As I sit in a bustling coffee shop in Chicago, people watching from my hidden perch, this scene is in stark contrast to the weekend of tranquility that has just passed where I, and 200 other ACE teachers, were tucked away in the countryside of Texas. December retreat, an annual focal point of the ACE programme’s calendar, marks a time where ACE teachers, who with winter break fast approaching, last minute assessments looming and deadlines creeping closer, are beginning to both physically and mentally wilt. The weekend offers an oasis where they can, in the words of Jesus, just “sit and rest” . With this year’s theme “Preparing the Way of the Lord” fresh in my mind, the meaning of this message seems entirely different to when it was first presented a few days ago.
The aim of the retreat is to rejuvenate and replenish teachers, restoring the idealistic attitudes, creative passions and belief in their ability to be agents of change and transformation, which ACE do a fantastic job of instilling in each teacher over the summer period. I myself left Notre Dame in August oozing with a tank full of passion and energy towards this ministry which ACE had filled me with. However, after the initial honeymoon period of living in a new city, starting a new career and humbly attempting to model my practice on Christ the teacher, the practical stresses and requirements of any first teacher in an alternative education and cultural system can become overwhelming. The door to self-doubt and homesickness can open, clouding that pathway to Jesus which ultimately affects our ability to prepare that avenue for our students.
However, an intentional weekend seeped in reflection, prayer, music, hugs, story swapping, reminiscing, surrounded by friends who are experiencing the same wonderful success as well as difficulties seemed to put all of the obstacles in perspective. Light was once again shone on the joy that is present in being a Catholic School teacher and the honour to be a part of a mission to walk with each student on both an academic and spiritual journey, helping nudge children towards the path to college and heaven. All of a sudden the notion of “Preparing the Way of the Lord” seemed within grasp, an effortless task even, the struggles to this point merely had been due to a negative attitude and would be obliterated with this revitalised sense of God’s presence, fellowship and vocation.
When Monday morning rolled around I happily declined the offer of coffee from my housemate-come-chauffer declaring I didn’t need it as “I had the ACE high”. Stepping into my classroom and with the day off to its usual chaotic start, it became apparent that despite my naive rose-tinted expectations from the days previously, the same management issues, mounting paperwork, ever expanding to-do list and fast-paced atmosphere had not miraculously vanished. However, I had changed, my comprehension of what “Preparing the Way of the Lord” had transformed. Preparing the Way of the Lord was not strolling through an already perfectly paved track, it was here, in this moment, where every day we clear the pathway a little more by effectively negotiating the obstacles in our way.
When clinging to the work of the Apostles as the over-arching example of discipleship it can be easy to fixate the romantic elements of their accomplishments: being filled with the zeal of the Holy Spirit and courageously and radically changing the world. But if this statement was placed under a microscope and dissected into individual moments, it is comprised of highs as well as lows, success in the presence of failure. Peter, one of the Faith’s most influential contributors has become my personal agony Aunt. It was in his constant teaching despite his repeated less than fruitful endeavours and downright mishaps that he managed in Preparing the Way of the Lord for all of us today.
Preparing the Way of the Lord as a teacher in Chicago is both a heart -warming blessing and a startling responsibility. It is easy to realise we are achieving this in those math lessons where sudden realisation flickers across the eyes of a struggling student, the class meetings where infectious laughter resounds off the walls or when two tear-stained faces inform you they have taken it upon themselves to meet at the back table to independently talk about their emotions instead of taking the route of further conflict, as practiced in class. However, even on the more difficult days when lessons go less than flawlessly or when a once organised classroom resembles the aftermath of an atomic bomb and I ask myself what I am doing here, I have an answer. I am an ACE teacher. I am a part of a larger family of amazing educators with a united mission, preparing the Way of the Lord, putting our students on the road to college and Heaven. This is an ambitious mission statement. The inspiring statement John Schoenig, Director of Teacher Formation in Notre Dame, closed with in June at the ACE 22 opening retreat still rings true regarding this objective - “There’s a lot of work to do, so go do it”