By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator

As Catholic school students throughout the Diocese of Baton Rouge bask in the glow of summer, enjoying a break from schoolwork, teachers are heading back to class to learn more about the Catholic faith. Since 2011, the Catholic Schools Office has been working with the Office of Evangelization and Catechesis to help teachers become certified in faith formation through Ministry and Theology (MAT) classes. That’s when the CSO required teachers to get certification as part of their employment contracts.

“When I got here, the policy stated that teachers ‘should’ work toward basic certification,” recalled Dr. Melanie Verges, who took over as superintendent of CSO in 2009. “I discovered that we had 20-year veteran teachers who had never completed it.”

Working with the diocesan Office of Evangelization and Catechesis to accommodate the vast number of teachers who would soon be enrolling in MAT classes, Verges said the requirement was added to the CSO handbook within two years.

Dina Dow, director of OEC, said there were no Catholic school teachers enrolled when she was teaching MAT classes in 2010 but that quickly changed the next year.

“It was interesting because some of the Catholic school teachers are not Catholic,” said Dow. “So, to me, it’s an opportunity for evangelization and increasing their understanding of what the Catholic faith is. You also have some teachers that may not be practicing their Catholic faith for whatever reason and it’s an invitation for them to grow in their understanding and grow in their love of Christ and to come home.”

For those who are practicing their Catholic faith, Dow said she has noticed an “awakening” in their understanding of the faith, even among those teachers who graduated from Catholic high school.

“Now during your late 20s and early 30s you’ve never studied anything formally about the faith, you’ve skipped out on 10 or 12 years of growth and wisdom in the church,” said Dow. “So, there’s been new popes, there’s been new encyclicals, there’s been different ways of articulation. Plus, if they haven’t prayed, there have been missed opportunities to grow in the word of God.

“So, we try to invite people to a relationship with Christ through these classes. And, the reactions are mixed but 99 percent of the time, by the end of the class, people will have a conversion or have some type of enlightenment … only because the Holy Spirit is moving them.”

Dow recalled one teacher who shared information from the class with her non-church going husband, who ended up returning to Mass. She said other teachers have been able to “articulate the faith whenever it comes up in the classroom despite the subject.” She said this is especially important in science “to understand the balance between faith and science and how those actually go together.” She noted one social studies teacher incorporated the history of the faith during a study on the history of Europe.

“It’s kind of a blending of both worlds,” said Dow. “It showed how the faith impacted the secular world and vice versa.”

The driving force behind the basic certification requirement was Catholic identity, according to Verges.

“That was the whole thing because you have more and more laypeople working in schools and so they don’t have the theology background,” said Verges. “They probably don’t have the background that we would want for someone to teach in a Catholic school, whether they teach math or physics or English.

“They need to have basic certification because that’s part of our Catholic identity. And, that’s the first part of our vision is to evangelize hearts and you can’t give what you don’t have.”

A teacher’s first contract with CSO requires the new hire to complete 20 hours (two classes) or more of religious education within the one-year term of the contract. If the contract is renewed, a teacher must complete eight classes in order to have basic certification within four years. According to Verges, many of the schools pay for the classes. She added that principals and assistant principals are required to go to the next level with intermediate certification.

“The game changer,” according to Verges, was putting all of the information of certification into a centralized database to keep up with 1,185 teachers. Previously, that information was maintained by each school’s church parish, which also had to keep up with parish employees.

“Sometimes I’d visit a school and ask for certifications and the parish person showed me a stack two- and three-feet high which had to be entered individually,” she recalled. “Now, it’s a much better system. The teacher of each MAT class enters the credit of their 20 students into the database and that’s managed by Evangelization. And every year I get a list.”

As Catholic school teachers learn more about their faith, so in turn do their students. Verges said students’ scores on the Assessment of Catholic Religious Education (ACRE) tests are above the national average of students enrolled in Catholic schools and the scores continue to rise.

“It is because our teachers are now more aware of the church’s teaching and everything they’ve learned, they weave it into English, they weave it into social studies – more prayer goes into math class than any other class,” she said. “They are able to weave it in because they understand the church’s teachings better. Catholic identity is stronger across the diocese because of this.”

One thing that was added to the Catholic Educators’ Gathering for the 2018-19 school year was special recognition for those teachers who have completed basic certification, something that will continue at the August gathering.

MAT classes are not just for educators, they are also available to the public. For more information contact Dina Dow at 225-242-0141 or visit evangcatbr.org.