January 26, 2007

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

Shining the light: Catholic educators focus on faith and excellence

Richard Powell challenges students to live their faith in his classes at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

Richard Powell challenges students to live their faith in his classes at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The hallmarks of Catholic education include the faith, dedication and commitment of teachers, staff members and administrators who strive to make a difference in the lives of children and young people.

In the 71 Catholic schools in the archdiocese, more than 2,100 professionals share their talents and gifts to educate and support the more than 23,000 students who seek the benefits of a Catholic education.

Here is a look at four people in the archdiocese who represent the values and qualities of all the educators seeking to shape the lives and the futures of children and young people.

Sharing the fun and the faith

Except for extra recess or a snow day, maybe the most fun part of school for fourth-grade children is seeing their teacher do something downright goofy.

So the fourth-grade students at St. Susanna School in Plainfield howled with delight when they saw their teacher, Diana Soto, do the unthinkable during their Halloween party.

As part of the celebration, the class parents set up a game where they covered candy gummy worms with whipped cream. The idea was to eat the worms without using your hands so you had to stick your face into the whipped cream to hunt for the worms. When Soto took her turn, the children couldn’t believe it. Even better, they loved it when she lifted her face and it was covered with whipped cream.

It’s a moment the first-year teacher will never forget. It’s a moment that reminded Soto of the person who inspired her to become a teacher—Christine Evans, who continues to teach at St. Christopher School in Indianapolis.

“She was my first- and second-grade teacher,” recalls Soto, who is 25. “She made everything fun. I never dreaded going to school. She was so kind and friendly.”

Soto followed in Evans’ footsteps in more ways than one by deciding to teach at a Catholic school.

“Being a student in Catholic schools for 16 years, I like the environment, the closeness and the community,” Soto says. “The parents, the principal and the other teachers have been really supportive. I really enjoy teaching.”

She especially appreciates one element of teaching at a Catholic school.

“I had done my student teaching in a public school and you couldn’t talk about God,” she says. “I like to talk to the students about God, my faith and having faith in God. I think it’s important to pray in school, and we do a lot of that in our classroom.”

Live the message, be happy

In his 41 years as a teacher, Richard Powell has consistently used two sayings to challenge students to think deeper about their lives and their faith.

The first saying that’s featured prominently in his classroom asks, “What are your questions?”

“If you ask a question, you’re seeking knowledge or information,” says Powell, who teaches religion and philosophy to seniors at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis. “It’s how Socrates taught. Once you ask the question, listen for the answer. Then you ask another question. Then you have a dialogue going on.”

The second saying states, “Get a clue and think it through.”

Powell believes that directive is key to challenging students in his classes on moral theology, comparative religions and the history of Western and Eastern philosophy. He believes it’s also crucial to helping young people embrace their Catholic faith.

“You have to have the foundations—the data, the Scriptures and the faith teachings,” says Powell, who’s 64. “We try to instill in the students the teachings of the Church. Then you take that teaching and ask, ‘How do you apply it to your life?’ ”

Powell has found his answers through his vocation as a teacher. One of his biggest thrills comes when he teaches Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults classes and he learns that the people he’s instructing are often spouses of the students he once taught.

“In one class, eight of the converts were spouses of former students. It shows we’re doing our job.”

The passion still stirs after four decades of challenging more than 100 students each year.

“I’m thrilled every year when school starts again. I had pneumonia at the beginning of this year and I lay in bed crying because I wasn’t there. When my students leave at the end of class, I say, ‘What have you learned new today? Take it with you. Don’t leave it on the floor.’ ”

It’s all part of the impact he hopes to make on his students.

“Search for the truth, find God, live the message and be happy,” he says. “Find God in the Scriptures and in your life, but more so in your fellow human beings. And recognize that aspect of divinity. If you live the message and love one another as God has loved you, you’ll be OK.”

A chance to make a difference

As soon as she entered the school, Dionna Ward felt like she was home. She knew her way through the halls. She savored the warmth of the teachers’ smiles.

It was the same sense of welcoming she felt when she attended the school from the time she was in preschool to the year she graduated from eighth grade. Except this time, she walked into St. Andrew and St. Rita Catholic Academy in Indianapolis as a teacher.

“It was fate I was placed here,” Ward says. “It was like coming back home.”

In the four years since that homecoming, Ward has continued to sharpen her focus as a kindergarten teacher, trying to show her students the importance of the sign that hangs above the blackboard, “Today is your chance to make a difference.”

“It’s our theme for the whole school,” says Ward, who is 25. “We really try to promote the children’s self-worth. I tell my students that even though they are 5 or 6, they can make a difference. We just completed a ‘Read to Feed’ program. The kids had to read books and collect pledges.

“We raised about $300. We’re going to use that money to buy an animal or animals for a village in an impoverished country. Being in a Catholic school, I want them to see how blessed they are and what they can do to help others. My kids have so much potential. Unless they’re pushed to reach it, it can go to waste.”

Her teachers didn’t let that happen to her. She’s not about to betray their example. Instead, she tries to live it.

“Like the majority of students in the school, I’m not Catholic. But I have spent the majority of my education in Catholic schools,” says the graduate of Cathedral High School and Marian College, both in Indianapolis. “I know the Catholic faith pretty well. I tell my kids that if they’re struggling with something, just pray to God. I tell them that anything is possible with God.”

After all, she believes God called her home to teach.

“Originally, I was supposed to be somewhere else. I guess this is where God thought I was needed.”

Shining the light

The lone light glows in the middle of the stage at Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville in southern Indiana.

As the person who started the theater program at Providence more than 40 years ago, Ray Day knows the significance of the light. It shines as a symbol of the Broadway hope, the theater belief that there will always be another opening night, another show.

In another way, the light could easily symbolize the impact that Day has had on students at the Catholic high school as a longtime art and visual arts teacher, theater director and now as the director of development.

“Our vision in Catholic schools is to challenge individuals to discover themselves, relate to other people and then change the world together,” says Day, who is 67.

Day tried to accomplish those goals in the theater program.

“Through theater, kids learn three wonderful lessons. They learn their own talents—that someone believed in them. The second lesson is that the person next to them has talent, so they learn to respect the talents of others. And, thirdly, they learn that when you work together, you can create something far greater than one person can do alone.”

Those lessons are part of the gift a teacher can give, a gift that Day didn’t realize he was giving in the beginning.

“When I came back to teach here, I never thought of going anyplace else but a Catholic school,” says Day, a 1957 graduate of Providence. “It was a long time teaching before I realized I had a creative and spiritual impact on people. Kids would come back as adults and say, ‘I learned more from your class than art. I learned about family. I learned about doing for other people.’ It’s mind-boggling when you hear the impact you had on people’s lives.

“When you live it, you teach it. I was blessed with having the faith as part of my very heritage. Those who are blessed have that responsibility to give it back.” †

Local site Links: