The Lifeblood of a School
Teachers are the lifeblood of a school. Great teachers make great schools. But what makes a great teacher? Donoghue offers her observations, developed over the course of decades working with great teachers at the best Catholic schools:
A great teacher knows Jesus Christ personally and this inspires a desire within the teacher to continually come to know Him better, and to take seriously the obligation to shepherd his or her students into a deeper relationship with Christ. The great teacher is also intellectually curious, capable of experiencing wonder, and keenly aware of the dignity of the children in the classroom.
Effective school leaders understand the importance of maintaining an excellent teaching faculty, which is why they take great care in the recruiting, hiring, and training of teachers. The result is a joyful learning environment with high teacher retention, strong family loyalty, and great interest by new and younger families eager to become a part of the school community.
Building a Culture of Friendship
Jeffrey Presberg is headmaster of St. John the Beloved Academy, a PK-8 parochial school in McLean, Virginia, that was founded in 1954. Until recently, St. John the Beloved was on the same path as many struggling schools: most teachers and parents had accepted a management approach to education that embraced systems, benchmarks, and an impatience for the complexities of the human experience. Students were bored, families were burdened by process, and administrators and teachers were obsessed with diagnosing and treating uncooperative children, especially boys. As a result, some families left for “free” schools with “better services.” New families were not joining. Enrollment was plummeting.
Fr. Christopher J. Pollard, pastor of St. John the Beloved Catholic Church, knew he needed strong leadership to save his school. He recruited Presberg, an experienced educator and head of school who had been leading a successful all-boys school in Houston, Texas, to relocate to Virginia. It took Presberg less than three years to transform St. John the Beloved Academy into one of the area’s most sought-after Catholic schools, with full enrollment and a deep waitlist.
Similar to other effective school leaders, Presberg sought to reclaim the Catholic identity and culture of his school. He started by focusing on the faculty. He parted ways with more than half of the original teachers who wanted to “manage” their classrooms rather than teach, and recruited and hired new teachers capable of inspiring children and spreading joy throughout the school. He now has a faculty of teachers who embrace his vision for the school. Together, they support each other as colleagues and friends as they learn and grow in their craft.
Presberg has been mindful about cultivating a culture of friendship among his faculty—because friendship, which is good and rewarding for its own sake, is also a powerful transformer of culture. He explains:
Friendship is the cornerstone of our school. It originates with the faculty; we are intentional about forming friendships with each other. It informs our pedagogy and schoolwide culture. It shapes how we relate to students and parents, cultivating a love of wisdom, liberal arts, and great conversation throughout the school community.
Students, teachers, and parents enjoy being a part of a community of learners who are also friends. They help create stability for the school because they are less likely to leave prematurely and more likely to attract likeminded friends to join the community.
Education is Fueled by Relationships
Presberg’s experience cultivating a spirit of friendship at his school underscores an important truth observed by Sullivan: “education is fueled by relationships.” Strong relationships, originating with the faculty, make strong schools. She explains:
Teachers are guides for students to discover truth, goodness, and beauty in the world. Schools that foster growth and friendship in their faculties have seen the payoff in enrollment, because that joy is compelling.
Crawford shares a similar insight. He says education is “first and foremost” about a “deep interpersonal formation” and that the “secret” to such formation rests in the faculty. He explains:
Teachers are the living lessons for our students. We searched high and low for those teachers whom we knew would not just be able to share expertise, but would also be able to model a love of learning, a deep humility, and a great passion for life. As impressive as each of our teachers is individually, they form an even more impressive community that is a true witness for our students.
As Crawford notes, finding great teachers is essential to developing a strong faculty. Equally as important—especially for school leaders tasked with renewing their schools—is parting ways with weak or problematic teachers.
Confronting One of the “Hardest Parts” of the Job
When Presberg became headmaster of his school, he was delighted to discover that some teachers were enthusiastic about the changes he wanted to make; they acknowledged problems in their classrooms, wanted to learn how to better serve their students and families, and were eager to become a part of a newly energized faculty. Other teachers, however, resisted Presberg’s changes; they didn’t want to teach differently and Presberg didn’t encourage them to stay. Approximately half of the original teachers left on their own or did not have their contracts renewed in the first two years. This gave Presberg the flexibility to hire new teachers to work alongside the remaining original teachers to help renew his school.
