This post was contributed by Pam Bernards, NCEA Director of Professional Development.
Catholic Schools Week is a time to celebrate the Good News of Catholic school education. There is no better way to do this than to honor and recognize those who give so much in service to the students, the teachers. When I was asked if I knew a teacher I could interview for this Catholic Schools Week feature, I immediately thought of my longtime colleague and friend, Laura Sharbel. Laura and I joined the faculty of Sacred Heart School (now Sacred Heart Cathedral School) the same year. It was my first year of teaching and her first year in Knoxville having just relocated from Memphis, TN. That was more than 30 years ago and she has not changed in her care for and commitment to the children. It was indeed an honor and delight to talk with her.
I began by asking Laura, “Why did you choose teaching as a career?” “That goes way back to when I was in school,” she said. My mom’s amazing friend was a teacher and she loved what she was doing. She inspired me to want to teach. When I began, teachers only had six weeks of student teaching. Unfortunately, I saw so many leave the profession. I am one of the fortunate. From day one, I loved teaching! I had the opportunity to go back to my hometown after graduation where many were illiterate. The families entrusted their children to us in search of a better future for their children. As a Catholic school teacher, I see that these parents also entrust their children to our care as they strive to provide the best education for their children. Many are making sacrifices to bring their children to Catholic school. There are also those who do not experience the financial challenges and can make other choices, but they choose us. I admire and am inspired by these families. I feel a responsibility to step up and provide the students with what they deserve; a faith-filled, academically excellent educational experience.
I also believe our Catholic school families know the teachers make sacrifices to teach in a Catholic school; sacrifices in terms of a lower salary and no offering of tenure. There are times I have been pressured to leave for a better salary. In thinking back on it now, the thing that has kept me in Catholic education is the fulfillment I experience that does not come from money. It is the sense of belonging I get from being in a faith-filled community of students, parents and engaged colleagues, all of whom want to be there. It gives me special joy to see my former students bringing their children to the school. I am glad I stood up to the pressure to not leave Catholic education. It is my happy place.
I next asked Laura to share how she has imparted her faith to her students. Her response was immediate.
My goal is to lead the children to Jesus.
I talk openly about Jesus and tell the students he is our friend. I remind them that Jesus is with them, with us in the classroom and that he sees all that we do. I take advantage of teachable moments by talking about how we should treat others and how we live our lives. Respect and love are two words that are often used. I remind them that Jesus is our leader; we want to be like Him and follow Him all the way to heaven.
Our discussion then moved to that of a special memory she would like to share. “That’s so funny,” she said. There are so many times I wish I had written things down. First graders make me laugh. I remember a day I was watching the students on the playground and they did something funny and I laughed. A parent was walking by as that happened and said to me, “It makes me so happy to hear laughter coming from teachers.” Her comment impressed upon me the important role a teacher plays in creating a joyful environment for the children.
I concluded our discussion by asking Laura to share five things she would tell new teachers.
1. Be open to your peers and let them mentor you. She quickly said this is not only for the new teachers, but for the experienced teachers as well. The new teachers have so much to offer, especially when it comes to technology.
2. Remember that you are being entrusted with the greatest gift the parents have: their children.
3. Let the parents know that you have the best interest of their children at heart.
4. Make the parents feel welcome and that you know how they feel. Be a partner with them.
5. Love the children and let them know you care about them.
The last thing Laura shared came as no surprise to me. “Wear a smile and remember to laugh!” True to Laura’s spirit, I could feel this sentiment coming through the phone as we talked. I found myself smiling!
As we celebrate Catholic Schools Week and the teachers who serve the children each day, I reflect on all that Laura shared. I was heartened by her spirit; one which I believe is indicative of Catholic school teachers throughout the country. The children and families are indeed lucky to have Laura and the teachers she embodies throughout the country as their teacher!