Faculty professional development days are routine for most elementary and high schools, and provide the opportunity to refocus on aspects of a school's mission, gather in departmental cohorts, and develop or sharpen skills necessary for managing students. On March 22, area Catholic high school religion teachers and campus ministers experienced a new style of professional development.
Rather than only meeting with individuals from their specific schools, 15 religion teachers representing eight of the local Catholic high schools gathered at Sacred Heart Academy in Amherst for a day of fellowship, worship and "holy borrowing."
As teachers from the various schools arrived, the library began to transition from a quiet, peaceful place to study to a reunion hall filled with laughter, introductions, familial check-ins, and anticipatory conversations about the day to follow.
Maria Clare from Sacred Heart, one of the organizers of the gathering, started the day with a review of the planned agenda and an icebreaker, which transitioned into a reverent, morning prayer led by Monica Saltarelli from Mount St. Mary Academy in Kenmore.
The day continued with a focused conversation about the challenges that confront today's educators in both the classroom and wider school community, including the cultural pressures impacting students and the schools' effort to embrace Catholic identity across the entire campus, not just inside of religion classrooms. These topics sparked rich discussions and revealed a diversity of experiences amidst shared challenges.
Later in the day, teachers assembled in the school's chapel for a simple, intimate Mass presided by Father John Mack and assisted by Deacon Robb Ciezki of St. Mary's High School, Lancaster, and Mary Lou Plesac of Archbishop Walsh Academy, Olean.
The afternoon concluded with a "show and tell" of resources and activities that the teachers have used in their classrooms. Strategies were shared with the intention to learn from one another, inspire creative classroom practices, and exercise "holy borrowing" - the non-sinful, Catholic equivalent of plagiarism.
Highlights included innovative and engaging discussion starters for morality-based conversations, shared by Nardin Academy's Denis Coakley and Renee Boltri.
While this professional development day may not have been traditional, it certainly proved worthwhile for participants. Attendees offered a wealth of knowledge, talent and support for one another, which was especially meaningful for Sacred Heart's Meghan Dandrea.
"OK, I'm not alone in feeling that way, or dealing with this situation," Dandrea said. "I walk away with new ideas for lessons and activities, new ways to approach a topic. Mostly, I walk away reinvigorated to be with my students, and grateful for the opportunity to accompany them in their life. It's nice to have others understand that, too."