Elisabeth Sullivan is executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education.
What is the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education? What is your involvement with Catholic school leaders and educators? What kind of Catholic schools do you help?
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education (ICLE), founded in 1999, is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving and renewing K-12 Catholic schools. We help Catholic schools and educators flourish by reclaiming the Church’s long-tradition in the liberal arts and sciences, which formed many of the sharpest minds and holiest saints in history. Our Institute staff and faculty consultants work closely with teachers, school leaders, and superintendents to bring this beautiful vision of education to life in parochial, diocesan, and independent schools around the country. ICLE offers a wide range of formation plans, programs, and events to inspire and equip educators for their mission.
How do thriving Catholic schools think about their mission? What do they hope to accomplish?
Thriving Catholic schools understand that their mission is, first and foremost, an extension of the mission of the universal Church: to lead all to know, to love, and to live joyfully in the Truth of Jesus Christ in this world and the next. In support of parents as the primary educators, these schools hope to help form disciples whose faith, wisdom, and virtue will frame lives of happiness and holiness, who will be a leaven in the Church and the wider culture.
How does the culture and curriculum of a thriving Catholic school differ from government schools? From struggling or mediocre Catholic schools?
The culture and curriculum of a thriving Catholic school is distinct from all other schools in two particular ways: (1) There is a palpable joy in learning. (2) That joy stems from the fact that the curriculum, culture, and pedagogy are fully integrated into an understanding that Christ is the Logos in Whom all things cohere. Therefore, learning becomes an adventure to discover wondrous connections and order in the world God made, and to understand our unique vocation in this particular time and place. Children are engaged by meaningful lessons, even in their youngest years. Students of all abilities and backgrounds thrive with a highly ordered introduction to reality; they learn how to learn in accord with their nature and development. It is natural, and it is fun.
How often do students at thriving Catholic schools attend Mass?
No less than weekly, sometimes daily. If we believe that the Eucharist is truly the Source and Summit of the Christian life, then we must witness to that Truth and receive that grace as frequently as possible.
How else do thriving Catholic schools integrate the Catholic faith into the school program?
Catholic faith and culture permeate the content, curriculum, and pedagogy of thriving schools: celebration of feast days and other events in the liturgical calendar, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, service, prayer, etc. Most have jettisoned Social Studies in favor of a chronological story of history as Salvation history, including the role of Christianity and the story of the Church. Catholic students should know what happened at the Milvian Bridge and Lepanto, because these events are part of our own story as a people. Students should study nature as a marvelous work of the Creator, not as another dry chapter in a textbook.
More subtle but equally important: Teachers are attending not just to what they teach, but also how they teach--in a way that restores wonder and inquiry to the classroom. In doing so, they respect the dignity of the children, whose hunger to know is ultimately a hunger for God. By contrast, the industrialized model of cram, test, and forget produces apathy and anxiety. It does not feed the soul.
How have you seen the integration of subjects—for example, mathematics, science, literature, and history—in a curriculum deepen students’ understanding of the material and enhance their overall educational experience?
Absolutely! Integration of knowledge, culture, faith, reason, and virtue are the essence of authentic Catholic education because we know that—though it is a mystery—all things are one in Christ. This is what feeds the soul. This is what helps us grow into integrated human beings. This is what helps us discover meaning in the things around us.
Moreover, a key measure of the mind’s power is the ability to make connections across disciplines and experience. An intellect that has been trained to detect pattern and order has an advantage in almost any career, including medicine, law, engineering, sports, carpentry, music, etc. And, these discoveries are delightful!
Many schools share their reading lists by grade online. Of all the schools you work with, do you have a favorite reading list you recommend?
I can’t point to one single list, but anyone who is hunting will notice a great deal of overlap in the mention of classic books for children, which form their imagination in a healthy way.
Homeschooling guides are often a great resource, too. When a school becomes serious about renewing its mission, one of the first places to start is to overhaul the school library and remove many secular titles that fail to lift the spirit and feed the soul. No need for Diary of a Wimpy Kid in a school library!
Low enrollment at a school signals a lack of enthusiasm of local parents to entrust a school with their children’s education. How have you seen struggling schools increase their enrollment? How have you seen thriving schools maintain steady enrollment?
