Every Classroom Alive with Faith

by Kristin Barstow Melley

Studies have shown that Catholic students fell less connected with their faith than other Christian students. Find out how you can foster faith-building no matter what subject you teach.

What do you teach? Math? Social studies? Some of you might have answered, “Students.” Clever. Whatever you consider yourself a teacher of, do you also think of yourself as a teacher of Catholicism? Do you invest in your spiritual growth as part of your professional development? If you don’t, you should. I have seen that a school’s Catholic identity flourishes when teachers model faith regardless of the subjects they teach. “But,” you may ask, “Isn’t that the job of the religion teacher?” No, and here are a few reasons why.

First, everything in a Catholic school transmits the faith. From the way we answer school phones to the rehearsal schedule of the school play, from how we share meals in the cafeteria to how students are greeted at the school door: everything we do teaches Catholic identity because how we behave shows what we value. Seeing yourself not only as a teacher but also as a Catholic-school teacher enables the Catholic identity of the school to thrive.

Second, designating Catholic formation to one person in the school building limits Catholicism, treating it as a body of knowledge to be studied, narrowing it into historical moments, teachings, and figures. Being Catholic is far too dynamic to be revealed or understood in a course. It’s about living, stumbling, loving, renewing.

Third, not every student forms a natural connection with the same one or two teachers. We cannot leave Catholic identity to the religion teacher or campus ministry team because the diversity of the students necessitates a diversity of role models. God needs all of us with our various passions and fields of expertise to excite the Catholic learner.

To be clear, I am not suggesting you sacrifice your morning prep period to teach Catholicism. The invitation is to think creatively about your implicit curriculum, regardless of your subject matter.
Here’s why: Think of the teacher you admired most as a student. What do you recall from your time in that teacher’s classroom? Chances are, memories of how that teacher interacted with you are stronger than memories of the subject matter that teacher taught. The implicit or informal curriculum can be and often is more powerful than the explicit or formal curriculum. And chances are, this is true for the students sitting in your classroom today. Who you are and the way you interact with your students may resonate more deeply than your lessons on the Truman Doctrine or rainforests.

If a school has a strong Catholic identity, isn’t it already modeling the faith? Truly, Catholic identity is a significant and valuable way we communicate our school’s affiliation with Catholicism. It is our shared fingerprint, revealed in our school mission statements, our publications, our common prayers, even woven thoughtfully into our unit plans no matter the subject. However, we must recognize there are limitations to simply focusing on Catholic identity. It is great at conveying who we are, but we must strive to go deeper.

What I believe is missing from many of our classrooms is the Catholicism that expresses religious meaning in our daily lives––the tangible joy for the blessings in our day, the prayerful process to discern challenges and options, the authentic awareness of the nearness of Jesus. These elements dwell in the implicit curriculum and call us to delve more deeply into our faith.

If we remain only on the surface of our Catholic identity, we ignore our role to nurture our students’ faith development. Each of us has encountered concerning trends in our Church, and these tend to creep up when being Catholic is relegated to just Mass on Sunday.

According to the National Survey of Youth and Religion (NSYR) (a study conducted in 2002-2003 of approximately 3,000 U.S. youth between the ages of 13 and 17 by researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), Roman Catholic teenagers in the United States demonstrated a consistently weak understanding of basic Church teachings and, in comparison with their non-Catholic Christian peers, reported little to no practical application of the faith in their daily lives. In 2005, Christian Smith published the story of this research in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers.
He writes, “Our findings regarding Catholic teenagers show many of them to be living far outside of official Church norms defining true Catholic faithfulness.”1

The study is well worth reading, and for the purposes of this article, I want to highlight a few of its data points which asked the youth to evaluate their religious experiences. I share these to contrast the responses from Roman Catholic teenagers with their Christian peers.2

These findings should startle us. But are we surprised? Do our own adult Catholic lives lack these experiences as well? As educators, we have been given a great gift to journey alongside our young people not only in the growth and development of their minds but the development of their whole selves. From this perspective any ordinary interaction can have meaning and lasting value.

