Teaching as a vocation means joy in work

Freedom to foster faith, serve the whole person, makes Catholic education meaningful ministry

Roxanne King

Pay for teachers in Catholic schools is traditionally less than that of their colleagues in public schools so parochial school educators aren’t there for the money. Rather, they’ll tell you they feel called to and love this ministry—it’s their vocation.

The Denver Archdiocese’s vision document, Worthy of the Name, describes the vocation to teach in a Catholic school as “a calling that God gives to those whom he wants to play a vital role in helping parents, who are the first teachers of their children, form their children so that they may become saints.”

Acknowledging the academic excellence Catholic schools are known for, Worthy of the Name urges educators to communicate real Christian wisdom and virtue in teaching by helping students understand a subject’s proper place in their lives and how it points to the universal truths of creation, thereby fostering a love for learning and drawing them into closer union with God, “the source and end of all virtue and knowledge.”

Below, four longtime Catholic school educators share how what they do is a vocation, not just a job.

Fostering discipleship

Twenty-five year teacher David Good has taught theology—primarily Scripture and Catholic morality—at Holy Family High School in Broomfield for 24 years. Prior to arriving to Holy Family, he taught one year at an American Catholic school in Rome.

“I’ve always felt this is where God wants me to be,” Good said. “It’s a calling I have. I love to share my passion for Scripture with the next generation.”

Seeing how God’s word resonates with his students’ hearts and minds above the catechesis of the world gives him great satisfaction, Good said.

Holy Family High School theology teacher Dave Good has been teaching there for 24 years. Good said his career as a teacher is more than just a job; it’s a calling. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

“Catholic school teachers are united and connected to the kids as disciples,” he said. “In this environment you’re free to talk about your discipleship. You can boldly talk about your whole person, not just your area of expertise. That’s true whether you teach math, science or religion. That’s an important part of connecting with kids. You’re allowed to freely express yourself and your religion.”

For 23 years, Good has also served as head coach for the school’s cross-country team, building the program up to a perennial state championship contender. There, he nurtured his athletes’ spiritual lives as well.

“I’ve always thought that’s an extra vehicle to reach kids and help them grow into the person that God is calling them to be,” he said.

Over the years, Good has also participated in retreats, pilgrimages, service projects and mission trips for students to nurture and deepen their relationship with Christ.

“I have the best job in the world,” Good said. “It’s really a privilege to do this. I can’t think of doing anything else.”

Living the Beatitudes

Educator Deb Roberts has spent the bulk of her 32-year career in the Denver Archdiocese, the last eight years as principal at the inner-city school Annunciation.

“This is my ministry,” she said. “We’re working toward getting these kids to heaven, that’s our ultimate goal.”

Worthy of the Name urges educators to be disciple-teachers who have been transformed by meeting Christ and, out of love for Jesus and his Church, make following him the highest priority of their life and inspire others to do the same.

“That’s so true,” Roberts said, “and it’s our responsibility as Catholic educators to make that come alive. One of the best compliments I ever received was from someone who said, ‘When you walk around this building you feel like you’re bumping into Jesus all over the place!’

“In our school we try to live out the Beatitudes on a daily basis—to look out for the least of our brothers,” she said.

One of the best compliments I ever received was from someone who said, ‘When you walk around this building you feel like you’re bumping into Jesus all over the place!’”

Noting that many of the school’s families have a median income of just $26,000 a year (the Department of Health and Human Services US federal poverty guidelines for 2018 for a family of four is $25,100), Roberts said students are given opportunities to help the poorest of the poor.

“Our children go to the soup kitchen and serve those who don’t have anything,” she said.

Foundational to Annunciation’s mission is the belief that a challenging and holistic education is the most powerful tool to help students transform their futures, their families, and the community at large. Implementing that is challenging, but worthwhile, Roberts said.

“Our mission statement says we are committed to serve, to learn and to love—and to live these with the integrity that Jesus did,” she said. “We’re preparing our future leaders; we want them to be strong and we want our faith to be on fire in them, that they are taking care of each other and our environment.”

Doing God’s work

Forty-year educator Kathy Byrnes has spent 30 years in two schools of the Denver Archdiocese—the last five as principal at St. Louis School in Louisville and the previous 25 at Sts. Peter and Paul in Wheat Ridge. She has also taught in North Carolina and New York.

“Teaching in a Catholic school really is a calling,” Byrnes said. “We could make more money in public schools, but that’s not where my heart is.

“The value of being in a Catholic school has always been right at the core of my being. I’ve always believed in its importance and I wanted to be a part of that.”

The ability to share the teachings of the Catholic Church, the sacraments and the liturgy with students is a blessing, Byrnes said.

After serving in Denver Catholic schools for 30 years, Kathy Byrnes continues to do God’s work of helping every student reach their full potential, now as principal of St. Louis School in Louisville. (Photo by Jason Weinrich)

“Especially in today’s world, things can look hopeless to students and they can feel like there’s no solution,” she said. “With God, there’s hope in every situation. Christ is the light that carries us through the dark times.”