I wonder how often a lack of enthusiasm among parents can be traced to a lack of enthusiasm by school leaders and teachers? And, I wonder how often the educators’ lack of enthusiasm can be traced to the undue bureaucracy and burdens that are put upon them? The dominant educational system appears to be founded on the notion that teachers can’t be trusted. The constant demand for documentation, the constant flow of new fads to adopt, make the job increasingly difficult for teachers to attend to the individual souls in front of them.
The game-changer? Thriving schools recognize the need to free teachers from the factory model of education. When teachers are given the formation and support to continue to grow in the art of teaching according to the Church’s long tradition, they are energized and motivated. That enthusiasm spills over to their students. Teachers cannot give what they do not have. Let’s give them the freedom and resources to be life-long, faith-filled learners who can teach from a state of rest, and love their jobs. Let’s support them. Let’s restore the dignity of the role of a teacher.
What parent is not willing to sacrifice to give their child vibrant mentors in their most formative years? Education is fueled by relationships. 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.
What observations can you share about the different tuition models of thriving schools? What can you share about sibling discounts and financial aid?
Thriving schools are not necessarily the highest-priced schools. Often, mission-driven schools strive to keep tuition within reach for as many families as possible in the spirit of a true Christian community. There is always a balance between paying educators a just wage and keeping tuition affordable.
ICLE-supported schools frequently see rising enrollment and therefore greater financial stability. As new families are drawn in, often more scholarship money is available for others who need assistance. Sibling discounts are a high priority; they are an extension of our pro-life beliefs.
Donors, too, are becoming increasingly attracted to Catholic schools in the classical liberal arts renewal, because they see that it works—not simply because it stabilizes the school, but because it fosters a distinctly vibrant culture of faith and learning. As so many young Catholics are falling away from the faith, they see that these schools are reversing the trend. They are engines of evangelization, well worthy of investment.
I am reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s statement during his U.S. visit in 2008, about the unique system of Catholic education: “It provides a highly commendable opportunity for the entire Catholic community to contribute generously to the financial needs of our institutions. Their long-term sustainability must be assured. Indeed, everything possible must be done, in cooperation with the wider community, to ensure that they are accessible to people of all social and economic strata. No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”
How important is it for parents to be involved in the life of a school?
Very important! I cannot convey this point better than does the 1988 Vatican Document, The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School:
“Partnership between a Catholic school and the families of the students must continue and be strengthened: not simply to be able to deal with academic problems that may arise, but rather so that the educational goals of the school can be achieved. Close cooperation with the family is especially important when treating sensitive issues such as religious, moral, or sexual education, orientation toward a profession, or a choice of one's vocation in life. It is not a question of convenience, but a partnership based on faith. Catholic tradition teaches that God has bestowed on the family its own specific and unique educational mission.
The first and primary educators of children are their parents. The school is aware of this fact but, unfortunately, the same is not always true of the families themselves; it is the school's responsibility to give them this awareness, Every school should initiate meetings and other programmes which will make the parents more conscious of their role, and help to establish a partnership; it is impossible to do too much along these lines. It often happens that a meeting called to talk about the children becomes an opportunity to raise the consciousness of the parents. In addition, the school should try to involve the family as much as possible in the educational aims of the school - both in helping to plan these goals and in helping to achieve them. Experience shows that parents who were once totally unaware of their role can be transformed into excellent partners.”
What shortcomings can a school leader help a teacher correct with training? What makes a teacher an improper fit at a school? How have you seen school leaders strengthen their teaching faculty by identifying and maximizing opportunities to better serve students and families?
It might help to approach this question with the following assumption: 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. Other educators in the building and in professional networks are built-in resources to help hone their craft. ICLE and other organizations offer continuing professional development to inspire and equip teachers to develop mastery. Also, supportive 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.
That said, there are qualities or tendencies in some teachers that are difficult to overcome. 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.
How have you seen thriving schools intentionally build and strengthen their school communities? How do the best schools communicate with students, families, and teachers? How do members of strong school communities connect with each other?