Perhaps you are saying, “But I do talk about Catholicism with my students. I do encourage them to find God in their lives.” I have no doubt you do. In my experience, most if not all Catholic-school teachers are committed to integrating Catholicism into their classes. However, it seems these efforts are not registering with all the students. How do we know this?

In 2008, the National Catholic Center for Student Aspirations, an affiliate of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations, surveyed 11,000 students enrolled in U.S. Catholic high schools. In the figure below are just a few statements and student responses to the survey.

Focus group discussions based on these survey results indicate that while the teachers are providing a Catholic viewpoint and encouraging students to connect with God, it is not apparent to half of our students. Our intentions are not obvious from the students’ perspective. These findings and those of the NSYR suggest a need for authentic and student-focused faith experiences, and I believe these can be provided meaningfully through the implicit curriculum and teacher faith role models.

Where Do We Go from Here?

•    Get inspired! Do your students know what calls to you? What gives you joy? How you stay connected to those things? What long-term project can you and your class develop that nourishes that joy and reveals your enthusiasm for being a person of faith? Connect with area participants of international mission programs and follow their work abroad with Skype and blog posts.
•    Be intentional with your implicit curriculum. Recognize opportunities to model faith. Take time identifying the person you desire to be for your students and allow yourself small pockets of time each day to pray for God’s guidance and inspiration to actualize this part of yourself. Model forgiveness, charity, and second chances with students and colleagues.
•    Go out on a limb for the lost sheep. Without fail, every year there is that one student who troubles us, makes us less certain of our footing, and can single-handedly undo much of our satisfaction as educators. As tempting as it might be to spend the year circumnavigating the student, consider him or her a gift from God, inviting you to grow, to risk seeing things in a new light, to relearn things you believed to be self-evident. This student usually needs an ally, and your support allows you to demonstrate your commitment as a faith role-model.
•    Find ways to increase student voice at your school. Solicit feedback from your students and use it to inform your interactions with them. You can learn about student voice through the work of Dr. Russell J. Quaglia at the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (qisa.org). Connecting with your students’ perspective will help you and your students to communicate more openly about how they experience school life, learn ways to get more out of your classroom experience, and understand what they hope for for their lives.
•    In a Catholic school, the implicit curriculum is as important as the explicit curriculum. Of course, we continue as Catholic-school teachers to be fully committed to renewing and advancing our skills and knowledge in the subject areas we teach. Our students’ demonstrated abilities and academic successes beyond the classroom attest to teacher effectiveness. But in the context of a Catholic school, our call is to root our curriculum in the deeper experiences of Catholic identity and model for our students in ways that inspire their faith journeys.
•    Relearn Catholicism as an adult. Alvin Toffler, the American writer and futurist, is known for saying, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” A faith journey is much the same. The lessons we learned as children about Jesus and God are not robust enough to bring meaning to our adult lives. As adults we must relearn who God is and encounter anew the treasures of our tradition. This is a natural step in the life of an educator. We know the importance of life-long learning. Find learning opportunities at your parish or online, or help to form one for the adults in your school community.


Professional Development Resources

Thomas Groome, Educating for Life: A Spiritual Vision for Every Teacher and Parent (Sept. 1, 2001).

James Martin, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life (2012).

Margaret Silf, Inner Compass—An Invitation to Ignatian Spirituality (2007).

The Dynamic Catholic Institute (DynamicCatholic.com)

Busted Halo: An online magazine for spiritual seekers (bustedhalo.com)

Catherine Wiecher Brunell, Becoming Catholic, Again: Connecting the Faith We Were Taught with the Faith We Live (Oct. 1, 2012).

Margaret Silf, Simple Faith: Moving Beyond Religion as You Know It to Grow in Your Relationship with God (2012).

1. Christian Smith, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New
York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 194.
2. Smith, Soul Searching, 45.


Kristin Barstow Melley is Associate Director, Roche Center for Catholic Education, Boston College.

Source: Today’s Catholic Teacher, November/December 2013