For several weeks last year, my parish announced the need for volunteer catechists and each time I heard the reminder, I felt the Holy Spirit nudging. Despite my hesitations (and my millions of excuses), I finally gave in and agreed to teach preteens. Much to my chagrin, I had a fabulous year. Let me share three lessons I gleaned during my first year as a catechist.
Personal prayer and continual formation is vital for successful teaching
If there was one thing I learned in dealing with preteens, it was the importance of beginning class with a recollected soul. My sixth grade students were awesome, but they were a challenge to discipline. If I wasn’t prayerful before I entered the classroom, I couldn’t respond in a consistently loving manner.
Kids are masters at sniffing out hypocrites. If they never saw me sitting in the pew or waiting in the confessional line why should they bother listening to me? Practicing what I preached was imperative in forming the heart and minds of my students. Most importantly though, I realized if I wanted my students to grow in their love for their faith, I needed to take the time—no matter how jam-packed my schedule—to pray. Every day.
In a 2009 address, Pope Benedict said, “Many of you, religious and lay people, are so absorbed by your many obligations in serving, that you run the risk of neglecting what is truly important: listening to Christ and accomplishing the will of God.”
If we’re going to be good teachers, we need to be plugged in to Christ. It’s a great temptation in our secular world to rush from one activity to the next, thereby forgetting the reason for our ministry: to hand on our faith. Prayer reminds us of the reason. Taking time for daily quiet reflection helped me to be a better teacher and a better disciple.
There’s an old proverb that states: “Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.”
Most children are not going to remember the ten plagues or the names of the Old Testament books. But they will remember the amazing stories you tell them of faith in action. For example, one day I shared with them the story of Terri Shiavo, a comatose Florida woman who was starved to death when her husband and doctors withheld food from her. The students were unfamiliar with the case and asked all kinds of questions about her, euthanasia, and other end of life issues. Sharing the story of Schiavo’s life provided a great segue into a deeper discussion about the value of all life and the importance of seeking out Church teachings on difficult moral issues. Stories touch students’ hearts and inspire them to do better. Facts are important, but stories are what they will remember.
Incorporate awesome snacks
A priest friend of mine used to say, “First the man, then the saint.” Yes, we want kids to be excited about their faith, but to do this we must first appeal to their humanity. Once we’ve reached them on a human level, we will have greater success with them spiritually.
I struggled to engage my students in my lessons so I began buying healthy treats (be sure to check for food allergies) and had them ready to hand to students, especially when no one seemed interested in what we were learning. My classroom participation drastically increased when I provided a small reward for active involvement. Instead of dull, glazed-over looks, my students wildly waved hands in the air while shouting, “I know, I know!” or “Pick me! Pick me!” It was fun (and funny) to watch them scramble to answer questions to receive a small treat. But it worked.
As your year comes to a close, whether it’s your first or your tenth year as a catechist, think back to the things that made your year successful.
Colleen Duggan holds a Master’s in Education from the University of Notre Dame. She is a former teacher, a wife, mother of five, and a freelance writer for Catholic media.
This article was originally published in RTJ’s creative catechist April/May, 2013.
Photo: FatCamera, istock