Terminating the employment of weak or problematic teachers is an essential part of operating a strong school. It is also among the most challenging responsibilities for a school leader. Vander Weele calls it “one of the hardest parts of the job—one that requires a lot of prayer.”
She would know. When Vander Weele became principal of her school, her teachers were not eager to help her make the changes she proposed. A critical part of her success in renewing her school was facilitating a complete turnover of her teaching staff. She explains:
When I first came to Lourdes, the teachers resisted change. We experienced 100% turnover of the original teaching faculty by the end of the third year. Of the original teachers, approximately 40% chose not to return on their own and I did not renew the other approximately 60%.
For more than a decade, Sullivan has helped inspire and train hundreds of Catholic school teachers to improve their craft, sometimes requiring the undoing of decades of harmful training and counterproductive practices in the classroom. She has helped bring about amazing transformations for teachers and schools. But she acknowledges that not all teachers can be retrained to be spart of a successful renewal of a school. Some teachers have dispositions and tendencies that are difficult to overcome, making them a poor fit for Catholic schools. She shares:
Among those, I would list impatience, negativity, ego, favoritism, apathy, and a lack of diligence as particularly challenging. Among the non-negotiables that would make a teacher an improper fit for a school: any action or teaching that contradicts or undermines the Catholic, Christian mission of the school. A teacher whose heart is not in the mission is better off elsewhere, for everyone involved.
School leaders who have the awareness and courage to confront staffing problems head on are better able to help the rest of their teachers serve their students and school families.
Hiring: The “Most Important Moment” of a School Leader’s Work
Crawford is clear about the critical role teachers play in shaping the culture of a school—which is why he calls hiring the “most important moment” of his work. He explains:
A school can only ever be as excellent as its faculty. My goal in interviewing a teacher candidate is to discover if he or she will be a good addition to our community and whether they will be an excellent role model to the young men and women in his or her care.
I am looking for teachers who have a capacity for wonder (intellectus), a deep humility, great courage, and a thirst for excellence. Different teachers may have different teaching personalities, but all successful teachers ought to have a level of gravitas, an ability to establish order in their classroom, and a touch of stage presence. They should be strong leaders with a great capacity for charity.
Recruiting and Assessing Potential New Teachers
All great Catholic schools have high standards for their teachers. Equally important, they know how to recruit impressive candidates—often requiring relocation—and determine whether prospective new hires would be a good fit for their school communities.
The first step to filling a teaching vacancy is finding qualified candidates. The most popular resources to identify potential new hires include:
Word of mouth. School leaders often find their best teachers through the recommendations of current teachers and parents who love their schools and have an interest in recruiting new teachers who will protect the culture.
Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. ICLE offers two widely used services: (1) an Employment Opportunities Job Board allowing school leaders to post open positions, to be discovered by teachers seeking new opportunities and (2) a Resume Portal allowing teachers to post their resumes, to be discovered by school leaders recruiting for open positions.
Colleges with strong liberal arts programs. Many of the best Catholic schools have developed relationships with, and hired recent graduates of, the following colleges: University of Dallas, Thomas Aquinas College, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ave Maria University, Wyoming Catholic College, Catholic University of America, Hillsdale College, and Baylor University (the Honors Program).
Catholic websites. Other helpful resources school leaders use include the Cardinal Newman Society, Chesterton Schools Network, Catholic Jobs, National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools, Handshake, and diocesan websites.
Roberts shares a helpful insight. He finds that telling his school’s story throughout the year helps him find qualified teachers when he needs them:
We are constantly cultivating awareness of our mission through emails and website updates that those closest to us are eager to pass along. It makes it easier for us to recruit likeminded teachers to strengthen our faithful Catholic culture.
Attributes of Quality Candidates
When considering teaching candidates, effective school leaders look for great teachers who will contribute to and strengthen the culture of their schools. Consider the way four leaders describe what they look for in teaching candidates.
Van Hecke looks for qualities of the Holy Family:
I think of Jesus knowing all, enraptured by all of the beautiful attributes of God found in creation, and loving every single person—every one! Imagine a teacher who has a love and grasp of knowledge across many, many areas of knowing, and who loves children.
