An Open Letter from a Catholic High School Teacher

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Editor's Note: The author of this post wishes to remain anonymous because (s)he is currently employed at a Catholic High School.  His/her identity has been verified by CatholicHow.

Having had a chance to read and reflect on the newest CARA report about the state of the Church in the United States, a recurring question emerges: how can the Church continue to reach out to, engage, and retain young people? As a young adult who works in Catholic ministry (in my case, high school education), this is a pressing issue not only because I happen to teach children, and because I care about the Church, but also because I have watched as a number of my peers choose to leave their ministry after only a few years. The question of “How do we stop it?” inevitably leads to the question of “Why does it happen?”

I suspect that many of the reasons why young women and men choose to stop working for parishes and Catholic schools can tell us something about why the Church at large is failing to capture the imagination of young people in this country. Here then, is my letter to the people in charge delivered, I hope, in the spirit of charity and honesty. I am an anonymous high school teacher, but the challenges that I speak of below are neither unique to one particular institution, nor exclusive to the teaching profession.

—-

Dear President/Principal:

You correctly point out that young people are the future of the Church. You say that you don’t want to lose people like me, and I trust that you’re telling the truth. That said, there are a shockingly high number of teachers my age who have abandoned the profession altogether. Often, these are the very same dedicated, hard-working and talented teachers that you claim that you want to keep. So, for what it’s worth, here’s a bit of unsolicited advice from one of those young, dedicated, hard-working and (I think) talented teachers that you claim that you want to keep around:

  1. Please don’t be hypocritical. If you say that teachers and students are the most important aspect of the work that we undertake, don’t spend tens of thousands of dollars upgrading the stained glass windows in the chapel while diverting funds away from classroom maintenance and teacher salaries. Don’t evaluate me and my young colleagues differently than you do the veteran teachers down the hall while claiming that you’re being objective about the whole thing. Hypocrisy is a cardinal sin for my generation, and a hypocritical institution breeds resentment.
  2. Please don’t waste my time. Useless meetings, professional development seminars, and committees take up an ungodly amount of my day. This is time that I could otherwise be using to think of imaginative ways to bring the material to life in my classroom, or to volunteer to chaperone a service trip, or to give a talk on a Kairos retreat. Trust me, I want to do these things, but I only have so many hours in a week. I realize that sometimes these are unavoidable, but please try to minimize them whenever possible. When a significant chunk of my time and energy is spent dealing with a sprawling and pointless bureaucracy, my work suffers and I get frustrated.
  3. Please don’t ask me to take on responsibilities that you’re not asking everybody else to do. I’m young and I don’t have a family yet; therefore, I’m the first person that you ask to volunteer for every committee, to lead every retreat, to serve as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and to chaperone students at the Homecoming dance. Most of the time I do it, free of charge, because I love working with kids and sharing my experience of Christ with them. That’s a reward in and of itself; however, when I see my colleague—you know, the one who’s making twice what I am—beat the kids to the parking lot at 2:30, I start to wonder whether those late nights and weekends away from home are really worth it. So continue to ask me to volunteer, but please ask them to pitch in too. I don’t want special treatment, I want a consistent standard (see point #1).

Since I don’t want to dwell on the negative, here are three things that you can do to make me want to stay in Catholic ministry (even if it means taking a pay cut to do so):

  1. Please do be transparent. I won’t love all of the decisions that you’re going to make, and that’s okay. There’s a reason why you’re in charge and I’m a teacher and, quite frankly, I wouldn’t want it any other way. That said, if you expect me to get on board with the mission and direction of the school, you need to keep me in the loop. Tell me that you have a game plan, and communicate it to me clearly and directly. I don’t want to hear about your new initiative from a colleague, I want to hear it from you, and I want to have a chance to ask you questions about it. The phrase “Because I said so” has never made much sense to me or most of the people in my generation.
  2. Please do allow me to be creative. One of the reasons why young voices can be so refreshing to any institution is because they bring a new perspective. Too easily, that vision can be stifled by unnecessarily constrictive rules about what we ought to do and how we ought to do it. Creativity has traditionally been a hallmark of Catholic education, and the freedom to experiment is one of the things that separate us from our secular peers. If I tell you that there’s a new piece of technology that can help me do my job more effectively, please don’t make me get it approved by a dozen committees that don’t understand the technology or what I’m trying to do with it. Presumably, you hired me to do this job because you trust me and my resume. The more freedom you give me to do my job, the better I’ll do it.
  3. Please do thank me for the work that I’ve done. Your personal acknowledgment of my work means the world to me. I save all of the thank you notes and e-mails that I receive, from students, parents and especially my supervisors. As much as I appreciate the general “Nice job folks” e-mails to the entire school, when this job gets tough (and it always does), the personal notes and conversations keep me coming back year after year.

I love my ministry of teaching; my greatest fear is losing that passion. I remain convinced that the majority of my administrators have the best of intentions in mind. My purpose in drafting this letter is not to antagonize, but rather to find a way forward together.

 

3 thoughts on “An Open Letter from a Catholic High School Teacher”

  1. Someone please forward this letter to Pope Francis suggesting that he consider this for the Vatican beaurocracy…some young blood with new ideas might help a whole lot.

  2. I’d like to add a post script to the piece based on a comment that a reader left on Facebook. The reader points out that many of the problems that I have enumerated in the piece above can be found in our public schools. This is a true and noteworthy comment, and it deserves a response. My initial thoughts are threefold:

    1) Public schools almost always pay a significantly higher salary than parochial schools and those operated by religious orders in the same region. If the frustrations are similar and the potential (financial) reward much greater in our public schools, then the Church is going to continue to lose young teachers who, after bolstering their resume for 3-5 years, will leave for greener pastures. Who can blame them? This is what’s currently happening in schools around the country, and it should be a red flag.

    2) If I were a public school teacher, I would never dream of writing a letter like this because it would be pointless. The CST principle of subsidiarity is instructive here. One of the extraordinary things about working in a Catholic high school is that almost all decisions are made locally by the particular administrators of the particular school. This means that if a President or Principal wants to include faculty, staff and students in their decision-making processes, they can do so without running it by a distant school board or state legislature.

    3) We are not public schools, nor should we seek to become like them. If the only thing that distinguishes us from our public school counterparts are the crucifixes on our walls, then we have failed as both educators and as Christians. We’re called to something higher, and we should aspire to be not only equal to, but better than the nation’s top public schools. I believe that we can achieve this goal, but the solution entails creating a school culture that is distinctively Catholic, and not derivative of what appears in school boards throughout the United States.

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