I humbly confess that I made a notable error while talking about the recruitment of religious education teachers and their lack of preparedness last week. I neglected to investigate if schools were experiencing the same problems in filling their rosters. God is good, and in this morning’s New York Times I came across two excellent pieces on the shortage of qualified professional school teachers across the United States. The first, by Motoko Rich, appeared Sunday in the news section of the paper. The second comes from the editorialist Frank Bruni, and it is this one that attempts to look at the underlying currents of the problem, a good many that cross over to Catholic parishes and religious educators.
Bruni’s third paragraph cuts to the chase rather quickly. While a good many Americans profess that the quality of elementary, secondary, and college education is a sine qua non for the health of America’s economy in the new global village, and that education is one entitlement where indeed no child should be left behind, fewer young people see teaching as “the draw,” as Bruni puts it. He cites Rich’s research that between 2010 and 2014 enrollment in teacher preparation programs dropped 30%, and that of teachers entering the classroom, 40% exit the profession within the first five years.
In looking for the sources of this burgeoning problem, Bruni begins with funding, though not in a “throw money at the problem” sort of way. He focuses on teacher salaries. The national average of all teacher, including those with decades of experience, is $57,000, and in many locations starting salary may be less than $30,000. The teaching profession is not seen as a way to build a rewarding lifestyle—buying a home, paying off college loans, pursuing advanced degrees, even having children—and the salary rates are hardly a rousing vote of confidence for these civil servants. I have seen and heard, of course, the chronic complaint that “you can’t fire a bad teacher,” but my wife, whose work has taken her to dozens of public school settings as an intern supervisor, has expressed to me her pleasure with the atmosphere and general quality of performance of many such settings.
Catholic parish religious educators (not administrators) who teach the after school or weekend faith formation programs are paid nothing. Moreover, on a number of Catholic blog sites there is consternation from parents about registration fees for “CCD” or sacramental preparation programs. I am not sure what troubles me more: the resistance to paying $75 or the answers from the blog masters, one of whom observed “people aren’t giving or tithing like they used to, and religious education is one of the casualties.” I observed that in many parishes the costs of such programs are absorbed by fundraising from parish groups or the Knights of Columbus. It is curious to me that the cost of religious education in toto (from textbooks to director’s salary) is not rolled into every parish’s general budget as an essential component of the parish’s priorities; if a parish cannot provide this basic ministry without undue hardship, it would seem that consolidation with another parish or parishes is a solution worth looking at.
Bruni goes on to cite a second difficulty for teachers, “lack of voice.” There are a number of considerations here that are probably more pertinent to public school settings, but I have heard for years that Catholic staffs are frequently frustrated by mandates from the diocese or their pastors or other parish administrators which they are expected to implement but in which they had no advisory input. In many cases these are not issues of faith and morals, but the idiosyncrasies of administrators who missed the memo from Vatican II about collegiality and subsidiarity. It is worth noting that there is considerable turnover of administrators; parishes I visit for workshops seem to change religious education coordinators at the same pace I change my motor oil.
Bruni moves on to career development, noting that many public school teachers worry they will be doing the same things thirty years from now as they were doing on their first day. I have been beating this drum for years that we encourage our Catholic volunteers to think ahead about future opportunities, that we help them fund college studies, for example, if a worthy candidate is inclined to such. My motto as an employer is that all of my staff be groomed for better positions when the time came to leave my parish, or to promote them within.
Bruni concludes that the teaching profession be given greater prestige in public discourse. For our purposes, a first giant step in the Catholic setting would be frequent pulpit reminders that our religious educators are in fact teachers. I checked the USCCB page for Catechetical Sunday, September 20, 2015. The keynote letter by Archbishop Leonard Blair is devoted exclusively to a particular aspect of the faith the bishops wish to emphasize this year (the dignity of human persons) and not a word to the identity and general mission of the catechist (and certainly none to their compensation, formation, and well-being.) It is time to emphasize those in religious formation as a distinct and critical ministry of the Church—with some kind of regular communal recognition and vocational invitation we extend to, say, seminarians. Because without religious educators, there won’t be many seminarians.