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Education Features

Diocese, Catholic Schools host development day for teachers, staff


Students attending Catholic schools in the Buffalo area were treated to a long holiday weekend beginning Friday, October 7. But as for their teachers, it remained a working day, off site.

Carissa Maddox of the University of Notre Dame ACE Academies speaks to teachers and administrators of area Catholic schools during a staff development day, held Oct. 7 at St. Amelia Church in the Town of Tonawanda (Photo by Michael Mroziak)

The Diocese of Buffalo’s education department hosted a staff development day at St. Amelia Parish in the Town of Tonawanda. The all-day session began with a keynote address and workshop inside the church, followed by Mass, and then a lunch break followed by breakout group sessions.

Leading the morning session was Carissa Maddox, coordinator of Adult Formation and Leadership Development at Notre Dame ACE Academies, located in South Bend, Indiana on the celebrated University of Notre Dame campus.

Before leading her workshop, Maddox made sure to express her respect to the teachers, acknowledging them for the radical changes needed to continue providing lessons during the Covid pandemic. The most notable change was the need to present instructions remotely, which forced teachers to learn new online platforms and programs, while the children lost opportunities for extracurricular activities and social encounters.

“Last year, as we returned to school, many people thought that we were returning to normal. And I would imagine, if I were to talk to you, one on one, you’d share with me that well, last year was really anything but normal, that there’s just something different, right?” said Maddox. “That, maybe it was loneliness from the pandemic that our children were dealing with, that caused maybe some extreme behaviors, or maybe it was some anxiety or depression, from missed opportunities to develop social skills. We know our kids, and we know that something was just different, no fault of their own. But there were differences. And you on a day-to-day basis, provided a consistent, loving Catholic space for the children to come to.”

While teachers and administrators were praised for offering Catholic spaces, they were reminded of the need to provide psychologically safe spaces. Maddox addressed practices which may lead to greater inclusion, collaboration, and even joy in the classroom.

Maddox told those in attendance that many kids, fearing humiliation or looking silly by asking a question or making a mistake, hold back and don’t necessarily reveal that they may be struggling to understand the lesson. She said classrooms must be an environment where children are not afraid to make a mistake, because errors are a part of learning.

“Research has demonstrated the importance of creating psychologically safe classrooms. If a student is humiliated for asking a question or making a mistake, the brain interprets that as a threat. And the region known as the amygdala is activated. And the amygdala, you probably know, is responsible for ‘flight or fight,’ which encourages students to quickly act without thinking. And it’s difficult for them to have perspective” she said. “When we feel psychologically safe, we feel that we’re included, and that we belong. No matter what, psychological safety is absolutely necessary for creating a culture of error, which is foundational to checks for understanding.”

Educators pack into St. Amelia Church for the annual Professional Development Day. (Photo by Michael Mroziak)

Upon the conclusion of Maddox’s presentation, Bishop Michael W. Fisher presided over Mass. He told teachers in attendance that he prays for their strength, wisdom and guidance.

The staff development day coincided with the annual recognition of the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary. While addressing the Mass’s readings, the bishop recalled how the disciples may have felt lost and alone after witnessing the death of Jesus, but had Mary in their midst. Noting the memorial day, he encouraged people to celebrate by praying the rosary.

“Sometimes we get criticized that, oh, it’s just repetition, you know, it’s repetition and not even thinking about what you’re doing. Well, first of all, I don’t know about you but when I say the rosary, that repetition brings me into a peacefulness of heart,” Bishop Fisher said. “The rosary is probably one of the best learning devices we could give somebody. Because if you’re meditating on those mysteries, we have a compendium of the gospel there, right in the rosary.”

The bishop further explained, through reciting the rosary – and pondering the mysteries while praying it – one is given a look at Jesus through the eyes of his Mother.                     

“It’s really Her, always looking through Her eyes to our Lord in Jesus. I guess that would be a challenge to all of us, to teaching in Catholic schools. Are we looking through that prism, maybe our Blessed Mother’s eyes at her son? How in math, how in history, how in English, in art are we seeing the presence of Christ in our lives, in our communities? That is what a Catholic school ultimately is about, isn’t it? It’s getting our young people to know that they’re not alone, that they’re part of something bigger. And that’s our Lord’s family, that the Lord is walking with them, that the Lord is helping them to know their call to holiness, and ultimately, their place with God in heaven.”

Like Maddox, the bishop expressed respect for teachers, saying they have “a crucial ministry, and a crucial role to play in the life of the church, and the community.”

Click to hear Michael Mroziak’s audio report on this event