More than just a (big) talking cat

Teaching in a Catholic school allows teachers to link faith and academics


by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Why teach in a Catholic school? It can be as simple as seeing Aslan as more than a big, talking pussy cat.

Tonia Helm, now a teacher at Holy Cross School in Overland Park, taught for two years at a public school.

“I was teaching at a Kansas City, Kan., school and reading ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ to my students,” said Helm, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade students. “I couldn’t make any of the connections I wanted to make. It was really hard to not say anything about Aslan and Christ.”

As many people know, the lion Aslan in C.S. Lewis’ famous book is a metaphor for Christ. In Catholic schools, teachers are free to make the connection clear, but in pubic schools, Jesus is persona non grata.

Catholic schools also give teachers the opportunity to relate their personal faith to their teaching.

“So, [for example], when I’m teaching ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ I can talk about how racism is not only illegal, but also, as Catholics, we know that it is wrong,” said Helm. “It’s immoral, and we don’t treat people that way.”

“It’s been so much more natural to be a teacher [here] because I can interrelate what I’m teaching to my faith and the faith of the students,” Helm continued. “What it ends up doing is building strong bonds between the teacher and the student, because you’re relating to one another — not just on an academic level, but an emotional and spiritual level as well.”

Catholic school teachers are quick to praise their dedicated and talented colleagues in public schools. They will readily acknowledge that there are many good public schools.

But the fact remains that there is something big missing in a public school education: God. An education without God is an incomplete education — which leads to an incomplete person. That’s why many choose to teach at Catholic schools.

“I teach in a Catholic school because it’s a privilege, and I’ve always looked at it that way,” said Sharon Kenagy, technology coordinator at Most Pure Heart of Mary School in Topeka.

“In Catholic schools you teach the whole child,” she continued. “You can teach them about their faith. You live the faith, as does everyone around you. It just makes it so easy to be the best you can be.”

Prayer is one of the big reasons why some teachers choose Catholic schools. Kenagy remembered her first grandson’s reaction after his first day at a public school.

“Due to a family relocation, his Catholic education had to pause briefly,” said Kenagy. “When he jumped in the car after his first day [in first grade] at the new public school, he announced indignantly, ‘Mom, they did not pray at lunch!’”

In Catholic schools, academic and spiritual aspects walk hand in hand, said Claudia Feeney, a first-grade teacher at Christ the King School in Topeka.

“The main thing is the idea that you can learn and pray together at the same time,” said Fenney, an 18-year veteran educator. “You don’t have to separate the spiritual and academic life. They are entwined, as they should be.”

One thing Fenney really appreciates is that, as a Catholic school teacher, she can use prayer to introduce calm.

“We do it all the time,” she said. “If we have a bad day, we can stop and pray. It gives a sense of peace to pray with the students in class. It reminds me of what we are [preparing] these students for. We want them not only to have a successful life, but eternal happiness. That’s the really long-term goal for Catholic education.”

Catholic school teachers can ask the question, “What would God think?” said Nancy Henning, a first-grade teacher at Atchison Catholic Elementary School.

“You can also use the power of prayer to help a child realize that if they have a problem with something, they can always use prayer to ask God for help,” said Henning, an educator for 26 years. “You can use prayer [to comfort them] if they have a problem in their life, like a divorce or death, or a catastrophe.”

But Catholic school teachers don’t do it alone. They are quick to voice their appreciation for the high level of parental support and participation. “It’s nice to have the support of the community,” said Helm.

“It’s nice to work in and live in our community, and it’s nice to know what’s going on in people’s lives. Holy Cross is a welcoming community, and we really look out for each other.”

It is their common values that give rise to this support.

“It’s the Catholic values we are teaching [that are] totally supported by the Catholic families,” said Kenagy.

It’s true that public schools have more resources, but Catholic schools get the job done and always find a way, the teachers said. What Catholic schools may lack in resources, however, they make up for in resourcefulness.

“We can do things that you can’t do in public schools,” said Kenagy. “We’re not tied down with all their rules and regulations. If a better program comes out, we can go ahead and implement it. It’s just easier without the red tape.”

Probably at the heart of the question of ‘why teach at a Catholic school’ is vocation. These teachers are not just professional educators, but committed Christians who know the ultimate purpose.

“Everything we do needs to be in that greater context of faith,” said Helm. “Our end goal is heaven.”

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