There is no community without communication. Weekly newsletters from a headmaster or principal, family Masses, school picnics, Feast Day celebrations, field days, and community service activities all serve to strengthen those bonds. Among the school leader and faculty, seminar gatherings and retreat days help them grow as a community of learners and worshippers together. These deepening relationships establish the school as a family rather than an institution; the spirit then extends to the students and families.
In the words of one of my favorite educational thinkers, the late Stratford Caldecott, “Love is the beginning and the end of education, because love is how we become more human.”
What resources do you recommend parents use at home to deepen families’ understanding of and appreciation for the Catholic faith? For example, Word on Fire, Institute of Catholic Culture, Augustine Institute, etc.
First, there is no substitute for family prayer, including reading the Word together, and practicing Lectio Divina as a family—however simply.
Second, reading aloud good faith-based literature, poetry, or biographies of saints cultivates the moral imagination of children.
Third, any of the resources you mention—along with others that can be found through Formed.org—can reveal the riches of our faith, and point to its unending, beautiful mysteries.
Fourth, observing the rhythms of the Liturgical Year at home, with feasting and fasting, traditions and sacrifices, is an important way to remind ourselves that we are in this world but not of this world.
What do parents value most in thriving schools? How do you know?
Parents most value the faith-filled, intelligent school leaders and teachers who love their children, engage their minds and hearts, and model Christian virtue. I know because I am blessed to be a mother. I have been there. I am grateful.
How do thriving schools recruit new families? What resources do they use to tell their schools’ stories and connect with likeminded families? What insights can you share about what parents are seeking for their children and what thriving schools offers that others don’t.
A thriving, mission-driven school becomes a magnet for new families primarily because parents who see the difference in their child’s level of engagement in learning can’t help spread the word. The anecdotes about striking dinner-table conversations go viral! Schools can showcase these qualitative differences with video clips, open houses, and articles that capture the depth and breadth of what students are learning. The content is demonstrably richer than an average school. When parents get a taste of the difference, they pursue it for their children—we know of many who have moved in order to find it.
How much do school leaders need to sell their community of parents on the value of the education and formation their school offers? How many parents seek out what their school offers vs. how many need to be convinced? What messaging resonates with parents?
As the renewal of Catholic classical liberal arts education has accelerated across the country, the messaging is becoming easier. There is a buzz. Parents are seeking this formation for their children, often lobbying pastors and principals to pursue it. For those parents who are new to this approach, it does not take long for them to see the value. Excited teachers and students are the best advertisement for the switch. Our ICLE member schools also have access to many of our resources to help them capture the differences.
How does a thriving school determine whether a prospective family will be a good fit for its school community? What steps should be included in the application process? What shared values do current families expect school leaders to protect as they add new families to their school communities?
A mission-driven school does not water down its marketing in order to cast a wider enrollment net. It proclaims Jesus Christ as the center of the school, and joyfully expresses its full belief in the teachings of the Church He founded. Websites and printed materials should convey a school’s charism. This messaging attracts like-minded families. Interviews and signed statements of faith are increasingly common to ensure that both school and parents know they are a good fit. Current mission-aligned families would expect school leaders to protect and encourage a climate of Christian virtue.
What should a school leader look for when hiring teachers?
Active, joyful faith life rooted in Word, Sacrament, and the Magisterial teachings of the Catholic Church.
Love of learning; hunger for—not simply knowledge—but wisdom.
Intellectual and moral virtue, and a desire to keep growing in them.
Love and enjoyment of the young; a willingness to meet students where they are and lead them toward human flourishing.
How do thriving schools recruit new teachers? What resources do they use to tell their schools’ stories and connect with qualified teachers outside of their school communities? What insights can you share about what teachers are seeking in a school community and what thriving schools offer that others don’t?
Thriving schools hire for mission, starting with the faith of the teacher. They often seek candidates who have been well-formed in solid Catholic colleges or participated in Newman Centers or the equivalent in public universities. They post openings on ICLE’s free Employment Opportunities Job Board, or recruit at our events. They participate in job fairs at faithful Catholic colleges.
Teachers are attracted to schools that want to give them the freedom and support to break out of the mechanical mode of teaching. They find community among other teachers who enjoy learning for its own sake, and want to grow in their craft.