Mary is all loving and sacrificial, the principal component of a great teacher. One who will do the harder thing for herself, because it is the better thing for the child.
And then there is Joseph—humble, strong, just, chaste, prudent, and faithful. In addition to that, Joseph was deeply knowledgeable and hardworking when it came to his craft. He was the model of “work ethic.” These are traits to see in a well-round teacher. To add to that, who would not want a teacher that exhibits some of St. Joseph’s other notable characteristics—Model of Workmen, Zealous Defender of Christ, and, the middle school boy’s favorite, Terror of Demons.
Martinez similarly looks for saints—or at least, teachers who want to be saints:
When I hire a teacher, I always ask myself if I would entrust a child to this person. I have really high standards because children are sponges and they soak up everything, including spirit. So, my number one qualification is, “Does this teacher want to be a saint?”
Crawford looks for attributes he ultimately wants in his own students:
A good question to ask when considering a candidate is whether this person is the sort of person you want your school’s student to become. If the answer is no, then no amount of expertise or experience can make that candidate a good hire. Strong candidates must be humble, passionate, courageous, and fundamentally formable. They must be philosophically aligned with the vision of the school but also model the love for the true, the good, and the beautiful which we seek to foster in all of our students.
Altman looks for supportive colleagues to help her current teachers:
We expect that new teachers will jump in with an openness to learn, share, and attain excellence in their classroom methods as well as in their other duties in the school community. We all depend on one another to give 100% to make the ship sail, and we are all expected to move an oar in the right direction. Negativity or resistance to continuous improvement doesn’t work very well when a team is in full motion.
Application and Interview Process
Effective school leaders rely on more than just resumes and reference checks when assessing teaching candidates. They get to know applicants—as teachers and as people—before making an offer to anyone to join their school faculty.
The interview is a critical part of the application process—and a practice many school leaders treat as more of a conversation than a series of formal questions to be asked and answered. School leaders hope to enjoy their time conversing with applicants. Even so, they have an important goal—to determine whether teaching candidates understand and are aligned with the philosophical outlook of the school and whether they are capable of cultivating wonder in children and contributing to the joyful, faithful culture of the school. Van Hecke relies on certain well-conceived questions to help him make these determinations, including, “What are you reading now” and “How have/would you handle this following situation in a class?”
Another important part of the process is immersing applicants in the life of a school. This often involves having teaching candidates meet other faculty members, observe classes, and teach a demo lesson. Crawford has applicants receive constructive feedback during their demo lessons.
Creating an Attractive Teaching Environment
It’s not enough for school leaders to identify great teachers they want to hire; those teachers must also want to teach at their schools. Effective school leaders are mindful about creating a desirable teaching environment to attract great teachers.
An important way schools get on the radar of great teachers is by valuing the teaching profession. Malcolm says teachers appreciate his school’s approach, which he is intentional about sharing with great teachers he wants to hire:
Teachers appreciate that we genuinely want them to teach. This is attractive because a lot of schools want teachers to focus on measurements and verifying outcomes. We don’t want teachers to be John Dewey acolytes. We want them to have a fascination with the world because that is what is infectious and formative for their students.
Another key selling point for teachers is the opportunity to join a supportive faculty of friends who help each other grow in their craft. Presberg says teachers want to be a part of his faculty because of the strong culture of friendship at his school:
As for what teachers are seeking, the culture with faculty is key. Our teachers are friends; their work is collaborative. While there are normal moments of misunderstanding, there is little to no infighting. Our teachers have freedom and good material. They have room to succeed or fail. They know they must take initiative and responsibility for what they’re doing and challenge themselves to get better.
Woltering has identified another critical selling point for faithful Catholic teachers: daily Mass. This was a big draw for Dina Zelden, an experienced teacher who relocated from New Orleans, Louisiana, moving down the street from Holy Family Academy in Manassas, Virginia, to be a part of the school’s teaching faculty. She explains:
I’ve taught at other schools, both private and public. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to attend daily Mass during the school day. It’s been transformational for me. There is no substitute for receiving the Eucharist and taking the time to sit in prayer and contemplation. It spiritually strengthens you for the job of teaching. It helps you be charitable with the different personalities of students and colleagues. It orients you towards Jesus, so you see Jesus in everyone around you, so you can care for them throughout the day.
