During my first three years as an educator, I taught at a small Christian school connected to the church I attended. When I was hired as a high school English teacher, I had a degree in English and a few courses in teaching but no certification, student teaching, or other teaching experience. Needless to say, the transition was difficult. After one year of struggling to teach high school English, I begged my principal to move me to a second-grade teaching spot for the following year.
I taught second grade for two wonderful years but could not afford to stay financially. As is the case for many small Christian schools, my salary was barely minimum wage and included no health insurance or other benefits. So when a colleague suggested I apply at the brand new Catholic school a few miles away, I was intrigued. Doubts quickly crept in, though. What would it be like teaching at a Catholic school? Would they even hire a Protestant? I knew nothing about Catholic schools or the Catholic faith, for that matter. However, after much prayer, I applied and was called in for an interview.
Seventeen years later, I thank God for guiding me to accept a teaching position at that Catholic school. He provided me with many incredible mentors and growth opportunities during my time there. I can think of no better way to show my gratitude than to share with other Christian school educators some of the many valuable lessons I learned.
During my time in the Catholic school, I had the opportunity to teach in multiple roles and at several different grade levels. I began my years there teaching middle school language arts for grades 6–8, and, with the support of my principal and assistant principal, I received my Florida state certification for English 6–12 during my first three years. Later, I became the school library media specialist and taught technology for grades K–8. In my last four years there, I received my master’s in educational leadership and was promoted to assistant principal. My experiences working and teaching in a Catholic school taught me valuable lessons. While I cannot speak for every Catholic school or diocese, these are some of the most valuable lessons I learned while teaching in the Diocese of St. Petersburg.
1: Harnessing the Power of Numbers
Protestant schools typically exist in isolation as single schools or possibly an elementary, middle, and high school trio. This fact, unfortunately, does not allow for the power of numbers. Protestant schools could increase their leverage in many areas if they teamed up with other Protestant schools as Catholic schools do. Catholic schools utilize their diocesan schools’ numbers to get better rates on curricula, electronic subscriptions, and even software.
Teaming up with other Protestant schools to create cooperatives, or mini districts, would create advantages for schools and teachers. It would allow for more access to professional development for teachers while simultaneously bringing down shared costs for training. Another significant advantage would be the availability of Christian educators to mentor or learn from in professional learning communities. One of the most difficult aspects of being a teacher in a small Christian school is often teaching in isolation. The lack of other teachers to work with on improving your craft can be a struggle. If Protestant Christian schools partnered with each other, teachers could form learning communities to share best practices and seek advice.
If Protestant Christian schools partnered with each other, teachers could form learning communities to share best practices and seek advice.
Finances are always top of mind for small independent schools. Balancing between keeping tuition affordable and the school financially solvent is difficult. Catholic schools still struggle with this, but they have an advantage. In the Diocese of St. Petersburg, all Catholic churches support the schools that their parishioners attend, even if the school is not connected with their church. In addition, parish schools are supported financially with an annual gift from their parish church. This investment system by surrounding parishes establishes the interest all parishes have in maintaining healthy Catholic schools. I believe Protestant schools could do something similar, even if all churches and schools partnering together are not of the same denomination. Churches that do not have their own school could invest even more in those that do. After all, we all have an interest in the value of Christian education.
2: Establishing a Hierarchy of Leadership
Another drawback for independent private and Protestant schools is the lack of a hierarchy of leadership. While some might think having one school principal or pastor as the school leader means less bureaucracy, it also means there is often no one to go to when trouble hits. Even principals need someone to go to for financial or legal advice. In cases where schools have limited leadership, there is also no system of checks and balances to ensure sound decision making for the school. Catholic schools do this through a system of superintendents, associate superintendents, and school advisory boards. Using the Catholic model, Protestant schools could remain nimble enough to avoid the trap of bureaucracy while taking advantage of the expertise available in the broader community.
Most Catholic schools use the same curriculum used in public schools, yet they still integrate their faith into every single subject area.
3: Implementing High-Quality Curricula
This lesson is very near and dear to my heart. As a former English language arts teacher and librarian, I believe Christian schools have a duty to provide high-quality educational materials to all students. Unfortunately, as my time teaching in Protestant schools taught me, this often is not the case. Whether out of fear or social pressure, many Protestant schools cling to outdated curriculum because it is labeled as Christian. Most Catholic schools use the same curriculum used in public schools, yet they still integrate their faith into every single subject area. In Catholic schools, curriculum choices are made after careful review by committees who look at whether it meets academic standards, is engaging, and is easy to use. Studies have shown that improving the quality of a school’s curriculum is forty times more cost-effective than class-size reduction (Boser and Straus). Unfortunately, just because a publisher claims its curriculum is rigorous does not mean it is. I have seen, especially at the middle and high school levels, that many Christian curricula become less and less effective for higher grade levels. The rote memorization that many of these curricula rely on does not cut it when our older students need to be challenged to become critical thinkers and problem solvers. Protestant schools can do better.
Gina Robles, MEd, is an educational leader with over twenty years of experience teaching students from preschool through college. Gina is passionate about improving educational equity for students through better professional development for teachers and making high-quality educational materials the norm for all schools. Gina currently works with Catapult Learning offering teacher and leadership coaching and professional development for schools on a variety of topics. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Boser, U., M. Chingos and C. Straus. The Hidden Value of Curriculum Reform: Do States and Districts Receive the Most Bang for Their Curriculum Buck? Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, 2015.
Jones, Gail, et al. “Science Professional Learning Communities: Beyond a Singular View of Teacher Professional Development.” International Journal of Science Education, vol. 35, no. 10, 2013, pp. 1756–74.
Waddell, Gordy B. “Measuring Christian Education against National and State Standards: A Review of the Literature.” Perspectives in Learning, vol. 6, no. 1, 2005, pp. 20–22.