By Tom Maguire
In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus teaches the crowds from a boat.
On Sept. 1, important voices in Catholic education taught the crowd of hundreds of teachers at Holy Cross Church in DeWitt. The voices were consistent: Catholic education is not only key for transcripts, it is also key for life.
On a sunny day with a moderate breeze that might have put a little chop on the water in Jesus’ time, about 450 of diocesan teachers from 22 schools packed the church for the Opening Day Mass. Presiding was Bishop Robert J. Cunningham, supported by 12 concelebrants and five deacons.
The bishop and the other speakers challenged the assembled teachers to make their mark in the world, and to transfer that skill to their students. As the school year commences, theirs is not to fail; theirs is to achieve.
The Mass’ first reading, from Proverbs, presented a wish that “people may know wisdom and discipline.” It seemed to address the teachers specifically when it spoke of imparting “knowledge and discretion to the young.”
The day’s Gospel reading concluded: “When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him.”
As Bishop Cunningham noted, the teachers now leave summer behind. “Everyone is now gearing up for the year ahead,” he said.
He told the teachers that the Gospel offers them encouragement.
“I suspect at times you might feel like the disciples who fished all night and caught nothing,” the bishop said. “Often you do not see or experience the fruit of your labors. But remember the Lord encounters you too. He asks you to keep going and in His good time you will reap abundantly. You are not alone. He accompanies you as companion and guide.”
Citing Pope Francis’ theme from World Youth Day, Bishop Cunningham said: “God has a plan for each and every one of your students. Tell them that their lives have meaning and that God depends on them to make a difference in the world. Enable them to make their mark by loving God and neighbor and enriching society with the leaven of the Gospel. … You too are called to leave your mark, to make a difference.”
One way for teachers to make a difference is to be so effective that students will never forget them. That was the message of keynote speaker Dr. Linda LeMura, president of Le Moyne College.
Dr. LeMura began her education at Our Lady of Pompei, now known as the Cathedral Academy at Pompei, on the north side of Syracuse. After Pompei, she continued on at Bishop Grimes High School.
“There isn’t a teacher at Pompei or at Bishop Grimes, not a single one, that I don’t remember,” she said.
She loved the sisters who taught her at Our Lady of Pompei, and she remembers the “wonderful combination of sisters, priests, and lay teachers” at Grimes.
Dr. LeMura believes in “the power of a liberal arts education.” She implored the teachers to instill both an appreciation of the divine and the ability to communicate well.
“If you’re hoping to get a recommendation from a professor at Le Moyne,” she said, “students need to ask for it in ways beyond a text message. Mastering effective communication skills – whether it’s in face-to-face conversation or group presentation, a persuasively written paper, or a well-crafted email – is a vital component of a liberal arts education, and something we do very well at Le Moyne.
“We keep in touch with today’s employers, who tell us that Le Moyne students come to them knowing how to communicate and present themselves well.”
She summarized: “Writing, mathematics, communication skills: absolutely critical good investments for all of you.”
If diocesan teachers are wondering how their students can get into Le Moyne College, Dr. LeMura had this advice:
“Students who take AP courses , honors courses, rigorous courses — four years of math, four years of science, a foreign language — those students are attractive to us. Obviously, we LOVE students from Catholic schools , and we look upon those applications with, I dare say, love. … I know a great little Jesuit college on the hill for some of your best students.”
Like Bishop Cunningham, Dr. LeMura appreciates what diocesan teachers do.
“You do extraordinary things with incredibly limited resources,” she said. “Nobody stewards resources better than Catholic educators. I’m sure of it.”
One of those stewards is Bill Crist, superintendent of schools.
“All of our schools continue to receive improvements in technology and upgrades to their systems,” he said, “as well as hardware and software.’ One-to-one computing’ is becoming a very common theme throughout our diocese with our young people responsibly connecting to the internet with the click of a mouse or the finger swipe on a tablet.
“We are living, working, and learning in the 21st century – what an exciting and transformative time for our students.”
“We also have many building projects,” he said, “both underway and just finishing up – in addition to our schools all receiving a top to bottom cleaning, painting, and polishing.”
He noted the groundbreaking last spring at Notre Dame Junior-Senior High School in Utica for the new multipurpose room, the Msgr. Francis J. Willenburg Center.
“Our four high schools,” Crist said, “also including the elementary schools of Broome County and Utica Notre Dame, are continuing on their path of autonomy through the new board and governance structure that was put in place last July by the diocese with newly created bylaws and operating agreements.”
The Opening Day activities continued when Crist instructed the teachers to go into breakout groups to discuss key principles championed by David Coleman, CEO and president of the College Board.
Those principles are productive solitude, reverent reading, restful excellence, gratitude and grace, and dignity and pricelessness.
Coleman’s principles, Crist said, are “gifts that we can recognize and direct to bring our schools to a higher level in our Catholic faith, shared with academic excellence and service.”