Many faithfully Catholic schools have established such a strong reputation—both in their communities and nationally—that teachers seek them out, whether or not they have open teaching positions.
Teacher Training and Faculty Development
Zwerneman is president of Cana Academy, a non-profit organization that studies, develops, and teaches the best ways for teachers to master their art. Zwerneman has nearly 40 years of experience teaching and consulting in schools that emphasize classic humanities, including 17 years as the head of a school in Virginia and two years as the head of a school in Arizona.
Zwerneman helps school leaders across the country improve their teaching faculty, leading to better learning and stronger schools. He sees three major weaknesses of teachers and teacher training at otherwise-strong classical and liberal schools:
Most teachers teach the way they were taught, which, at most colleges and universities, is not very good.
Many schools provide no training for teachers, but they think they do. Once or twice a year, they offer Professional Development, which includes an array of enrichment programs on academic topics or specific works; these programs are not designed to help teachers develop their skills as teachers.
Many schools that do provide training fail to cover two of the three major types of teaching: Socratic and coaching. That’s because most teaching in schools is didactic and when heads of school and veteran teachers train newer teachers, they tend to give talks—teaching didactically.
All Teachers—Even Seasoned Veterans—Need Training
Effective school leaders have an appreciation for teacher training and formation that many or most heads of modern schools lack; they understand that ongoing training for teachers at all levels is an indispensable part of operating a school. Sullivan explains:
No teacher is a finished product. Teaching is an art, not a science. Every year, every class, is filled with different individual students with unique needs and gifts. The tidy lesson plan or unit that worked beautifully last year might need some tweaking to engage this year’s students. Once we get stuck in our routines, we grow stale or ineffective.
Every educator should approach his or her vocation with a desire to continue growing. After all, a teacher should be a model of someone who never stops wanting to learn.
Altman underscores the need for school leaders to support teachers in their professional growth:
[A]ll teachers need support, and all teachers should grow continually in their craft. Therefore it is never assumed that I just hire and stick them in a classroom and call it “good,” no matter what their experience. A professional is constantly seeking to perfect their methods and pedagogy—I am here to support that in all my teachers (and that is just as important as making a good hire in the first place).
Proper training requires the dedication of school resources—including not just time, but also money. To bring master teachers into the school, send teachers to quality programs outside of the school, and purchase formative books, school leaders must add training as a line item in the budget. Van Hecke recommends allocating an amount for training that is equal to 33-50% of the salary of a full-time teacher.
Avoiding Bad Training
It is important for leaders of Catholic schools—especially those attempting to renew their schools—to understand that all training is not equal. In fact, most training available for teachers today is inappropriate for faithfully Catholic schools; it is not informed by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, is not motivated by the pursuit of truth, and lacks an understanding of the dignity owed to children in the classroom and parents as the primary educators of their children.
One thing I have discovered is to be very wary of any of our state and national teacher training offerings and even some of our diocesan training modules that are delivered through those public/secular institutions…. they are so steeped in the progressive model of education…. Sending our teachers to those training sessions tends to just pull them in disparate directions; therefore, I just avoid them altogether and find other ways to provide what my teachers need.
Just as the Catholic faith informs all aspects of a faithful Catholic school’s mission, so too does it shape its teacher training and formation. The most effective school leaders support and attend to their teachers’ growth constantly. This is why Crawford considers himself not just headmaster of his school but also “teacher of teachers,” dedicating a considerable amount of time every week to helping teachers grow in their craft.
Elements of an effective training program include:
Mentorship of new teachers by seasoned teachers. Zwerneman advises that mentors should (a) be proven, effective teachers, (b) know the mission and culture of the school, (c) conduct weekly visits to the classrooms of the newer teachers, and (d) provide practical feedback to correct what is not going well and encourage what is.
Weekly class observations with written feedback. Crawford says this is “the most important teacher formation” he provides for his teachers. He explains:
My goal is to visit every new teacher once a week and every experienced teacher once every two weeks. I also encourage teachers to visit my classes and give me their thoughts. The idea is to create a community of teachers who are all invested in growing and improving in the art of teaching. Regular observations and conversations about our classes help us to maintain that attitude of being lifelong students of the craft of teaching.
