This year, our family transitioned from homeschooling to sending all of our children to a lovely little Catholic school. Along with that has come the need for extra income for tuition, and so this year I found myself returning to my first love – catechesis. I am now a middle school religion teacher at a Catholic school (a different one than the one my children attend), and I have found the work challenging, deeply gratifying, and one requiring massive humility and trust in God.
My background is in theology, not in education, so while I am still learning about things like electronically filing grades, behavior reports, and lesson plans- I have found a lot of things to be similar to my previous work in parish catechesis.
If you find yourself catechizing middle schoolers this year (either as a teacher, parish catechist, homeschooler, or parent) here are some helpful tips to help you in this important work.
Don’t Water Down the Faith
The Gospel is attractive. You don’t need to water it down or try to make it more exciting. In fact, if you water it down and make it boring, you will inevitably lose your students’ interest. Middle schoolers are not dumb. My middle schoolers have been learning about things that I didn’t learn about until I was in college theology classes (due to my own watered down religion classes as a child) – and they have eaten it up. So far, we have had discussions about the two natures of Christ, why Christological distinctions matter for who we are (i.e. if we don’t believe that Christ is human and divine, then we are saying that we can’t experience the kind of union with God made possible by the Incarnation). They have had boundless questions and concerns about heaven, purgatory, and eschatology – from understanding that we become saints (not angels) when we die, to making sense of where purgatory fits into the story, and accepting that pets do not go to heaven (although we can have hope that God may choose to re-create them when he makes the New Creation at the end of time). We’ve learned about Trinitarian theology (so that I no longer need to correct them when they refer to “God and Jesus,” because a classmate will pipe up, “ You mean God the Father and God the Son.”). We’ve had an introduction to the theology around the angels, creation (including making sense of how science does not contradict the Bible), and even learned a little bit about icons.
It’s been just two and a half weeks.
The point is – middle schoolers are like sponges. They are fascinated with the world, full of questions and enthusiasm, and ready to learn. But they want to and need to be challenged. In my graduate school theology classes, we talked a lot about Divine Pedagogy – that is, looking at how God teaches us and relates to us (by coming down to our level and making himself accessible in a way that we can receive him). The catechist is called to imitate Divine Pedagogy – to find ways to make the Faith accessible for our students (not watered down but expressed in ways that make sense without omitting the truth). We’ve talked about basic Christology in our classes, and they understand that Christ has two natures (divine and human) united to his divine Person (God the Son). But I haven’t gone into the kind of depth that my college Christology class went into. Rather, I’m laying a foundation for their further learning about Christ.
Disciple and discipline have the same Latin root, which means “to teach.” A disciple is one who learns and emulates the teacher. Discipline is the process of learning how something is to be done. Unfortunately, our society tends to think of discipline in terms of punishment, not teaching. Does discipline sometimes involve unpleasant consequences? Yes. But does the teacher implement the consequences in order to control the behavior of the student? No. Rather, discipline (especially when forming disciples for Christ) should be done with a focus on teaching what behavior is acceptable and why it matters.
My husband teaches at a Seminary, and human formation is one of the main focuses of the faculty and staff. That is, they aren’t trying to punish seminarians – they are trying to guide them, encourage them, gently but firmly correct them, and help them to flourish as human beings.
Teaching of any kind – but especially catechesis – is ultimately the process of human formation through academic learning. Every classroom does need to have expectations for behavior and consequences if the expectations are not met, but consequences should be fair and a student’s individual capabilities should be considered. Discipline isn’t just punishment – it’s teaching what behavior is acceptable and how to grow in wisdom and the virtues. In my classroom, we have something called the “Virtues Race,” wherein the different grades are competing to be the one that practices the virtues the most each semester (and win a movie and popcorn party). We’ve taken time to learn about the various virtues, and the students are learning how to name them and praise classmates for living them out. Virtuous behavior receives far more reinforcement in our classroom than negative behavior, and students are learning not only what not to do, but also what to do.
The Importance of Loving Relationship
Finally, all catechesis must be done from a place of loving relationship. Before a student can come to believe the faith, they have to trust the messenger. Middle schoolers are especially attuned to this. If their catechist is annoyed by them and doesn’t seem to want them around, they quickly lose interest or become discouraged. If the catechist can slow down, take deep breaths, pray lots, and truly seek to see Christ in each child – the students will respond accordingly. That relationship – and the lived example of faith given by the catechist – is paramount. Religion class should be challenging and rigorous from an academic perspective – but ultimately, the academics aren’t meant to just be mindless memorizing. In religion and theology, the subject matter is meant to change hearts. The facts learned are meant to be learned about the Beloved – Jesus who is not only worthy of their love, but who deeply loves them.
Textbooks and educational standards are important, but they are meaningless if they are not underpinned with the true purpose of catechesis – to come to know the love of Christ and grow in relationship with him.
My school has a chapel with a tabernacle in it, and on days when I am struggling with my students (or when I just sense they could use some time with him) I take them there. I sincerely hope that they remember the academic information I am teaching them through my catechesis – but I hope even more that they will remember that they are loved infinitely by God. I hope they will long for him with all their hearts. And I hope that that love and longing will change everything for them.