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Posted August 5, 2004

Thoughts to ponder by lay leaders and priests
engaged in teaching/preaching religion

Visions and Realities: Part Three

Eugene F. Hemrick
Taken from Modern Masters of Religious Education
Edited by Marlene Mayr
Religious Education Press, Birmingham, Alabama

From Specialist to Founder

As so often happens to persons who start out specializing, I became an administrator. I continued to videotape religion classes and design courses according to the new insights I received in St. Louis. Eventually, however, I felt a need to establish a school of catechetics for my diocese. In retrospect I believe I was beginning to long for a home where I could pass on the findings of my work in religious education. The idea had occurred to me while at Notre Dame that we had a rich resource that was under-utilized. The resource was a Benedictine college which had departments of theology, history, philosophy, English, and education. These could provide a first-class faculty to train catechists and DREs. After consulting with the college president, Daniel Kucera, and receiving his backing, my first move was to visit pastors and DREs and conduct a needs assessment. I asked them if a certification program at the college would be desirable. Would they send candidates? What did they think would be the advantages and disadvantages in sending parishioners to the college catechetical school? Finally, we discussed the length of time and number of courses a person should be required in order to receive certification.

In addition to parish visitations, I dialogued with the college faculty to assess who would teach, what would be taught, an equitable stipend, and the best time to have these courses.

After securing a commitment from parishes and the faculty, the goals and curricula were formulated and defended before the faculty senate.

Finally, there was the need to advertise our school of catechetics to all parishes within our dioceses and those that surrounded us. As one can surmise from the above activities the establishment of a school of catechetics requires as much diplomacy as it does skills in curriculum development.

When the catechetical school opened one of the first novel policies I formulated was to have new candidates tour the campus with special interest directed toward the library. The librarian had agreed to give a mini-lecture which was aimed at making prospective candidates confortable with a college setting and the use of a library card system and systems such as ERIC’s microfishe.

It was my hope that after they felt a sense of belonging on a college campus they would feel comfortable coming to the college library at any time. Here they could do their own specialized studying, independent of a teacher or course. If I could help those religious education candidates feel more self-confident in independent learning, I believed this would cultivate stability in them. I argued that being one’s own teacher generates more enthusiasm and endurance in religious education interests. I was working against the burn-out syndrome in which teachers take all types of seminars and courses, but often do not experience the freshness of growth. Instead they wear down. I believe this is one reason why there is so much turnover. Somehow we fail to demonstrate to our students the beauty of a sacramental union between self and the pursuit of knowledge.

Here I came upon one of life’s imponderables. For some, the step from classroom and teacher to assertive independence and leadership was a natural sequence of growth stages. For others, it was like that frightening moment when a baby attempts to let go of mother and take that first step alone. Could it be that my belief in individual self-assertiveness is unfounded? Or that I should see student dependence as ore the rule than exception? Although students vary, I still feel today that it is a duty of a professor to encourage them to sept out on their own. Whether they do or not is their problem. At least the responsibility of education has been shifted to the right person.

Another ideal I attempted to build into the catechetical school was that it should not depend on a training model only, but should go beyond this and provide formation. Beside learning subject matter, I felt days of renewal should also be an integral part of the curriculum. By praying together a balance would be struck between the intellectual and spiritual. I find it strange as I reflect back now on my own training that we never had a day of renewal. Moreover, a national survey of catechetical programs I conducted found a great lack of days of renewal very prevalent. When time schedules get hurried there seems to be a tendency among catechists, as well as among others, to neglect the time and space needed to reflect and pray. And yet, I wonder, is it a question of priorities? Could it be that one person cannot legislate or encourage others to pray – that this must come from the group, and only when it is ready? Another imponderable to ponder.

Since we were close to the parishes where our student catechists and DREs worked, we also built into our curriculum on-location-observations to assess whether our program was having an impact at the parish level. It was felt the college should establish a closer union with parishes other than just offering them courses.

I must admit I did very few on-site visits. Once I got involved with the college I tended to center-in there. Most visits which entailed travel were short-circuited. Some would call this living in a world of my own. It became for me a means of survival. I had only one administrative assistant and a faculty of twelve. To teach and administrate were enough to keep my hands entirely full.

The on-site visits my assistant and I made, however, were very enriching experiences.. There is nothing like watching cars deposit hordes of children; to endure the pandemonium that ensues before those restless creatures settle down; to see how little time is actually allotted to teacing, and to come to the realization that something more has to be given to religion teachers than the ability to be independent thinkers. I often felt, after those on-site visits, that parishes were fighting a losing battle. Unless they switched to a different structure which fostered order and a setting where a teacher’s lesson preparation could be effective, the process seemed to be a useless exercise. Here is where I deeply believe parish leadership should strive for learning environments other than a classroom model. Also, there has to be an endeavor to enlist as many people as necessary to form a strong support system around teachers. Harking back to what was said earlier, I feel very strongly that religious education leadership must make the cultivation of support systems a number-one priority. This of course implies that DREs and parish teams are thinking along the lines of structuring the learning environment. At present I feel there is too much concern with class schedules, textbooks, and teaching aids. There is less concern with providing an environment where teachable moments can be facilitated. I am realistic enough to know that what I am advocating requires an engineering similar to that I experienced in St. Louis. I also know this consumes time and resources. But it can be accomplished and once accomplished it becomes easier and more economical to repeat.

Reviewing my first experience as an administrator, I encountered a problem I believe most DREs have. Once I had developed a speciality I felt I had to maintain it. After the catechetical school was in full swing I therefore, went back into the classroom. I tried to be both teacher and administrator. The work of administration in itself entailed budgeting, recruiting new faculty, promotion, P.R. work, attending to registrations and records, and being available to everyone involved. This role alone is enough to fill all twenty-four hours of the day. It also raises the question, “Should administrators both administrate and teach?” I often hear this same question from DREs who feel they have to keep in touch with teaching in order to understand their teachers, and to maintain their own acquired teaching skills.

I believe one cannot do justice to both. Proper preparation and the energy it takes to teach one course are big tasks in themselves. Attempting to structure a course as we did in St. Louis, would require full control over the content, plus managerial skills that are very time consuming.

I also believe that although administration gives one power, it is more of a thankless job than teaching. When a teacher reviews his or her progress there is usually the feeling of having touched someone with an idea or helping to form a heritage. Most administrators’ memories are consumed with problems of replacement, schedules, and budgets, all of which seem impersonal. And yet, good administrators are a support system to many. They can be the catalyst for new programs. Could the lectures they give and the meetings they hold not become their classroom? Here they can employ their best teaching techniques and keep their skills sharp. Do not their listening powers generate as much in-service good for teachers as any course? Nor should they ever discount the power of presence.

If DREs see this unique value I believe they would realize one can’t teach and administrate at the same time and do them equally well. To be a good administrator means to devote full attention to administration. It does not mean being less of a specialist. Most of all, one need not be depersonalized by this role. I must admit personally it is hard to let go of teaching once you have done it. To leave it behind and concentrate solely on administration is like losing a language or musical skill after having put so much time on them and experiencing that “higher order.”