Final Thoughts on Teaching Theology to Teens

by David Gray, June 8, 2016
David L. Gray Cristo Rey

One Winter Day While Subbing at Cristo Rey

Around this same time last year (2015), I wrote an article entitled, ‘Confessions of an Online Theology Teacher‘, in which I addressed the manner by which I got involved with teaching at Kolbe Academy and the amazing and important things I discovered about myself and about teaching in that first year. Being that this is my final year of teaching at Kolbe and being a Confirmation Catechist at my parish and a Substitute Teacher for the Diocese of Columbus, Ohio, I thought I might offer some final thoughts on the subject here.

First, I am tremendously humbled by all of the emails and notes I received from parents and students throughout the year, thanking me for my approach to teaching, which isn’t teaching at all, so much. I always thought of myself as more of a facilitator of thought than just an instrument of information. I felt that if I could structure the live-class, homework, research papers, oral presentations and exams in a manner in which caused my students to discover their own answers to the most important questions; basically, inspire them to think on their own, rather than to simply regurgitate facts, I would be birthing better Catholics into the world.

I was caught off guard somewhat when a Religion and Bible History (for boys) student named Patrick said during his second semester oral presentation about the Corporeal and Spiritual Works of Mercy that, ” . . . at the beginning of the year I didn’t like Mr. Gray much, but later I learned to respect him and I like him now.” I think I was spoiled that first year, and it set me up to have, perhaps, unreasonable expectations for the boys this past year. I was tremendously disappointed by their level of effort on their homework and they had to hear my mouth about it for like three weeks straight – about how bad they were doing, how much better they are capable of, and I have no problem failing anyone. When one of the students typed in the chatbox, “Are we really doing THAT bad,” it caused me to back down for a moment, but that was only a moment before I went back on my rant, because I knew the issue was ‘effort’ with them and not intellect or ability. It was funny to read Patrick’s email to me at the end of the year stating how he enjoyed my class because it was “laid back”. It wasn’t laid back when I had a foot of their butt. 😀

It’s true that good kids love being challenged! They aren’t afraid of failure like many adults are. They want to do better. They want approval from their teacher. And Patrick, along with the other initial ‘low effort’ boys in the class picked up themselves up after I beat them down and rose to meet standards I had set forth, and I am so proud of them for doing so. That first semester had a host of C’s and low B’s, and even though the second semester was even more challenging, they all finished with either an A or B.

My approach to teaching Intro to Sacred Scripture this past year modeled my idea about Catholic theology; that it doesn’t have an age requirement or limit because it is true. I believe that the most complicated theological truths can be communicated to any person who is able to form categories in their brain. While the method or language needed to communicate something like St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument might need to be different for a 3-year-old that it would be for a 73-year-old, it can still be communicated if it is true because truth doesn’t have an age requirement or age limit. To say that what is true can’t be learned until later in life is to say that God, the essence and author of truth, is inaccessible to some of His creation. To the contrary, God is completely accessible to all people and at all times.

Kolbe Academy gave me a great deal of freedom to build my course within a broad framework. They also gave me the PowerPoint slides that were used by the teacher in the previous year, which I couldn’t find myself to use, simply because I have a sense of personal responsibility for kids I teach. As a convert to the faith, I’ve run into far too many cradle Catholics who have left the faith because they didn’t understand it. Being the former Theology teacher of a Catholic who left the faith is not something I’m gonna be accountable for when I get to judgment day. So, creating original content, homework and exams for this course caused me a great deal effort. I don’t think my students knew that the level of content they received was equivalent to what they’ll get in a college introductory course, but they rose to the challenge and did most excellent. And it was worthwhile on my part when I received an email from a student saying, “Thank you for teaching this year. I have never learned so much about my religion, and because of your class I am eager to learn more!” How can you beat that as a teacher?

The Western Christian Civilization class I taught spanned from 50,000 B.C. to the 18th Century. Light to the Nations Part 1 – The History of Christian Civilization, by the Catholic Textbook Project was a pretty good textbook. The very first sentence of the book was, “History is the story of God’s dealing with mankind.” For the most part, I thought the textbook was adequate and attempted to look at history through a Catholic lens. Its treatment of Islam and the Protestant Reformulation, I found to be tremendously problematic for Catholics, but nothing that I couldn’t supplement – or so I thought, until I saw some of my student’s final exam answers that blamed the Reformulation solely on Luther’s issue with Indulgences, despite my three-week attempt to contextualize it better along the lines of centuries-old German politics and the usury of Luther’s delusions. o_O

I deeply enjoy history; I’ve had history books of mine published, but I don’t know how I did really as a History Teacher. I felt at times my knowledge was lacking in some areas. Despite my personal sense of lacking, the students and parents at Kolbe really seemed to appreciate my level of Catholic instruction. I enjoyed this remark the best posted in the Schoology Faculty Longue for Kolbe, “My Daughter LOVED Mr. Gray’s class. He found a way to make the class fun and interactive. Sometimes he would wear a costume or silly hat that fit the topic. He is an excellent teacher, perfect for Kolbe. I love how Mr. Gray found a way to make the class fun and interactive. My daughter learned so much and always had a story to tell from his lessons.”

As for my second year being a Confirmation Catechist? I’ve found fewer things in life more enjoyable than seeing the kids who you’ve shared the faith with for eight months being fully received into the Church and have all the gifts of the Holy Spirit become accessible to them. I’m gonna miss that a lot!

As for being a Substitute Teacher in Catholic schools for a year? It was my pleasure to meet and spend time with so many young men and women. I was primarily at a Cristo Rey High School, which looks to service students from underperforming city schools and who have some financial need. The students at Cristo Rey School attend class three to four extended days a week and work in professional job setting for the other days; learning valuable skills and experience. Most of these young men and women were not Catholic, but amazing kids with bright futures. I’m going to miss them greatly as well.

CONCLUSION OF THIS LIFE CHAPTER: So I left the auto industry for two years to see if God had called me to teach young people. It doesn’t seem as if that is where I am being called. When open doors are unexplainably shut in my face, that’s usually God’s hint to me that it’s time to dust off my shoes and turn around. Also, being that I am soon to enter into the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony in a matter of days, I’ve decided to do the responsible thing and return back to the auto industry, but in a much better situation this time than the depressing one I which I was in – hopefully. I’ll still be writing and I am very much looking forward to teaching Catholic Apologetics at the Dominican Institute, and I’ll still be looking for how God wants me to use my gifts next.

Pray me, as I always pray for you! *mic drop* 🙂


    • Michael S Clifford
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    • June 8, 2016

    Islam shares some of the responsibility for Protestantism. Where do you think Protestants got the idea to falsely accuse Christians of worshipping our Lady the Mother of our Lord? They got it from the Moslems' Quran (Al-Ma'idah 116)!

      • A J MacDonald Jr
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      • June 9, 2016

      Jews share some of the responsibility for Islam. Where do you think Muslims got their ideas about God, Abraham, Ishmael, and Jesus?

        • Michael S Clifford
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        • June 9, 2016

        Islam is nothing more than a political system hiding behind a blasphemous mixture of Christianity, Judaism, and paganism. Thanks for pointing out another way Protestantism is closer to Islam than Christianity! They steal from the True Faith along with false religions when they can't come up with their own material! At least Mohammad was more creative about it! Luther and Queer James just plagiarized the whole Bible and then butchered their version!

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