It was 10 years ago, but it seems like it was just last year when I volunteered to teach a tenth grade catechism class. I had some experience teaching Math, but I was aware that teaching religion would be completely different. Formulas were my domain. A class of ten rambunctious teens filled with life’s existential questions was outside of my subset; quite outside of the comfort zone. And at 4’11, 95 lbs. my physical commanding presence was not going to get me too far. I nervously wrote on the board “God does not deceive, neither can He be deceived.” I heard some nervous and mocking laughter, I couldn’t quite figure out which. Then hiding my nervousness I faced them and asked: “So how long have you guys been Catholics?” After a few stares, a young girl piped up: “I guess like fifteen years.” Half tongue in cheek, half sarcastically I piped right back: “Oh, so you really know your faith?” The challenge was on.
We had a great semester. Some classes went better than others. I wasn’t the perfect catechist, and they weren’t the perfect students all the time, either. But, we got talking about faith, and to me that was a start. Then, just as the semester was about to end, we got some unexpected news. The DRE had quit. And by default, I was in charge. The word got out to the parishioners, and suddenly people were coming up to me after Mass, shaking my hand enthusiastically and saying things like: “You’re so brave!” “I could never do what you do!” and “God bless you.” I wasn’t sure if they were congratulating me, warning me of impending doom or pitying me. Wait, had I just joined the Marines? It felt like I had either joined the armed forces and was being deployed, or was being sent to some faraway mission country where I risked being eaten alive by natives.
There was a degree of spiritual war my soul could perceive, and in many ways teaching teens was a missionary endeavor, and most certainly a work of mercy. Every time I prayed for my students and humbly became aware of the responsibility before me, I often thought about Jesus looking at his people and feeling sorry for them; for they had no shepherd. But the Scripture that kept resurfacing in my prayer time was Romans 10:14: “How can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” Certainly I was no shepherd or preacher; in my book, I was simply living a great adventure. But when I attempted to recruit others to join me, I hit the great wall of silence. Sure, many pats on the back, many promises to pray for me – but that was it. No one would volunteer to help this lonesome catechist. The grade school catechism program and the Catholic sports program for the parish were flourishing, but the high school program was hanging by a thread; the thread of this lone ranger.
It proved to be easier to share the good news of the Gospel with the teens than to share the good news of teens with others. I started wondering, what does it take to be a high school catechist? I developed a small list of talents and qualifications which I shared with sponsors, parents and friends. Take a look at this list and consider this awesome evangelical vocation, whether for a year, a semester, as a chaperone to youth activities or even a substitute.
In the Classroom:
Follow the Curriculum. Most books are fairly organized and include activities for the classroom. You can always add your own activity depending on your style and what you want your students to remember. For example, read a Psalm every class, share a joke, tell a faith story of your personal life, or read the synopsis of a saint’s life. Whatever you add, stick to it; make it your trademark.
Be consistent. Teens need stability. Keep the same structure in class. For example: Prayer, Announcements, Class Topic, Open discussion, Journal time with music as background, Closing prayer and petitions. If you have structure, your students will know what to expect and will appreciate when you surprise them with special treats like: “class outside,” “movie time,” or “ice cream night.”
Be organized. Keep your books, papers, grade book and attendance sheet together. Looking the part is a subtle but important way in which you can let your students know that catechism class IS important. This includes dressing nicely for class – not necessarily suit and tie – but at least dressy shirt, no ripped jeans or sweats. If you are a new teacher, practicing ahead of time can settle your nerves when it counts. My first semester of teaching I took extra time to practice, review notes and foresee questions. This helped me immensely in appearing prepared, controlling the flow of class and it gave me great confidence.
Establish rules. Start the year by stating clearly your expectations and your rules for the classroom.
Common decency and common sense sometimes need to be spelled out. Simple rules like: raise your hand before speaking and wait to be called upon, or no laughing at others. Even “think before you speak” is a rule that can establish the tone of the class.
In Your Personal Life:
Be a person of prayer. The awesome thing about kids is that they’ll know if you are genuine or faking it. They sure can keep you on your spiritual toes! If you dedicate time for prayer your resolve will grow stronger and your peace will increase. I dedicate 1 hour of adoration on Saturdays for my Sunday class. I get my best ideas then. Most importantly I can raise my students in prayer.
Be supportive and visible. If you know of games, recitals, theatre shows your students are participating in, show up. Bring the family if you want. Then mention it in class the next time. Students get a kick out of knowing that people other than their parents are supportive of their good endeavors. This will also create a new degree of respect from your students.
Don’t be afraid of the truth. Tough topics come up during high school classes. Sex, drugs, divorce, homosexuality; you name it, they want to talk about it. This is perhaps the reason many people avoid high school catechism like the plague. It’s important to remember that you don’t teach your opinion, your political stance or your ‘issues.’ You teach what the Church teaches and that makes it easy. But, then – yes – you must know what the Church teaches. Refer to the CCC often if you need to; during class, before class, when you are planning for it.
Have Total Confidence in God and His Church. Your congruency between words and actions will be a great testimony to your students. If you have total confidence in God and His Church, it will show. If you don’t, work on it; surrender to God. I can assure you it will rub off on your students. Once they know God is a loving and fair God, and His Church is a welcoming and understanding Mother, then no matter how far they stray in the future they will know where home is.
There is a great adventure going on, will you join? Ask yourself in prayer, and respond without fear: Do you have what it takes to be a high school catechist?
2009 Maria Rivera