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home : features : people of faith

1/22/2015 9:00:00 AM
Catholic teachers in changing times
Non-Catholic kids
At many Catholic schools, the number of non-Catholic students is matching or exceeding the number of Catholic ones - but the mission has not changed.

"We still teach about Jesus," said Rachelle Cotugno, a music teacher at St. Mary's Institute in Amsterdam. "It takes more effort to make sure you're reaching the kids, because not even all the Catholic kids attend Mass."

Ms. Cotugno still uses prayers and religious music, though she misses having more women religious around: "There was a spirit when they were present. The discipline was a little more regimented. I don't know if some of the kids even know what a nun is today."

Theresa Heilsberg, a teacher at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Delmar, said her school compensates for the lack of religious on staff by bringing in speakers and having vocations awareness days. The teachers answer more questions about religious life and talk about callings.

"The core things [about Catholic schools] have not changed," she said - like turning out graduates "who understand the need to nurture their own community, follow the Gospel messages, preach the Gospel messages through their lives.

Non-Catholic students "bring about diversity," said Eileen Dooley, a teacher at Blessed Sacrament School in Albany. She does sacramental preparation for First Communion and has more children this year not receiving it. "You have to be respectful of all different religions and teach kids that."

Mrs. Heilsberg said ecumenism is not new at Catholic schools: "There are many Christian elements that we share with other Christian faiths that people want for their children." (AC)

Why they teach

Several Catholic schoolteachers in the Albany Diocese told The Evangelist why they stay at Catholic schools (see more on pages 12-13):

•  "The more I prayed about it and the more I stayed in it, the more I knew it's where God wanted me to be. I feel at home here. I feel what I do here matters." - Theresa Heilsberg, St. Thomas the Apostle School, Delmar

•  "This is a vocation. It's not just teaching. You are an example for children. For some of them, they may not even have that at home. School is a safe place. [You give them] attention, love, teaching them about God and the Church and [how] there's a creator that loves them. Some kids are needy; they just want someone to listen to them. I believe this is where God wants me to be." - Rachelle Cotugno, St. Mary's Institute, Amsterdam

•  "It takes your mind off everything else in your life. You're there for the child and the child's there for you. They're so loving and they have so much to give." - Kathy Dresch, Sacred Heart School, Troy

•   "They're with you for a huge part of their day. You have a huge opportunity to really make a positive impact on kids. I love to see the looks on kids' faces just when you recognize them [and] their little 'aha moments.' It's an amazing thing to watch [and] something you can't replicate." - Amy Baker, St. Pius X School, Loudonville (AC)

When Theresa Heilsberg, a teacher at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Delmar, sent her own children to Catholic schools, "Catholic schools were seen sometimes as having less technology available and less extras." Now, her school has more technology than some public schools. Besides, "I'm not as concerned as what my children are going to do and what they're going to be as who they are going to be."

Catholic schoolteachers in the Albany Diocese are adapting to changing times.

Teaching remains a fulfilling vocation, they told The Evangelist, but can consume more time and pose more challenges today than in previous decades. New technology, stricter educational standards and the rise of single-parent, low-income and dual-income families make a difference in the way educators approach their jobs today, as do complicated social issues.

Tech talk
New technology means ongoing training for teachers. "You have to at least try to stay a step ahead," said Theresa Heilsberg, a sixth-through-eighth-grade social studies teacher at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Delmar.

The school stopped using textbooks three years ago; the teacher has taken online classes to master the laptops students use. She said teachers take the initiative to get training.

Kathy Dresch, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Sacred Heart School in Troy, sometimes struggles with the online report card system, but ably uses email and Facebook to communicate with parents. That doesn't take any more time "than when we used to write notes," she said.

At Blessed Sacrament School in Albany, teacher Eileen Dooley uses an Intelliboard and online materials to accompany textbooks. Like other teachers, she sees technology as a teaching aid, but she does worry about the long-term effects of constant use of iPads, smartphones and the like: "If I were a parent, I might limit the time they spent on these types of things." Higher standards
A teacher for 30 years, Ms. Dooley sees marked differences between the students of today and those decades ago. Common Core national education initiatives are creating higher expectations in subjects like math and writing. For instance, students who used to meet requirements by composing a sentence now have to write in-depth stories and map out their writing.

"There's a wider range of abilities than before when they enter first grade," Ms. Dooley said. "I see a lot of promise - things I don't think their counterparts were doing 20 or 30 years ago. That gives me hope."

For teachers, there's more material to cover and more differentiated instruction, Ms. Dooley said, leaving less time for creativity.

