunday afternoons are still perfect planning times!)
“Keep in mind you are not alone in your ministry! The CRE, DRE, Faith Formation coordinator, or whatever name they give that person in your parish, has many resources for you to utilize. Ask other catechists for help. Ask your pastor. Ask your spouse. Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened. Jesus is there for you…He may take on the guise of anyone of the above mentioned people who are ready and willing to be there for you,” Cowles says.
Parishes often offer workshops to help catechists improve their knowledge of classroom management, network with other catechists and find inspiration for ideas. If your parish does not, you may be able to travel to a nearby church, and bring some friends too!
If you have not already, please prayerfully consider giving to your parish family by signing up to be a Catechist, a substitute or support the program by providing snacks and materials. The precious future of our Church is in our hands, and we need to own that future.
We’d love to hear your comments, experiences and favorite resources in the comments section!