January 23, 2009

Catholic Schools Week Supplement

‘A powerful difference’: Lay educators share what makes Catholic education special

Colleen Burdette, left, shares a fun teaching moment with Megan Whitham, a student at Pope John XXIII School in Madison. Burdette is a sixth-grade teacher at the school. (Submitted photo)

Colleen Burdette, left, shares a fun teaching moment with Megan Whitham, a student at Pope John XXIII School in Madison. Burdette is a sixth-grade teacher at the school. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Consider the transformation that marked Sandi Patel’s life—from her days as a girl growing up in the Catholic faith to her first years as a teacher in a Catholic school.

“When I was a little girl, I would dutifully file into the front pew on the right side of the church with my family,” Patel recalls. “In my teenage years, I challenged my parents about the importance of going to church. My mom would simply reply, ‘Some day, you will be grateful for your Catholic faith.’

“That ‘some day’ came 17 years ago when, as a newlywed, I moved to Indianapolis. I started teaching music at St. Philip Neri, and I saw the power of a Catholic education. My passion was ignited and, after four years of teaching in a public school, I never looked back.

“With all my heart, I believe that the children in our classrooms will make a powerful difference in the world. They will see the world through their hearts filled with Christ, and they will be motivated to become his hands and feet. It is my privilege to be part of that wonderful reality—a wonderful reality with a foundation set in a Catholic school.”

Now the principal of SS. Francis and Clare School in Greenwood, Patel is one of the more than 1,900 staff members who serve and teach some 23,000 students in the 71 Catholic schools in the archdiocese. By far, most of those educators are lay people—a group that for decades has been the backbone of Catholic education in central and southern Indiana.

The Criterion asked some of those educators to share their thoughts on the importance of a Catholic education, and their commitment to providing it.

Colleen Burdette, sixth-grade teacher at Pope John XXIII School in Madison

“I have a former student who is now in the Navy. His captain called him into the office one day and asked if he went to a Catholic school. When he responded with a yes, the captain told him he could tell because he was always prepared, on time and ready to work.

“A good friend of mine was teaching at the college level in Ohio. She did not attend a Catholic high school, but she could pick those in her classes who had. She could pick those students for the same reasons the Navy captain did.

“The atmosphere in a Catholic school is different in my experience. Although I have spent so much time in the Catholic system, I have also spent plenty of time in the public system. When God can enter a classroom, there is an entirely different feel. So often, my telling the students what is right or wrong isn’t enough, but when I can show the students how God wants them to live, the point is much more easily made. It is especially effective when students receive similar messages at home.”

Kymberli Payonk, pre-school teacher at St. Patrick School in Terre Haute

“I teach 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, and it is a treat to introduce them to our faith. They are so open and loving and in awe when we learn about Jesus or stories from the Bible.

“We just ended the Christmas season. We learn the story of Jesus’ humble birth, and I’m so proud of my students when they talk about Bethlehem instead of the North Pole. None of this takes away from their love of Santa, of course, but it certainly helps them focus on the true story of Christmas.

“I have been a faithful Catholic all of my life, but I attended public school up through eighth grade. When I moved on to a Catholic high school and later a Catholic college, I couldn’t help but notice that the kids who came from the Catholic grade school had a foundation in faith that I didn’t have. I had always attended CCD, but I couldn’t learn in one hour a week what the Catholic school kids received daily at school.”

Michael Joseph, former teacher and now campus director at Holy Angels School in Indianapolis

“I sense that parents who choose Catholic education desire something greater for their children. Education is not just about learning to read and write, but also about learning everything there is to know about life—morality, a sense of self-worth, a sense of pride in who you are, and a sense that you belong to a group. I think that parents choose Catholic education for those reasons in addition to a great and high-level academic experience.

“Faith is shared and practiced even if one is not of the Catholic faith. Academics are designed to obtain success. And extremely high expectations are demanded of students and parents. Parents recognize that it is important that students must overcome and achieve no matter what the challenges. They are prepared in Catholic schools for everything that the world will throw at them. That is why I value Catholic schools and Catholic education.”

Sandi Patel, principal of SS. Francis and Clare School in Greenwood

“God calls me to ministry every day, and every day I am grateful. Yes, I could earn more money to buy a newer car or a bigger house, but it could not equal the treasure of openly sharing our common faith.

“Where else can you gather each morning for prayer with everyone, children and adults, to offer thanksgiving for the everyday blessings, or to ask for God’s help in times of fear and sadness? Every day, I am surrounded by visible reminders—the faces of the precious children—that God is real and he loves us very much. It is so much a part of who I am that I would have difficulty returning to a secular classroom setting.

“As a mom, I know that a Catholic education is the only option for my son. He can learn math and language arts or be academically challenged at any school. However, my wish for him is that he finds his God-given talents and then uses what he learns to make the world a better place. Under the guidance of an excellent faculty at his school—not the same school as mine—he is experiencing the value of doing just that, following the model of the Master Teacher.” †


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