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Academics and Faith Go Together, Says Head of NCEA
Mark Haney
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Saturday, September 11, 2010
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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (CNS)—As the new school year gets under way, Catholic educators may wonder if academics or faith should get more emphasis in the classroom.

Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association, believes the two should go hand in hand.

"My big question is how can we talk about Catholic identity and excellent academics in the same sentence, the same paragraph," she said in an Aug. 30 address to nearly 500 educators at the Diocese of Grand Rapids' back-to-school kickoff at Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids.

Ristau urged the group of staff members and pastors from Catholic schools to remember that their schools promote "a Catholic way of life" and should "cultivate a sense of awe and gratitude, a desire for truth, an ability to continue learning about the world and the knowledge that we are especially loved by God."

"We want young people to learn that this is how we do things, this is how we live," she added.

Ristau told her listeners that Catholic education has changed since she and many others in the room attended Catholic schools and certainly since Catholic Central became the nation's first private coeducational high school in 1906. Where religious once dominated the classrooms, she said, now 96 percent of teachers in Catholic schools are laypeople.

Today these teachers fall into three categories, she said: those who chose to teach in a Catholic school and consider their job a vocation; those who came to teach in a Catholic school because they needed a job but now love it and also consider it a vocation; and those who thought they wanted to teach, so have landed at a Catholic school but will be gone when a better job comes along, either in a public school or somewhere else.

She asked the educators to think about why they teach in a Catholic school, telling them that she believes "the answer is crucial to your personal sanity and morale. Why are you teaching in a Catholic school?"

"Your students probably should know your answer because it is essentially important to them that you articulate why you are doing what you are doing," Ristau said.

"Students and parents are not inspired by neutrality, by teachers and administrators sitting in neutral. They are looking for your excitement and passion," she noted. But she also said excitement and compassion are not enough and that schools need to be vibrant and current to reach today's students.

"Complaining can be heard in various places," she said, "questioning whether we even teach children cursive handwriting anymore. We would be laughed out of our profession if our schools did not use computers and the many ways technology can help us learn."

"We need to be up-to-date. Our teaching methods, our programming, our communication needs to be appropriate to our times. ... Do not hesitate to find appropriate ways to meet today's young people," she continued. "We have a powerful message and wonderful knowledge to share and we need to search to find ways to engage young people so they hear us."

Catholic educators, Ristau said, must always remember the image of Christ as the good shepherd and must model themselves after him in their life and in the classroom.

"We are asked to be shepherds in our own way," she said, "to look after God's people, to teach them how to live in the world, to share and celebrate the good news, But people, the reality is shepherding can be hard. It can be difficult. It can be messy. And it can be lonely."

She encouraged the teachers to find meaning in their work by taking time to reflect on their important role.

"You are a sacrament to your students," she stressed. "You are making the Word real to them in the lives they live right now."

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