Mr. Michael Verlander is chairman of the Theology department at Holy Spirit Preparatory School in Atlanta, Georgia, and also has served there as Dean of Houses and Trent House Master. Michael has a strong commitment to Catholic liberal education arising from his years at Thomas More College, New Hampshire, where he earned a B.A. in Philosophy and solidified his life-long love of learning. I have had the pleasure of knowing Michael since he participated in our first Academic Retreat for Teachers in 2006. In the greatest sense, his approach to teaching and leading is simple; Michael concentrates on both refining and fleshing out students’ understanding of vital components of the Faith, with a view to illuminating ideals, presenting practical avenues of walking in the Truth, and lessening confusion through delving into centuries-old and current faith-based questions. Enthusiasm on the part of the faculty is always pertinent, and Michael desires always to tap into and share the real joy that comes of exploring and following the truths of the Church. Michael discussed the hallmarks of his department, his own emphases in teaching and the benefits of a House system.
Our Theology Department has four hallmarks. First, we are apologetic, that is, we try in all our classes to “give a reason for the hope that is in us”. Catholic students learn what they believe in catechesis and elementary school. At the high school level, they need to understand why they believe it so that they can be prepared to face the challenges they will encounter in college and beyond. Explanation with support is offered as often as possible; however, the tenth grade year at HSP is devoted to apologetics in a particular way as students prepare for confirmation. We use Peter Kreeft’s Handbook for Apologetics, Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s Rome, Sweet Rome, and C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity as avenues for understanding and springboards for further discussions about the “why” of Catholicism.
Secondly, we try throughout the curriculum to show our students the relation between Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium, which aides in the bolstering of trust in the functional facets of revelation. If the authority of the Word is doubted – particularly because it seems vague or its groundwork shaky – how can spiritual growth confidently occur? As we look for “why we believe”, we find answers in Scripture and Tradition, with these answers interpreted and confirmed by the Magisterium. The writings, rituals, and voice of the Church take on weight and significance, ideally in a personal way that connects the student to the faithful at large. Further, as students are able to view this three-fold working out of answers to questions in various theological topics, their sense of the roles of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium in a Catholic’s daily faith life begins to grow organically in the life of the mind.
Inculcating a love for the Mass is our third hallmark. In each of our courses – Church History, the Sacraments, Scripture – we pay particular attention to connections with the Mass. Not only is it the summit and source of our faith, it is also the lived reality of being a Catholic for most people. We want them to understand and appreciate its beauty and sanctity. And at an age where they can open themselves to learning the practical aspects of the sacraments beyond what has been learned by rote – we would hope to help them experience the Mass with love and to tread their path through faith with purpose and a sense of fulfillment.
Our fourth hallmark concerns the great moral battle of our times, the battle for life. Appealing to a respect for humanity in all its unique dignity and enlightening students to an existence most fully enjoyed when it extends itself beyond the survival instinct or the false notion that happiness is the result of total self-fulfillment opens their minds to critical struggles of the day and in a secular culture. We cannot focus on everything, so we aim to educate students in the Church teachings on life issues and an evangelical commitment to defending innocent human life.
As a teacher, I have long been inspired by a quotation from Francis Bacon that was on the wall of my English classroom in high school: “Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man.” Exposure to and practice in these three mediums of creation and logical thinking I find invaluable to a student’s experience – both in the classroom and outside of it. Hence I integrate all of those components into each my classes and promote their use in whatever a student undertakes. Reading good books fills the intellect and imagination, discussion trains students to be ready to engage others, and writing forces them to clarify their thoughts and be precise in expression.
Not least of all, I try to live out my vocation with joy. Performing in an attitude of peace and fulfillment – that which springs largely out of dedicated, ongoing searching for truth – is the best thing I can bring to the classroom as a teacher. Further, it keeps me grounded and motivated when I view teaching and learning as an exercise in enjoyable sharing and discovery rather than a strict process or series of tasks to be accomplished. Joy makes the faith contagious and infectious. And I believe that if I increase my devotion to the Eucharist, He will accomplish much more than I can through all my planning.
However, teaching can be such a struggle. It’s easy to become jaded. As part of my regimin and in an effort to curtail the hurdles that can make one flag, every weekend I read something that reminds me of what I’m hoping to accomplish as a teacher, such as Don Bosco’s letter to his brothers on education. Since sharing this habit with fellow faculty in some of our Best Practices meetings, some colleagues have joined me. We share inspirational writings with each other and try to meet when possible in a casual setting to discuss what we’ve read. This type of activity helps strike balance between our daily ‘working’ and ‘non-working’ lives – indeed ideally bridging and consolidating the two in an arena of community.
The house system is a way to establish communities within the larger community. Our four houses are named after Ecumenical Councils: Nicaea, Chalcedon, Lyons, Trent. The houses compete in all sorts of games, from kickball to chess, and work together on community service projects. Points are awarded and detracted from individuals and houses at large based on personal and overall performance. Moreover, since houses unite younger and older students in common efforts, they break down the cliques that tend to separate classes. And as in the classroom setting, the house system is successful to the extent that teachers are enthusiastic; our excitement trickles down to the students. Faculty members fulfill roles as Masters and Mistresses facilitate all of the house-related projects and recreations, though with marked responsibility placed upon students in participation. If we can inspire the upperclassmen especially, they will learn to take up real leadership roles with respect to the younger students. Ultimately, the house system promotes a healthy pride in the life of the school and affords students and faculty alike a way to integrate a sense of tradition into common day to day experiences at HSP – a way of making valuable and worthwhile what otherwise can be dismissed; making our little ways opportunities to grow in character, spirit, and charity.