WILMINGTON — Educators have a tough job, but if they truly want to “communicate Christ,” there are four things they can do to help make the task more manageable. That was the message delivered to Catholic teachers and administrators at their annual Spirituality Day on Aug. 23 at Saint Mark’s High School.
The keynote speaker was Sister Mary Madeline Todd, a Dominican of the Congregation of Saint Cecilia and a longtime educator. She currently teaches at Mount de Sales Academy in Baltimore, and she writes, speaks and gives retreats on a number of topics.
One of the most important things teachers need to do is rely on Jesus.
“If we think we can do it all on our own strength, we’re going to burn out,” she said. “We have to keep looking at Jesus, not at the waves. If you think of all the things you have to get done, you will sink.”
While the curriculum is important, it is critical that teachers be mindful of how they interact with students. In every interaction, Jesus said to those he encountered, “I see you. I hear you. I know you, and I am for you,” Sister Mary Madeline said. The first three, she added, lead to the fourth.
She encouraged the teachers to show the students that they were there for them in concrete ways. How did Jesus do this, she asked. He saw each person with attentive tenderness. What she likes to do in her classes is learn more than the students’ names. People need to be seen, she said.
But seeing is not enough.
“If you want to learn how to teach, you need to learn how to listen,” Sister Mary Madeline said.
She referenced the story of Martha and Jesus and the raising of Martha’s brother Lazarus from the dead. Rather than just telling Martha that her brother would live, he let her voice her own confusion and pain. If teachers know what students need, they can walk with the youngsters.
Sister Mary Madeline said students “are on a journey,” and their beliefs might not match hers. But she tells them that’s OK. She also had questions when she was their age.
She wants her students to be able to ask her for more time if they need it. She will pray with or for them if they want. Sister Mary Madeline said she doesn’t ask her students for the details of their issues, although many share them. What is important is to let the students know that you care about what is going on in their lives.
“You can’t know somebody you can’t see and hear. Jesus knew his disciples and his friends,” she said.
Sister Mary Madeline also stressed that students — and everybody — are going to make mistakes. One of the only stories in all four gospels is that of Peter denying three times that he knew Jesus, who had told Peter, the first pope, that he would make a mistake. It’s difficult to teach others if you have never made a mistake, she said. Peter knew he messed up, and Jesus gave him a chance to atone.
“What he realizes is that Peter did not need a lecture to realize he got it wrong,” she said.
If they are going to work as educators, they need to know that they work with people who are going to make mistakes. Earlier in her career, Sister Mary Madeline said she feared questions from her students because she was afraid she would not know the answer. Today, she relishes those opportunities because it gives her a chance to educate herself.
It also makes her more human to her students, she added.
At Mount de Sales, one of Sister Mary Madeline’s favorite activities is the art show. She stops at every exhibit and asks the girls questions about their work. The art shows what is in their hearts, and those questions give her a chance to get to know them better.
She does not watch a lot of television these days, but she recalled the relationships between adults and youngsters from the shows of her adolescence, such as “The Cosby Show,” with a healthy dynamic between the generations. That does not exist today. Her students tell her that adults are made to look irrelevant and somewhat unintelligent.
“There is something going on in our world that is planting seeds of distrust” between youth and adults, she said. “What that’s doing to our young people is that they only trust each other.”
If your colleagues and students perceive that you are there for them, your school will flourish, she said. We all want somebody who is for us the way Jesus was for others. But it is important that educators “know that we are seen, that we are heard, that we are known, and that God is for us.”
“It’s like he said: ‘This is my body, given up for you.’”