How do school leaders determine whether teachers they are considering hiring will be a good fit for their school communities? What steps should be included in the interview process? What shared values do current teachers and families expect thriving schools to protect as they add new teachers to their school communities?
See answer above, which would encompass my response about teachers.
In addition, I would expect the interview process to include observation of the candidate teaching one or more lessons, to determine mastery/delivery of content and rapport with students. Interview questions should include responses to hypothetical situations. References should include pastors and other educators with close knowledge of the candidate. Once hired, a mentor teacher should be assigned to rookie teachers, and a culture of casual observation/coaching should be an ongoing part of faculty culture.
How do thriving schools train teachers and what have you learned about teacher training?
Well, I could write a dissertation on this topic! Our Institute exists to train and form teachers. We believe that the art of teaching must be grounded in the nature of reality and the nature of the human person—how God made us to learn. All of our educator formation programs are designed around this concept. We find it enormously rewarding to free teachers to grow in their vocation, and we are humbled by their positive response.
Independent schools, parochial schools, and diocesan schools have different challenges managing relationships with individuals who oversee their schools. What approaches have you seen work well with respect to relationships with those who oversee different schools? What common challenges arise for each model and what do thriving schools do well that would be helpful for other schools to know about? What advice are you willing to share about how to navigate important and/or challenging relationships?
This is an important topic, and always a challenge. Fraternal, collegial channels of ongoing communication are key. If framed in a spirit of Christian charity, surveys, 360-degree reviews, leadership coaching, and team-building strategies can all help to keep these vital relationships strong. It is unkind to allow a leader to flounder without clear expectations and feedback. It is also inappropriate for independent school boards to micromanage a school leader. In some cases, it is helpful to appoint an ombudsman who can serve with strict confidentiality and integrity. Of course, the principle of subsidiarity should always be respected, with concerns first presented to the individual involved.
What is the greatest challenge of most Catholic schools?
The greatest challenge of most Catholic schools is to grasp the full implications of what it means to keep Christ at the center of the school. The immense gift of the Catholic intellectual tradition is the unity of faith and reason. That window on reality is formed in a child’s earliest years, but most schools have not understood this fact.
The temptation is to take our cues from the dominant model of education in our time. However, this model is secular, fragmented, and industrialized. It is failing on its own terms. When Catholic schools uncritically adopt these methods, materials, and fads, they unwittingly undermine the purpose of a Catholic school. The secular approach explicitly and implicitly belittles the order and the mysteries at the heart of faith.
The Vatican warned in 1977 against the tendency toward mission drift: “Loyalty to the educational aims of the Catholic school demands constant self-criticism, and return to basic principles, to the motives which inspire the Church's involvement in education.” Sacred Congregation for Education, The Catholic School, n.67.
The good news is that a growing number of Catholic schools are embracing the Church’s full vision for education, in time to confront our aggressively secular age. And, they are proving the adage: “If you build it, they will come.” No other model of education can compare to this solid foundation for happiness and holiness.
What do thriving schools do better than competing schools in their area?
They strive to remain focused on the mission in every decision, large and small, and they communicate that integrity in word and action.
What is the most important difference between thriving schools and struggling schools?
The most important difference between thriving schools and struggling schools is the presence of energized, mission-driven leaders and teachers who are rooted in prayer and learning, as a community of friends in Christ.
Share one custom that you’ve seen and admired in a thriving Catholic school.
I notice a palpable difference at schools that value prayer as a life-giving part of the day, from daily Mass to the Angelus, from intercessory prayer for the community to prayer before study.
Share one resource that you’ve seen strengthen a Catholic school.
The Educational Plan of St. Jerome Academy has provided a shared vision and a vital framework for many Catholic schools, offering both philosophy and practical tools that can be adapted and customized by educators according to their particular charism and community.
Share one tool—online or otherwise—that increases the efficiency or professionalism of your work.
I find that Power Point presentations help me organize, illustrate, and communicate the “why” and the “how” of the exciting renewal of Catholic education.
Share one activity you do regularly that makes you a more effective leader.
I pray often and strive to be a daily Communicant. There is no substitute to keep me on course!