5 Saints Who Teach Us How to Teach

Teachers must model what it means to be a person of virtue.

By Rachel Padilla

Numerous saints throughout the history of the Church have lived out the vocation of being a teacher. Some were called to the classroom, others universities, still others ministries. They taught, as they did everything, with heroic virtue; yet each taught according to their own gifts and personality. The lives of these saints showcase different virtues that help us to be excellent and, more importantly, holy teachers.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was a mother before she founded schools and started a religious order. She understood children from her own personal experience raising her five sons and daughters as well as taking care of her husband’s seven half-siblings. St. Elizabeth was also familiar with sorrow. After she found herself bankrupt and widowed at just thirty, she also lost many friends and acquaintances when she converted to Catholicism. However, St. Elizabeth’s personal tragedies led her to compassion rather than discouragement. Her educational career reflects her maternal nature. The apostolate of the order she founded included orphanages and the first free Catholic school in America. Serving poor students, the saint was concerned with helping and nurturing children regardless of their circumstances.

We see in St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s example the importance of authentically caring for students. Every student needs to be nurtured and some require this more than others. Teachers often must be compassionate and nurturing in order to help students succeed.

St. John Baptiste de la Salle

One of the patrons of teachers, St. John Baptiste de la Salle faced opposition in his lifetime for his innovative methods. Education was not his initial pursuit as a priest; however, he went on to found schools, teachers colleges, and the Christian Brothers religious community. St. John Baptiste’s ministry focused especially on the education of boys from poor homes. He saw the need these children had and the hope education provided. The saint was also convinced of the importance of teacher training and formation. He initially opened up his home to teachers to help them grow in their competencies. His methods were often unconventional for the time. Yet things he supported such as teaching in the vernacular, instruction in a classroom setting, and teacher training are now the norm.

St. John Baptiste was not afraid to do new things if he knew it was in the best interest of the students. He worked boldly for their good despite opposition. Through his life, St John Baptiste shows that just because a method or technique is popular doesn’t mean it’s what is best for the students. If he believed it could help them succeed, he wasn’t afraid of trying something new.

St. John Paul II

By Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F059404-0019 / Schaack, Lothar / CC-BY-SA, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, Link

While his career as an educator was not a large part of his life, St. John Paul II was a teacher in the truest sense. His writings and the audiences he gave as pope continue to form the hearts and minds of those who read them today. His time as a university chaplain and professor showcase the kind of teacher St. John Paul was. He is known for having taken some of these students hiking and kayaking, developing personal relationships with them. As pope, he began World Youth Day especially for young people. He cared personally for the youth he encountered. His ability to express this personal love was a hallmark of his papacy.

St. John Paul II’s life demonstrates the beautiful relationship that can exist when a teacher personally cares for his or her students. When a teacher is concerned with the whole student and not just their academic success or behavior in the classroom, students know. This authentic personal concern fosters a relationship that encourages students. When they know teachers care, students often reciprocate that feeling, try harder, and ultimately achieve.

St. Mary MacKillop

N.N. [Public domain]

While it was not without controversy, St. Mary MacKillop’s life was dedicated to serving children and families in some of the most rural parts of Australia. The order of religious sisters she founded worked in schools and other charitable ministries, living alongside poor families in the Outback. Despite the good works of the sisters, St. Mary MacKillop was not universally liked. She was, in fact, excommunicated for a time, though the sanction was lifted and Mackillop later exonerated. At another time she was unjustly suspected of alcoholism. Despite these scandals, at the time of the saint’s death the order was thriving.

St. Mary MacKillop remained faithful to her calling of education and leading her sisters throughout these trials. While most will not experience persecution to the extent this saint did, all teachers face difficulties, whether they be challenging student behavior or the struggles that come with the typical educator’s schedule. St. Mary MacKillop’s dedication reveals the strength all teachers need to be faithful despite various external and internal pressures.

St. Charles Borromeo

By Anonymous (Prague) – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61660573

You would not often find St. Charles Borromeo in a classroom during his years of ministry. As Archbishop of Milan, however, he was concerned with education as a method of reformation. A major player in the Council of Trent, St. Charles wanted to counter the rise of Protestantism and reform issues in the Church. His desire to form and educate in the faith made him the patron of catechists. He founded schools and colleges with this goal.

St. Charles was focused on educating in the faith and for the sake of helping people understand the faith. Catholic teachers are also called to educate with a higher goal in mind. Education should be directed towards the spiritual good of the person as the ultimate goal. Though other goals can and should be present, St. Charles’ life points to the true purpose of all education.

There is no one right way to be a holy teacher

As these saints demonstrate, there are many differing styles. They showcase a number of virtues that help them to be excellent teachers. Curriculum and pedagogy are important in effectively helping students achieve learning goals. But to form the hearts of students, teachers must model for them what it means to be a person of virtue. Only in this way can they learn the most important lesson: holiness.


Rachel Padilla is a campus minister in Colorado.

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