Those Who Can, Teach

Author: By Timothy Scully, C.S.C.

As the members of Notre Dame’s Class of ‘99 collected their diplomas this past Sunday, the largest single chunk of them had already accepted job offers from the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson. We take pride in e success borne of their effort and ambition. But an almost equal number from that same class will be going to work for a salary not much higher than the minimum wage.p. And we are just as proud of them. These are teachers. Graduates of a program called the Alliance of Catholic Education, they represent the hope of a Catholic parochial school system that today educates approximately 5% of America’s children with a fraction of the resources available to their public-school counterparts. Started in 1993 as a sort of Peace Corps for inner-city parochial schools, ACE now supplies teachers to more than 80 schools throughout the country, with twice as many begging us to be included.p. The increasing popularity of school-choice programs at the state level and of private initiatives such as Ted Forstmann’s Children’s Scholarship Fund has America’s attention on the Catholic school system. The problem is that, at the very moment when the culture is finally acknowledging the unique Catholic contribution to education, the parochial schools are themselves in the thick of a crisis brought about by the death of vocations. Whereas in 1960 priests, nuns, and brothers constituted about three-quarters of all Catholic elementary and high school teachers by 1990 the number was down to one-sixth.p. Many who remain, moreover, do not seem to comprehend the value of the system that produced them. I include myself in here. I remember well a dinner party in a Chicago suburb given by a former grade-school classmate of mine several years back, where I opined that formal Catholic schools as we knew them were probably a bad investment and that we would do better to invest in alternative ways educate the next generation. I’ll never forget the reaction. Everyone stopped talking, and my host turned an angry shade of red. “Listen,” he told me. “It’s tough enough keeping those blankety-blank schools open without having our priests undermine our efforts!” That was the spark of the ACE program.p. So how do you attract a kid who might make hundreds of thousands of dollars more on Wall Street or in some equally honorable (or renumerative) field?p. Well, if you want smart people to become teachers, you first have to welcome them. Though our training program gives our students hands-on classroom experience, they don’t major in teaching. They choose their own disciplines, from history to chemical engineering. We don’t want people who can’t get jobs elsewhere. We want students who excel in their disciplines and who also want to teach.p. Second, community. As any teacher will tell you, the first year can be tough. Which may be why one in six of those with teaching degrees leave the profession after their first year. Our attrition rate, by contrast, is less than 2%. We think one reason is that the young people we send out to teach live in community together, in convents and in parish houses, where they can draw support from their peers when the inevitable frustrations arise.p. Finally, we take spirituality seriously. These days there is a lot of talk about values, much of it vague. We believe Catholic schools owe their charges teachers who view their jobs as vocations and who understand the importance of example. This understanding is the heart and soul of the program, not some “extra”. Accordingly, we have developed a spirituality based on Christ the Teacher, a spirituality that is real, that does not pretend to be easy but always promises to be rewarding.p. Moms and dads are desperate for the kind of environment that results: It is one reason even many non-Catholics scrimp and save so that their children can go to a Catholic school. When I hear people say that today’s young people do not understand sacrifice and obligation, I remember that I get five applications for every one ACE slot. I can not pretend that ACE is for everybody or that on its own it will save the Catholic schools. But surely these schools are worth saving. And if Catholic institutions do not take the lead in ensuring a future generation of teachers every bit as dedicated and committed as the ones who taught us, who will?

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