Bishop Conley: Silence is the deeper vocation of a teacher

Regional classical education conference inspires administrators and teachers

Therese Bussen

With the opening of Frassati Catholic Academy this fall, the continued success of Our Lady of Lourdes School, as well as the newly-added classical track at Bishop Machbeuf High School, interest in classical education is steadily growing in Denver — and the teachers and administrators who run them are pursuing learning just as much as their students in order to serve them better.

During the week of July 5-7, teachers and administrators attended the first Institute for Catholic Liberal Education western regional conference, hosted at Our Lady of Lourdes in Denver.

Bishop James D. Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., explained in the keynote that the Institute exists because “we believe education exists to form the whole human person, not just to prepare someone for a career, but to live freely and beautifully, as God intended them to be.”

He recalled how the 1967 document written by university presidents, “The Idea of the Catholic University,” more commonly called the “Land O’ Lakes Statement,” essentially made themselves “more identifiably American and less identifiably Catholic” in teaching and tradition. This, according to Bishop Conley, crumbled faithful education in the country, influencing even elementary and high schools.

But he is hopeful.

“If dissenting universities, actively distancing themselves from Catholic identity, can have an impact that profound on Catholic and civic culture, then faithful schools, alive to the best traditions and wisdom of the Church, and dedicated to forming disciples, can be an unparalleled instrument for the revitalization of Catholic culture,” Bishop Conley said.

“The work that you are doing, creating authentically Catholic schools, without question, will significantly impact the culture in the United States in the next 50 years,” he added.

But to change culture, which occurs when students’ lives are transformed, teachers must first embrace their unique vocation and know the Lord intimately.

“Teachers and administrators must first themselves be disciples of Jesus Christ. It means that prayer, silent communion with the Eucharistic Lord, is at the center of the vocation as a teacher. To effectively foster encounters with the living God, each one of you must cultivate a deep and abiding interior relationship, especially in the silence of prayer,” Bishop Conley said.

The work that you are doing, creating authentically Catholic schools, without question, will significantly impact the culture in the United States in the next 50 years.”

“All missionary activity, which seeks to foster encounters with the Lord, must begin in silence, in lives of intimate prayer before the Lord. This is especially true in education, where fostering an attitude of receptivity and humility and wonder is at the heart of your mission. If we want to cultivate an authentically Catholic and liberal school, which liberates us to know the Lord, we need to cultivate a spirituality of silence, which is at the heart of discipleship, listening to the master,” he continued.

When the teacher cultivates a receptivity to silence and wonder, which is the place of deepest and most authentic learning, it makes a teacher “fit to foster authentic transformation of students,” according to Bishop Conley.

This receptivity of silence and wonder is what allows us to really learn, to see reality as it truly is.

“True schools are communities of learners and faculties of friends, receiving and apprehending reality together. True communities of learners are humble disciples of the truth,” Bishop Conley said. “Pope St. John Paul II wrote, ‘Faced with the sacredness of life and the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.’”

Rosemary Anderson, principal of Our Lady of Lourdes school, continued the discussion on the vocation of the teacher in her address.

“Teaching is a vocation, not just a career. Many modern education programs are killing the spirit of the vocation…it’s an art form, not an equation,” Anderson said. “It’s a call of the heart to help form souls. Jesus asked to be called teacher, and we model ourselves after him.”

In an interview with Denver Catholic, Anderson said that this regional conference came at the perfect time.

“It’s divine providence that we’re hosting the conference, with the opening of Frassati Catholic Academy and Bishop Machebeuf adding a classical track, so there’s a lot of growing interest, and the goal is to help teachers grow deeper in knowledge of classical education,” Anderson said. “One of the primary goals is also to foster a sense of community within these schools to help their mission.”

Several teachers from Frassati Catholic Academy attended the conference and plan to take that inspiration to the classroom.

“I am really excited to help build the classical culture, as well as learn with the staff,” said Anthony Saulino, Frassati’s athletic director and P.E. teacher. “[The conference] impacted my teaching philosophy tremendously. It made me think how I can emphasize Jesus and our faith into my classroom more.”

COMING UP: Going crazy for classical education

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Going crazy for classical education

Bishop Machebeuf High School adds classical track, following trend

Therese Bussen

With Our Lady of Lourdes school’s wild success after implementing the classical education model, other Catholic schools are also taking the leap to try it out: Frassati Catholic Academy launches in August, and now, Bishop Machebeuf High School plans to open a classical track with the incoming freshman class this fall as well.