Supportive instructional coaching by school leaders and fellow teachers. School leaders must continually encourage teachers to welcome and seek out opportunities to help each other grow in their craft. Sullivan explains:
[S]upportive instructional coaching can go a long way toward improving the confidence and skill of a struggling teacher. Strong school leaders promote a collegial climate where teachers frequently watch one another teach, sharing ideas and feedback in order to serve their students better. Often, this collaboration sparks a great deal of creativity and satisfaction among the faculty.
Weekly faculty meetings. When run by a school leader who is careful to use teachers’ time wisely, these meetings can provide important training to teachers confronting a myriad of opportunities and challenges in their classrooms throughout the year.
Van Hecke uses these meetings to discuss how to bring insights of deeply formative books into their school. Favorite works include:
Renewing Catholic Schools: How to Regain a Catholic Vision in a Secular Age by Institute for Catholic Liberal Education
The Art of Teaching by Gilbert Highet
The Seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory
The Holy See’s Teaching on Catholic Schools by Archbishop J. Michael Miller
Monthly and summer training. Schools that take training seriously provide monthly and summer training, often bringing in master teachers from the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education and Cana Academy, or utilizing resources from Augustine Institute, Chesterton Schools Network, Classical Academic Press, Circe Institute, Denver Catholic Biblical School, Franciscan at Home, Memoria Press, Singapore Math, and other groups.
Vander Weele uses this time to unite her faculty around her school’s mission “to form disciples of Jesus Christ.” She explains:
I try to start with more theoretical training and then drill down to the practical. Most teachers want the practical of what they need to do in their classrooms. I understand. I'm a type A personality myself. But we never jump to practical training without first spending time considering the souls entrusted to us and the human and formative elements of what we're doing.
Semi-annual reviews. Zwerneman advises that school leaders meet with teachers twice a year to identify gaps, devise tactics to close gaps, and develop a follow-up evaluation process through which to determine whether gaps have been closed.
Bootcamp for new teachers. Zwerneman recommends that school leaders host a week-long (or longer) bootcamp for new teachers during their first three years. Bootcamps should take place in the summer, well in advance of school so that mundane matters (for example, mapping out lesson plans, doing the readings or the problem sets, practicing the labs, doing the translations, etc.) can be peacefully attended to. Bootcamps should include the following elements:
Formal presentations. School leaders should give formal presentations examining the content of the school’s mission and its culture. Mission is what the school is established to accomplish: what impact the school hopes to have on which population. Culture consists of the most important practices by which the school is a community of learning devoted to its mission. Teachers need to be trained to be keepers and practitioners of the culture.
Modeling. Seasoned veteran teachers need to model how to teach: what to teach (curricular content) and how to teach it (pedagogy). They need to model in ways that point out the best strategies to follow, clarify the pitfalls to avoid, and demonstrate key maneuvers that constitute the most effective means to move students from one proficiency level to the next. Danny Flynn, principal of St. Jerome Academy, has found great value in this approach, which he says has “shortened the learning curve” for new teachers.
New teacher practice. New teachers should lead exercises that are evaluated by the veterans. Veterans should provide coaching feedback and provide multiple opportunities for new teachers to try again, improve, and demonstrate proficiency.
Models of Servant Leadership
The most effective leaders of Catholic schools are servant leaders, modeled after Jesus Christ’s sacrificial love in service of God’s children. They model servant leadership to their teachers, who in turn model it to each other and their students. Parents at great Catholic schools often note that the mentorship teachers provide for their children—which is based in significant part on teachers’ modeling of virtuous behavior—is among the greatest blessings of being a part of the school community.
Nicholas and Maruska Healy are parents at St. Jerome Institute. They are “deeply impressed” with SJI teachers who are “living their faith and sharing their love for Christ with the students.” They explain:
All of the teachers seem to be aware of the overall vision of the school. They seem to understand how the whole curriculum fits together and are capable and willing to help each other; if need be, they can teach each other’s subjects. This is a rare gift—an experience found similarly in a family where people naturally need to help one another. The teachers spend lots of time with the students as well, during lunch breaks, or after school, offering help and encouragement. It is good to have role models for our son.
School leaders have many demands on their time. The success of the schools highlighted in this Playbook suggest that attending to teacher training and formation is among the most important.