By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published September 11, 2008
More than 1,200 years of combined teaching experience were commemorated on Tuesday, Sept. 2, as teachers from Catholic schools all across the Archdiocese of Atlanta came together at St. Pius X High School for the second annual Office of Catholic Schools employee recognition Mass and in-service.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory led the liturgy for the lively group and thanked them many times for their dedication and sacrifices they have made for the youngsters of the church of North Georgia.
The archbishop expressed his thanks to St. Pius for the “warm and gracious” welcome but also pointed out the news that many teachers might not have wanted to hear.
“This is an indication that summer really is over,” he joked.
An encouraging message for teachers was the focus of the archbishop’s homily, which likened them to rabbis during Jesus’ days on earth.
A rabbi was “someone who helped see the intersection between life and faith,” the archbishop said.
“You are ‘rabbis’ for the young people who fill the desks in Catholic schools here in North Georgia,” he added.
Archbishop Gregory invited the Catholic schoolteachers to “bring the light of Catholicism” to the students and explained that their role was very important in the lives of the youngsters.
“Even in the moments that seem removed from … theology, young people look to you for wisdom and light.”
The message was well received by the group of educators, including Alison Bruckert, a social studies teacher at St. Pius.
“The archbishop is so supportive of the education we supply the children in our schools, and it’s always nice to be reminded of the changes you’re making in the lives of students,” Bruckert said.
“It’s always nice when someone affirms the fact that you’re an integral part of something bigger than yourself. I always feel rejuvenated after being given opportunities to reflect with my colleagues,” she said.
After the Mass ended, Diane Starkovich, archdiocesan superintendent of schools, stood at the front of the gymnasium with Archbishop Gregory while Tom Campbell, associate superintendent, read the names of teachers reaching milestone years in their service to Catholic schools.
Standing ovations were given to those few teachers that have reached several decades of service, including Janet Marsden of St. Pius X, who has taught for 30 years, Phyllis Warner of Christ the King School, who marks 35 years, and Charleen Klister, who has a noteworthy 45 years of teaching experience in Catholic schools.
The teachers moved into another gym following the celebration, where a reception awaited them. A number of former Catholic school students, who now teach at the very institutions in which they were educated, spoke with former classmates to catch up, share stories and simply visit with each other.
Attendees of the in-service reconvened to listen to Father Ron Nuzzi, director of the Alliance of Catholic Education leadership program at the University of Notre Dame, speak to them about the current state of Catholic schools and the importance of a Catholic education in this society.
Father Nuzzi began his address by saying that he “loves to be with teachers this time of the year,” when they are “still fresh.”
“Do you have any idea what you look like in February?,” he joked, reminding the teachers that the appreciation celebrations used to take place at that time of the school year.
Father Nuzzi went on to share impressive statistics about the effectiveness of Catholic schools, especially when compared with public school systems.
According to a study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or “the nation’s report card,” which gives out standardized tests to public and private schools during 4th, 8th and 12th grades, Catholic school students consistently score “significantly higher” than any other group.
Father Nuzzi also said that Catholic schools foster a great sense of generosity in their students and it is the teachers who are responsible for this.
“They learn it from you and the sacrifices you make,” he said, also mentioning the importance of the parents’ sacrifice in sending them to Catholic schools.
A sense of community and civic engagement are also at the center of Catholic education, which according to Father Nuzzi, is “not only good for the church, but good for the society.”
“Catholic schools foster growth in students and teachers by inviting their relationships to develop into profound, compassionate and virtuous partnerships where learning academics works in conjunction with learning lessons about God, self and world,” she said.
Bruckert also commented that the sense of community fostered in the students is an effect of the community built between the faculty and staff of the schools as well.
“After attending St. Pius X as a student, teaching there is honestly like rejoining a family,” she said. “The support I’ve experienced as a teacher is equal to the support I received as a student. I can’t tell you how many notes I’ve received from coworkers saying, ‘Welcome home, Alison!’ I leave work every single day thanking God for this opportunity to return ‘home’ to St. Pius.”
Father Nuzzi believes that Catholic schools are the heart of the church, saying “it is what gives the church life,” and if Catholic education is taken away, the heart of the church is as well.
“You can see, friends, that … in this day and age … the time is right in this country for Catholics to be vocal,” he said.
A hearty round of applause was given following the priest’s presentation, which encouraged the teachers as they take on another school year.
“There is something about the wisdom of Catholicism well-lived … that turns out to be good for education,” Father Nuzzi said.