Living what we teach: Authenticity and the Catholic educator

June 14, 2013 § 9 Comments

Reflecting on the past year; remembering the bus ride to Kairos 9, the trips to mock trial competitions, the long conversations about college applications with stressed seniors, the eyes of anxious parents wondering about financial aid, weekly CLC meetings, conversations with faculty . . . I find myself reflecting on the variety of roles that I and my colleagues inhabit throughout the year.

This was not the case when I practiced law.

When I practiced law, my role was to think and write and keep track of cases for busy partners. To be a lawyer was to be really good at understanding and applying rules, regulations, and judicial opinions. My spiritual and emotional state, or that of colleagues or clients, the messiness of the interior life, did not take up my time. Our private concerns remained at home. Discussions about a contract dispute did not involve the discernment of God’s will. (“Do you think God wants you to file this lawsuit? Have you put the matter to prayer? Would you like to think about it and meet again?” Ah, how quickly I would have been fired!)

Photo by Matt Emerson

Photo by Matt Emerson

But Ignatian education, and Catholic education in general, brings in the fullness of life. We are teachers, coaches, and club moderators, and given our commitment to the voyage of faith, we are also spiritual leaders. We are asked to weigh the natural against the supernatural, the temporal against the timeless. And because matters of the spirit intersect with family, friends, and the details of happiness, the line between spiritual direction and counseling blurs. Any teacher who’s ever led a small group on retreat knows that the personal and the religious are intimately connected. Division in the family or strife with friends can quickly undermine a student’s understanding of God. Sometimes, therefore, teachers take on roles analogous to parents, helping students cope with the natural tensions of adolescence.

In each of these capacities, we are entrusted not just to transmit information, not just to break down an equation or a technique. We are called to form young men and women at the very core of their being. In Jesuit education in particular, we have committed ourselves to shaping students along the five soul-moving criteria of the Graduate at Graduation. It is not enough, for example, to teach a student about World War II; an Ignatian educator has to connect that subject to a student’s emotional, spiritual and moral growth, to an expanding awareness of the presence of God. Maybe not all at once, in one class or lesson plan. But over time, an Ignatian education must reach these deepest, most hidden of layers.

In Jesuit education the material we teach is less important than the persons we teach. The student is central, not the subject. This, in part, is what distinguishes an Ignatian way of educating: the focus is on the learner more than what is learned. Put another way, what is learned is only meaningful and transformative if the learner has been properly cared for. Accolades, college acceptances, high test scores — it’s all judged by the well-being of the student, by whether he or she is moving into young adulthood stable and healthy, with an intentional and loving disposition, with an appreciation of ultimate concerns and our divine origin and end. I would much rather hear a student say, “I have come to know that I am loved by God, and that I am to share this love with others” than to say, “I got into Stanford.” If the both, all the better. But we cannot forget which of those two we must prioritize.

To be a teacher, coach or counselor within such a way of proceeding carries extraordinary responsibility. Our character matters. Our integrity matters. Our life choices matter. How we understand the world, how we understand relationships, how we resolve conflicts, how we model fidelity and love, how we interact with colleagues and how we treat those on campus: all of this is part of our teaching. All of this is part of the curriculum. Our students are looking for models, for templates, for examples. They come to us with very difficult questions about the dilemmas in their lives. We owe it to them to speak from a place of honesty, authenticity and virtue.

Outside the abbey at Montserrat. Photo by Matt Emerson

Outside the abbey at Montserrat. Photo by Matt Emerson

Summer break is here. It’s tempting for teachers to use these months to check out; to travel and relax and spend little time thinking about teaching. We might even become disconnected with a community of faith, now that we don’t have school liturgies or prayer services built into our schedule. But here lies a threshold moment; for how can we guide our students in the grad at grad qualities if we don’t nourish these traits in ourselves? If we don’t strive to become more loving and compassionate and open to growth, why should we expect our students to? We hope our students develop a relationship with God that goes beyond mere compliance with a school schedule. But if we don’t seek that for ourselves, in our free time, why should they?

Looking back upon my year, I know that I am strong in some areas, weak in others. I have work to do. I have work to do to become more loving, more affirming, more open, more selfless, more prayerful and more trusting. I have work to do to become a better grader, a better listener and a better email returner. I have work to do in each of these areas (and more), and I owe it not just to myself and to those I work with: after God, I owe it most of all to our students. I owe it to them, because the better I become at returning email, the more genuinely I can tell them to return their homework. The more I pray in my own free time, the more I can encourage them to do the same. The more I listen to my friends and my family, and the more I forgive when I feel slighted, the more I can sympathize with frustrated students and motivate them to choose truth over expediency.

Integrity. Wholeness. Justice. Authenticity. Love. Faith. Compassion. The magis. We seek it for our students, but it starts with us. It starts in the choices we make and the people we choose to become, both during the school year and in the summer, at the barbecue and the beach, with the grace of unscheduled time.


Posted by Matt Emerson.


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§ 9 Responses to Living what we teach: Authenticity and the Catholic educator

  • Lucy says:

    Well said, Matt. Thank you.

  • you’ve posted a thoughtful, wonderful piece here, Mr. Emerson …. may God bless your good intentions in teaching …..

  • memerson says:

    Thank you, Mrs. Gregory. I appreciate your willingness to read and offer feedback. It’s always great to see that people enjoy the work.

  • […] Authenticity and the Catholic Educator Matt Emerson, Ignatian Educator […]

  • SciVias says:

    Your blog is delightful and challenging. I am envious admittedly of the way you have the freedom explicitly to discuss these struggles and ultimate aims with your students. I teach at a small secular private school and, though our core curricula have the stated purpose of forming character, I experience difficulty being “objective.” Especially as I try to grow in my faith, which naturally should infuse and motivate my work. Since I teach middle school aged youth, sometimes it breaks my heart that -even though I understand and respect the nonreligious nature of our school – I cannot share God’s love with them when they are so vulnerable. Any advice for those of us trying to survive outside Catholic education? Prosit.

  • Mary says:

    My, how things change. here is an actual lawyer, addressing other actual lawyers.

    Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

    Abraham Lincoln

  • memerson says:

    Thanks to everyone for their comments. Your readership is greatly appreciated.

    Mary: a powerful quotation, and a reminder for all of us who love the law and want to safeguard our great legal sytem. Some of the best lawyers I know follow Lincoln’s advice.

    SciVias: it’s tricky. If you’re in the public system, you obviously contend with some limitations on bringing God or faith into a discussion. Having practiced law, I’m sensitive to how quickly litigation can materialize. But I think there are ways of discussing these fundamental issues without encroaching on any constitutional boundaries or trying to convert.

    One strategy is not to try to introduce religion per se, but to begin from a more philosophical standpoint. Spark inquiry into the foundational questions of what it means to be a human being. Invite questions and comments on the essential matters: who or what is the human being? How do we make sense of ourselves and of our existence? How do people get through suffering and hardship? What does love mean to you? How do you know you are loved? Where does love come from?

    From that discussion, you might be able to introduce the ways that religious traditions have come to understand those questions, noting that, for example, Christiantity speaks about a God who is love.

    I hope that helps!

    -Matt E.

  • […] of us in Catholic education, at every level. It’s on a matter that I tried to develop in a recent post, and it has to do with the unique mission of Catholic education, what we might call the totality of […]

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