Deacon Marc Nestorick, principal of Bishop Machebeuf, said that after seeing its success in other schools, especially as it integrates so well with Catholicism, the high school wanted to follow suit.

“The classical track is something that the community has been discussing before I got here, and it complements the direction of where our school is going,” Nestorick said.

So far, five students are enrolled and they hope to enroll 15-20 when the doors are opened.

 

What’s so special about classical?

So what is it about the classical education model that works so well?

“I think integration makes a huge difference, the integration of faith with science and social studies…looking at it holistically is very appealing,” Nestorick said. “It’s focused on learning the truth, instead of how to get a job in the future. Learning is truly about coming to know and love God, and classical education really helps with that.”

Ryan O’Connor, assistant principal and theology teacher at Lourdes, believes that the growing trend of classical education in Denver is because this more holistic approach to learning produces tangible effects on the kids.

“One of the reasons I think the classical education trend is growing in Denver is we have a growing number of parents (and teachers/administrators) who are increasingly uncomfortable with the utilitarian approach to modern education (e.g., Common Core),” O’Connor said.  “They have a higher purpose in mind for their children, so they are naturally drawn to the original purpose of education, which is now called ‘classical.’”

“I think all the skills, reading, writing, thinking — a love for learning is the biggest thing, I think [in classical education]. It starts with the purpose of training human beings, not human-doings. It focuses on developing the human person,” O’Connor said.

There are many factors for the school’s success using the classical model, from the teachers that the school attracts who are on fire for their faith, to the structure of classical education itself and how it ignites a love for learning in students.

“It demands more of the teachers because [the curriculum] has to go through the mind of the teacher first…when teachers are on fire for Christ, it’s very contagious,” O’Connor said.

“The [students] enjoy the classes, it’s more discussion-based…when doing Socratic discussion…it’s just more effective, there’s more retention of information,” O’Connor continued. “Instead of saying, ‘Memorize it,’ we discuss it, and they remember it that way, and they behold the truth.”

Classical education, which has its roots in Greek and Roman learning methods and subjects, also aims to incorporate an appreciation for what the Greeks called “the Transcendentals”: truth, beauty and goodness. And the perfect integration of this philosophy is found in Catholicism.

“The Greek and Roman roots from classical education in fostering man’s natural aptitude for wisdom and integration…the only way that happens is through Jesus,” O’Connor said. “The Church’s vision for education is classical. The Catholic faith holds the framework for classical education, and truth, beauty and goodness is found in Jesus Christ.”

“Whether students come to behold a truth in math class, are inspired by heroic virtue in literature class, or are mesmerized by the order and beauty of nature in science class, these encounters with the Transcendentals are ultimately encounters with the person of Jesus Christ, who is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Incarnate,” O’Connor added.

 

Parents are seeing the difference

Orderly thinking, wonder, imagination, the joy – this is why it’s so successful with students — and their parents.

“My daughter is so much more aware…of developing a faith life that is based on Catholic doctrine…my own understanding has been strengthened by what she’s been doing in school,” said Joan VandenBurg, whose two children both attended Lourdes before the switch to the classical model. Her daughter, a fifth-grader, still attends.

“She’s a huge reader, and she loves Latin and talks about words all the time. She’s in the fifth grade and is reading Jane Austen and has the logic skills to understand [it],” VandenBurg said.

“When I look at her writing test compared to what my son had, who only had two years of the classical education [he was moved to a different school because of learning challenges]…her writing is much better. They do so much more scaffolding that supports [learning reading and writing],” VandenBurg said.

Liz Myers, whose son, Dominic, also attends Lourdes and is enrolled in Bishop Machebeuf’s classical track for next year, also spoke highly about the before-and-after effect.

Before attending Lourdes, Myers said, Dominic didn’t remember much of what he learned; but since the switch, she’s seen his “natural enthusiasm for learning” grow.

“I really like classical education because it’s all I can remember, and before [starting at Lourdes in 2011], I can’t remember anything [I learned],” Dominic said. “It’s not just a lecture…they let you be a part of it so that you can feel more accomplished.”

Accomplishment is one benefit, but ultimately, classical education teaches students how to grow in virtue.

“Virtue is the purpose of classical education, and of course, that’s in line with what the Church wants to do,” O’Connor said.

For more information on Bishop Machebeuf’s classical track, visit machebeuf.org/admissions/AdmissionsHome; for information and applications to Frassati Catholic Academy, visit gofrassati.org.