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Teachers learn how to develop better students

By Lisa Schulte
The Catholic Voice

Linda Harrison, a math and religion teacher at St. Pius X/St. Leo School in Omaha, works on a math problem with seventh grader Michaela Leddy. Harrison said the skills she has developed from attending Institute of Learning sessions have helped her become a better teacher.
Photo by Lisa Schulte

Katie Homan loves her honors World Studies class at V.J. and Angela Skutt Catholic High School in Omaha. The sophomore said it's her favorite class because her teacher, Paula Lenz, has come up with some creative ways to teach literature and culture.

When reading Greek and Roman literature, for instance, students also performed plays. And recently, while studying a unit on African culture, students not only read and participated in group discussions, they also made a quilt. They researched different African tribes and symbols and designed a colorful quilt that Homan sewed together.

"By doing this, we got closer to Africa and it was our way of being able to experience the African tribes," Homan said. "It was a lot of fun."

This concept of using different teaching styles to address different learning styles was something her teacher was taught at one of the seven sessions offered to teachers through the Institute of Learning, a program of the Archdiocese of Omaha that provides opportunities for educators in Catholic schools to upgrade their teaching techniques.

Founded five years ago by Sister Michelle Faltus, SFCC, the institute offers free staff development, which takes place mainly during school hours, and in-service with follow up.

About 700 to 800 teachers in the archdiocese's 80 Catholic schools participate in the sessions each year and more than 5,000 students have been impacted by this instruction, said Sister Faltus, superintendent of Catholic Schools.

Teachers can select from seven sessions – Curriculum, Study Skills, Counseling, Special Needs, Six Traits, Technology and Foundations of Faith.

With the curriculum sessions, teachers learn the 4MAT teaching system, the system Lenz uses in her classroom.

Because every student retains information in a different way, teachers must learn to teach in ways that incorporate the different learning styles of their students, Sister Faltus said. The 4MAT system helps teachers to do that.

"Everybody can't show you that they've learned in the same way," she said. "You have to give them an opportunity to shine and to show that they've learned."

Although creating lesson plans using 4MAT can be time consuming, she said it's worth the time.

"It's very rewarding when you see these kids who you know weren't with you get all excited and you can just see that the light went on and they're learning," she said.
Homan said she has been able to recall the content of the lessons better when Lenz incorporates hands-on activities with her regular teaching.

"I'll always remember making a quilt, but I might not remember reading," she said.

Learning the faith

Sister Faltus said one of the most important sessions of the institute – operated with the assistance of a council made up of pastors, principals, teachers and parents – is the Foundations of Faith session, which is designed to provide a foundation in Catholic Church teachings for all educators in the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Omaha.

"All principals, teachers, coaches, anybody who is instructing students, must take this course," she said. "We want all of our teachers schooled in the faith so that they can pass on the faith to their students in a positive and correct way."

Making this session a requirement for all Catholic school instructors creates a common base of knowledge of Catholic doctrine and practices, builds community and increases the confidence in teachers as they integrate and apply Catholic teachings to their lessons, she said. The program also is ongoing and teachers must take a different course each school year.

Courses offered in the Foundations of Faith are Catholic Identity, Liturgy and Sacraments, Prayer, Scripture, Morality, Social Justice, Church History and Basic Catholic Doctrine. The instructors, paid by the institute, are parish priests or professors from Creighton University's theology department.

Peggy Thayer, administrator at Central Catholic High School in West Point, said making sure all teachers in Catholic schools know and understand the Catholic faith is fundamental to good Catholic education.

"We are a Catholic institution. If the purpose of Foundations of Faith is to help strengthen the knowledge base of our teachers … then we have to provide in-service for teachers on different areas and aspects so they grow in their faith and can help kids grow in their faith," she said.

While teachers eventually will take all of the Foundations of Faith courses, they can choose the courses that fit best with their curriculum each year. Thayer said she appreciates that freedom, especially as an administrator.

"We want to be able to educate our faculty and we need to. The Foundations of Faith really helps us do that. We don't have to try and scramble," she said. "It has been an administrator's dream."


Over the years, the institute also has focused on the many counselors who work with the children in Catholic schools. A separate session developed for them addresses topics like crisis planning, behavior problems, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse.

Michelle Morrison, a counselor and teacher at Creighton University, organizes and designs the counseling sessions for the institute. After conducting a needs assessment to find out what counselors wanted to learn, she has tried over the years to find the most experienced presenters to provide the most up-to-date information.

Past presenters at the counseling sessions have included Dr. Pat Friman from Boys Town Pediatric Clinic, Dr. David Carter from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Dr. Jeff Smith from Creighton University.

"There are so many ever changing social issues that are out there influencing the students," Morrison said. "We have a wealth of information out there and I see the value of making sure that counselors are educated. It's really a phenomenal collaboration between community and the Catholic Schools Office."

Linda Reese, a counselor at St. Bernadette and Holy Cross schools in Omaha, has attended several of the counseling sessions and said she found them "very helpful."

As counselors, she said, "We deal with crisis and problems in our own school, and if there is a crisis in another school, we help the counselors there. The institute sessions help us to network and see what's going on in the different schools."

Looking ahead

As Sister Faltus makes plans for the future, part of her vision for the institute is the development of a principal's academy for the 2005-2006 school year. Directed towards potential principals in Catholic schools, this academy will provide mentoring opportunities to educators who are interested in becoming principals.

One of the benefits of such an academy is that it will create a pool of trained administrators that can be selected from when principal positions become available, Sister Faltus said. The positions would continue to be open to anyone interested, she said, but the academy would increase the number of qualified candidates.

All in all, she hopes the institute will continue to help teachers become the best educators they can be so they can provide the best education for their students.

"If we're helping these children learn, that's what we're all about and that's what we need to concentrate on," she said.

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