Five Ways for Catholic School Enthusiasts to Thrive in the New School Year

In the middle of the third quarter of the 2014-2015 school year, I sat down and started to write a book of daily reflections for teachers in Catholic schools. In a whirlwind of output, I managed to finish it around four months later, in the middle of the summer of 2015, and Called to Teach will be released early next month. I specifically began writing the book during the third quarter because this is traditionally the most challenging quarter, for the reasons that I have detailed here, and I wanted to challenge myself so that my advice was hopefully clear and meaningful. At the time, I was preparing to begin my tenth academic year (2015-2016) of teaching theology and Spanish at my alma mater (Class of 2000), Bishop McNamara High School, and I felt that I had amassed many experiences and noticed multiple factors by way of observations regarding what it means to teach in a Catholic school.

Thus, this piece is an attempt for me to offer some repackaged advice in the form of five pointers, in the hope that the coming school year will provide the setting through which you can participate in your school’s Christ-centered mission of drawing your students closer to the Lord, and making the world a better place in the process. As the title hopefully indicates, this piece is directed to all members of any Catholic school community, particularly educators and parents of children in Catholic schools nationwide. (For that matter, students can read this as well – your teacher will probably not even quiz you on it [unless you have Mr. McClain]!) Whether you are in a K-12 setting or a university setting, this advice will hopefully benefit you. It will hopefully likewise benefit home-schoolers, of which I have the privilege of knowing many, including my dear wife and our children. Like it or not, the summer is coming to a halt, and we must gear up for the new school year. Here are five pieces of advice for how to succeed in 2016-2017 and beyond.

1.) Read something new.

“Behold, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5). Make spiritual reading, particularly the Bible, part of your daily routine. My personal scriptural regimen to become more and more familiar with the Word of God is to read a chapter from one of the four Gospels in the morning, a chapter from the remainder of the New Testament during my lunch break, and a chapter from the Old Testament at night. Although I personally prefer to read a physical Bible, if you have a suitable electronic device, you always have access to the Sacred Scriptures, such as on the USCCB’s website here. Of course, you should supplement your reading of the Bible with other resources, as well as other healthy literature on a wide array of topics – after all, we have to dialogue with the world by bringing our faith into it. What about if you perceive that you do not have enough time to read? As reinforced by renowned psychologist and professor Dr. Daniel Willingham, “yes, you do.”

2.) Balance self-denial and self-care.

“If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Despite the modern-day claims to the contrary, suffering is a part of life. Many – easily, most – saints are in heaven precisely because they knew how to suffer and to attach their difficult circumstances to the Cross. Look at the lives of figures such as St. Thérèse of Lisieux, [soon-to-be] St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Pope John Paul II, and numerous other saints who could have easily entered into despair in the midst of the physical, mental, and even spiritual trials that they endured. At the same time, we must take care of ourselves. Whether you are a teacher or a parent, you will be ineffective if you are run down, drained, and mired in burnout. Work on striking that delicate yet critical balance between selflessly serving others and working to ensure that you are actually capable of continuing to do so.

3.) Make the effort to be grateful.

“Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good…” (Psalm 107:1). Those who are the most fulfilled in life are not those who have the most, whether in the form of money, power, pleasure, influence, or any other factor. Rather, those who are the most fulfilled are the most generous and the most grateful. People will not necessarily appreciate your generosity or gratitude, but you will reap many spiritual rewards by having the goal of expressing gratitude on every occasion. Is there a friend, colleague, associate, parent, or teacher whom you need to thank? If so, what is holding you back?

4.) Do not try to do it all.

“I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Philippians 4:13). The adage that “you can do it all” is as false as Lent is long (especially when you have given up strawberry ice cream). In St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, he was referring to remaining steadfast in the spiritual life and having confidence to carry out that which God has called you to perform. He did not mean that a teacher can stay awake for all hours of the night binge-watching on Netflix and then hope to be able to grade two-hundred essays by first period, or that a student can be failing all quarter due to not studying and then expect a miracle to occur when it comes time to take the end-of-the-quarter examination. We must accept our own legitimate limitations. We cannot participate in (or lead) every sport, club, or other extra-curricular activity. Nor can we please everyone. Learning to say “no” is a life skill, especially when it means that we are more physically and mentally – not to mention spiritually, which should be a given – available to others (see #3), serving the kingdom of God in the process.

5.) Pray more than you work.

“Martha, burdened with much serving, came to [Jesus] and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.’ The Lord said to her in reply, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her’” (Luke 10:40-42). I could provide a lengthy discourse on this topic, but at the time I am writing this, it is late, and I have to go pray before bed, so I will be brief: Martha’s sister Mary was essentially “praying,” which is quietly spending time in the Lord’s presence. Opting to pray is perhaps the most counter-cultural decision that we can make, because our productivity-driven, materialistic, what-can-you-do-for-me society pretends that it never has time to stop. Yet, in the midst of it, we recall the words of the most effective Teacher of all: “Then [Jesus] told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Luke 18:1). Whether you are a teacher, parent, or other member of a Catholic school community reading this, no matter what comes your way during the 2016-2017 academic year and beyond, always find solace in the Lord’s affirmation that is the goal of every lesson plan that comes our way during this precious life: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon me and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

image: Nagel Photography / Shutterstock.com

Justin McClain

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Justin, his wife Bernadette, and their three children (John-Paul, Mary Christine, and Thérèse) live in Bowie, Maryland. Justin has taught theology and Spanish at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville, Maryland, since 2006. He has degrees from the University of Maryland - College Park, the Universidad de Salamanca (Spain), and Staffordshire University (England), and he has studied philosophy and theology at Seton Hall University, the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and the University of Notre Dame's Satellite Theological Education Program. Justin has written for Ave Maria Press, Aleteia, EpicPew, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic365, Church Life, and various other publications. He is on Twitter (@McClainJustin).

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