Partnering with parents to help each child reach their full potential, spiritually, emotionally, academically and socially is a huge responsibility, she said.

“We have to be worthy of the name ‘Catholic school,’” Byrnes said. “We have to walk the talk. Our mission is being brothers and sisters and being there for each other and living our faith every day. … It’s true that children learn what they live and live what they learn.”

Setting high academic standards, instilling personal virtue, and fostering stewardship and service prepares students for assuming their role as future leaders—and finding their own call, Byrnes said.

“I feel that I’ve been called to do God’s work,” she said, “and it’s such a gift that that is what I keep on doing.”

Forming ambassadors for Christ

Kindergarten teacher Alexis Grose has taught 56 years in Catholic schools in several states and the Holy Land, the last 31 years in the Denver Archdiocese. After 20 years at Our Lady of Lourdes School, in 2007 she moved to All Souls, where she continues today.

“I do what I love and I love what I do here at All Souls,” Grose said. “I love the Lord very, very much and I want to instill that in the little ones.”

The vocation of being a Catholic school teacher, she said, “is something you hold deep in your heart.”

“I’m excited every day to get to school,” Grose said. “I get there early to prepare, especially to center the children around the presence of Jesus. The academics are very important, but we try to also develop an excitement about the holy.”

Grose taught first grade for 46 years, and initially did so at All Souls, but in 2010 she made the switch to kindergarten.

“I felt like Abraham getting a tent and moving on,” she said. “I’m loving it!”

Alexis Grose has been teaching for 56 years. She currently teaches kindergarten at All Souls Catholic School, where she is excited every day to instill her love for the Lord in the little ones. (Photo provided)

Married to a retired Russian Orthodox archpriest, Grose prays with icons—a devotion she shares with her students—and is a master in the Russian Byzantine tradition of iconography. Last year, for the school’s annual fundraiser, she wrote an icon of Christ the Teacher.

It was fitting, as making her students aware of Jesus’ love for them and nurturing in them a genuine relationship with Christ and an eagerness to share him with others, is at the forefront of her own teaching.

“We are all called to evangelize,” she said, adding that she has an image in her classroom that says, “I can be the presence of Jesus,” to remind the children that they too are “ambassadors” for Christ.

Former students have come back to thank her not only for teaching them the basics of education, but also for helping them to know Christ.

“My family says, ‘When are you going to quit?’” Grose said with a laugh. “I just got my teaching contract and I said, One more year!”

COMING UP: Standing among patriots for Catholic Schools Week

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Jay Clark is the executive director of Seeds of Hope.

It was certainly not as dramatic, perilous or historic, but I could not help but feel a little like I was among a band of brothers (and sisters) staring down the British Army in the movie The Patriot as I was standing among of all of our school principals at the monthly Office of Catholic Schools Principals meeting a few weeks ago. No, they were not preparing for battle in a literal sense, but I was in the midst of a group of intensely committed, singularly-focused professionals as they worked together to make their schools better and make each other better at their craft.

The reason an old Mel Gibson movie came to mind is these principals are amazing leaders who every day love, support and defend what it means to be Catholic in our schools, embodying the definition of being “a patriot” of the Church.

While I have never walked a mile in their shoes, I have learned by observation in my brief stint with Seeds of Hope (I just passed my six-month anniversary) that being a Catholic school principal means having to wear a countless number of different hats, having an unshakeable faith the Lord will provide, and having a desire to create a faith-filled, better world for their students.

One of the perks of my gig with Seeds of Hope is having unfettered access to our principals and their schools. In my visits to the schools, it is commonplace to find a principal taking care of or handling something that you would not expect to see the leader of a school doing, but that is exactly why they are such great leaders – they lead by example, doing whatever needs to be done. I have caught principals setting up cones for car lines, hanging student artwork in the hallways, clearing plates off tables between lunch groups, walking students down the aisle at Mass and wiping out the staff refrigerator and many other “it just needs to be done” type things. The principals serve as coaches and mentors for their staffs, shepherds and disciplinarians to their students, confidants and advisors to their parents and “faces” of their schools to their local community. And just when you think they could not possibly find another hat to wear, helping with Sunday school or singing in the big Christmas show will come along.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of being one of our school principals is always needing to find ways to do more with less. Whether it be hustling for new furniture, new books, new technology or building repairs, the principals are constantly prioritizing a “wish list” where new items are always replacing ones checked off the list.

I have seen behind the principals’ unshakable sense of duty lies a commitment to the purposes of helping their students become disciples of Jesus Christ. Step inside any of our schools and you can immediately feel Jesus as the central figure. As I heard a wise man say recently about our schools, “Heaven first, Harvard second,” which is exactly the tone and environment our principals set. In today’s increasingly secular world, this is cause for celebration and truly is what makes our schools special in a competitive marketplace.

Through the inspiration from our principals, I am convinced the best is yet to come for our Catholic schools. With the new tuition model we will roll out to a limited number of schools for the 2018-19 academic year, and the expansion of our “Hope Scholarships” program (stay tuned for more details), more families will have the ability to benefit from the transformative experience of a Catholic education while being shepherded by some of the Church’s greatest patriots.