When Mrs. Heilsberg started teaching a quarter-century ago, "teaching was about dispersing information," she said. "There was much more direct instruction. Now, [it's] me being more of a coach. I learn from them and they learn from me. It's more of like lighting a fire for the student to gain information.

"The way that children learn has changed," she continued. "Even from a very young age, children are exposed to media much more than 25 years ago. Their expectation of how they can answer a question has changed. The attention span is different."

There is more collaboration among teachers, Mrs. Heilsberg added.

"It used to be that teachers cared about their subject and their subject only," she said. "Children weren't going to learn something that they couldn't relate to their lives. Society changed the kind of learner [it] needs. The workers we need in the future are problem-solvers. The goal is to turn out not just someone who's going to function in society, but someone who's going to lead society."

Amy Baker, a first-grade teacher at St. Pius X School in Loudonville, has noticed the increasing partnership among her colleagues, too: "You're asked to teach so many different subjects. For you to reinvent the wheel all the time just doesn't work."

No homework help
Mrs. Baker said today's students are also getting less help at home: "Before, it was more of an even balance on the parents and teachers."

Mrs. Dresch remembers an abundance of "homeroom mothers" when she started teaching in the late 1970s. "Now, everybody works," she said. There is "less parental involvement in the classroom. The parents do all they can do, [but teachers] have a harder game to play."

Mrs. Dresch said teachers work at school fundraisers more often - and there are more fundraisers so that Catholic schools can afford increasingly expensive classroom supplies.

"One of the biggest obstacles we have is, there's so many things we need," she said. "I've always felt that we put in a lot of hours outside of school, [but] you used to have weekends [off]."

Summers, she added, are devoted to more and more training, discussion and reflecting on how to do the job better next year.

Mrs. Heilsberg said the extra demands on teachers means "you just have to prioritize.

"It's worth it," she said. "Teaching, especially in a Catholic school, is the very best job you can have. It's demanding and it's long hours and it's not always convenient, but you are educating not only their minds, but helping their spirits grow. There's nothing better."

Teacher's role: When a student struggles
Teachers have a unique role when a student has problems at home or a developmental, behavioral or psychological disorder.

Catholic teachers make referrals to school districts or help when needs for food or clothing arise.

Kathy Dresch, a pre-kindergarten teacher at Sacred Heart School in Troy, has brought in supplies or clothing when she spots a child in a sweater with holes.

"When we worry about a student, we do whatever we have to do," she said.

Rumbling tummies or ragged clothing can point to issues at home or explain poor performance or out-of-character behavior.

"It's definitely a fine line" when it comes to teachers getting involved with a student's home life, Mrs. Dresch said. Teachers may ask, "Are you OK? Do you want me to talk to Mom?"

"Many times, we stay after with a child and do homework with them or talk things out with them. We're trained better, now, how to handle it."

Today's Catholic teachers juggle more discipline-related referrals, more contact with school districts and more students with developmental and learning disabilities, she said, noting: "Autism is a big thing now. In the '70s, that wasn't a word you heard much. It was 'children who had trouble learning.'"

Whatever the situation at home, "we try to work together as a team: the child, the parents and the teacher."

Amy Baker, a first-grade teacher at St. Pius X School in Loudonville, says home life "plays a role in how [students] perceive themselves" and "plays a very important role in the classroom.

"You can tell that something isn't going right for kids when you see them every day and something changes. The kids have to feel comfortable enough with you that they can talk about it."

If they don't, Mrs. Baker consults parents and the principal, who calls St. Pius' part-time guidance counselor or a counselor from the local district. (Many Catholic schools do not have their own counselors.) She also incorporates faith, telling students that "not only are their parents watching, but God's always watching."

Rachelle Cotugno, a music teacher at St. Mary's Institute in Amsterdam, added that awareness about abuse has changed the way adults interact with children.

"You have to be very cautious," she said. "You don't just hug a kid. I try to do it more verbally [by] letting them know they're loved."

At Blessed Sacrament School in Albany, there are "more things to teach that involve social issues" today, said long-time teacher Eileen Dooley.

"Family life has changed," she said. "That [affects] the kids. Support at home in some cases is not there as much as it used to be. I just am there for the child."

Theresa Heilsberg, a teacher for 24 years at St. Thomas the Apostle School in Delmar, takes the same approach: "We know what's going on at home and we adjust what's going on at school."

If there has been a family emergency, for example, she's more lenient about missing homework. "The child has to trust you in order to tell you. Teaching can't exist in a vacuum. The parents know what's going on."

St. Thomas offers an after-school homework club four days a week; teachers staff it.

"The relationship between the teacher and student is what makes or breaks the educational experience," Mrs. Heilsberg believes. "The student needs to feel safe, accepted, that their school is there for them and [that] they're a member of a community."

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