WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Sandra Talarico calls the master of religious education 'our gold standard for our teachers.'
While teachers in Catholic schools are expected to know the Church, be leaders of the faith, and instruct their students on those principles, most educational institutions that train teachers do not offer religion as part of their curriculum.
Newman Theological College, however, allows teachers to take a program that earns a diploma or a degree in religious education.
The Graduate Diploma in Religious Education (GDRE) is a basic diploma with concentrations in teaching in a Catholic school or in administration.
"It started in the 1970s, and the idea was to educate teachers in the faith. The majority of the people who study in the GDRE are teachers," said Sandra Talarico, director of the program at Newman.
"It is a faith formation program that gives them a deeper knowledge of their Catholic faith."
The program started as a bachelor of religious education, but has been modified over the years.
"It gives teachers a huge appreciation of the faith and they are able to impart it to their students. That's what we hear over and over," said Talarico.
Hundreds of graduates from the program are working in Catholic schools as teachers, consultants, administrators, assistants and principals, she said.
Edmonton Catholic Schools has sponsored 21 teachers to take the program in 2012. Other teachers from across the archdiocese are currently enrolled. The teachers are subsidized for their course work and their sub days.
They take one course per term, coming to Newman for six Fridays each term. The program lasts four years, with the students taking eight courses at the college, and two on their own time, perhaps during the summer. Online options exist for some courses.
"We don't have a full offering of the GDRE online, but we're working towards it. So in the next couple of years, we'll have the complete GDRE program online. That's particularly to help our people in the North," said Talarico.
The program requires the completion of 30 credits. Essentially, the program provides an overview of the Catholic faith at a graduate level.
Students must take courses on Sacred Scripture, including the Old Testament and New Testament. They take a systematic course, either Christology or theology of God. They also take courses on liturgy and morality.
"We know that religious education doesn't just happen in the religious education classroom. It's cross-curricular and we try to permeate it in everything we do, and that's why we're Catholic," said Talarico.
Upon attaining their diploma, students can then opt to take additional courses and earn their masters of religious education (MRE).
"Not everybody who graduates with a GDRE chooses to do that, but I would say 50 per cent of them at least," said Talarico.
The comprehensive program is designed for the preparation of specialists in the area of research in religious education or Catholic school administration.
Religion requirements vary among school districts across Alberta. A requirement for teachers with Edmonton Catholic Schools is two religion courses, but Talarico said Newman views the MRE as "our gold standard for our teachers."
Tim Cusack, principal of Edmonton's St. Jerome's School, studied both the GDRE and MRE programs. He took some courses alongside his wife, an educator at Georges P. Vanier Elementary School in Morinville.
"It was great to have somebody to sound things off of, and to share and discuss ideas with," said Cusack. "That really benefited our kids because they heard us talking (about religion). It was a great way to model the faith for our kids."
He completed the certificate of Catholic school administration program in 2004, the GDRE in 2007 and MRE in 2010. The majority of his course work was done over a series of weekends at the college, as well as through four online courses.
Cusack said the programs gave him a much richer understanding of Catholic tradition.
"It has deepened my level of formation as a 'cradle Catholic.' I didn't really get such an appreciation for the magisterium, the Church teachings, the Catechism of the Catholic Church until I went through these programs," said Cusack.
Scripture was his favourite aspect of the programs, as it allowed him to gain a broader understanding of the Bible, and how it connects with everyday life. These studies helped him as a Catholic father and as a Catholic educator, giving him more confidence to engage students in classroom dialogue about religion.
"I was more open to their questions and able to share that excitement of discovery, to share with the kids what I had learned, and put it in a context where they could better appreciate and make it more relevant to their experience," said Cusack.
Not only for school administrators, he recommends the GDRE program for anyone looking for a deeper understanding of Catholic pedagogy. He sees a noticeable difference in the teachers who have completed these programs.
Faith formation is a flag Michael Marien waves strongly. Marien is the faith life and curriculum coordinator for St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic Schools.
"Once you get hooked with the experience of Newman College, it's hard not to proclaim it. It's like the call to evangelize, . . . you can't stop once you've started," said Marien.
He serves Catholic schools in the communities of Beaumont, Drayton Valley, Lacombe, Leduc, Ponoka and Wetaskiwin. Graduating from the MRE program in 1998, he has been a sessional lecturer in the program ever since.
"In our own jurisdiction we've really promoted our teachers to be involved in the MRE and GDRE. For about 10 years now we've offered full funding for the courses," said Marien. Online learning has eased the burden of working full-time and a busy family life, while trying to take college courses as well.
At present, 14 teachers in the jurisdiction are taking the GDRE program and one in the MRE program.
"We are quite proud of that. For such a small jurisdiction, many teachers are responding well to the invitation," said Marien.
Graduates of the GDRE and MRE programs have a stronger commitment to Catholic education, and are stronger advocates of their faith. They can articulate their faith, and become leaders in liturgy and in staff prayer.
"There's the dropping of a seed, and then there's a fruitfulness that happens on staffs when people who have been formed in the faith are spreading that to their fellow staff members and, of course, into their classrooms," said Marien.
About 15 teachers with St. Thomas Aquinas School Division have certificates in theological studies, a now-defunct program that Marien referred to as "Newman lite." The program did not have the same academic level, but gave teachers a basic grounding in theology.