Skip the Debt, Get a Master’s, and Start Teaching in Catholic Schools

Students can take the helm in classrooms while earning graduate degrees at some universities.

Desmond Shannon, a teacher from St. Joseph’s University’s first cohort, instructs students.
Desmond Shannon, a teacher from St. Joseph’s University’s first cohort, instructs students. (photo: Photo by Melissa Kelly/St. Joseph’s University)

After he graduated from college, Kevin Gregorio knew he wanted to get his master’s degree in education to teach in Catholic schools.

A teacher-training program run by universities across the country has allowed him to teach while he gets his graduate degree

During his two years of graduate education as a teaching fellow at the Alliance for Catholic Education at St. Joseph’s University, he taught English literature at Mercy Career and Technical High School, a co-ed Catholic vocational high school in Philadelphia.

“Education suggests what we want children to become when they’re men and women. That’s crucial to the welfare of society, so I felt like: What better vocation to get involved with than that?” he told the Register.

“Students don’t always walk in really excited about British literature, and at first, that’s a daunting challenge; but if you can get them to like it, that’s a huge victory.”

When students go on break at the end of the school year, teaching fellows return to their universities to take intensive summer coursework for a master’s degree in education.

Young men and women like Gregorio are following their call to teach at Catholic schools thanks to innovative, fully funded programs at Catholic universities that give them experience teaching in Catholic schools while earning credits toward a master’s during their school breaks. After two years, fellows in these programs finish with a master’s degree in education, no graduate-level debt and valuable job experience.

Catholic schools, for their part, get faithful, enthusiastic young teachers to lead their classrooms.

While the students the Register interviewed said the cost of a graduate degree would not have deterred them from pursuing a career in teaching at Catholic schools, the burden debt puts upon newly graduated educators is significant. A 2014 report found the average borrower for an education master’s degree owed nearly $51,000 in school loans.  

A dozen Catholic universities around the country run their own graduate education programs, generally modeled after the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program pioneered by the University of Notre Dame.

Theo Helm, communications director for Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, told the Register that Holy Cross Fathers Timothy Scully and Sean McGraw established the program in 1993 to address the need for “talented and faith-filled energetic teachers” in Catholic schools around the country.

“I think, famously, it started with a poster that said, ‘Tired of doing homework? Come out and give some out,’” said Helm.

Now under the umbrella of the University Consortium of Catholic Education, the programs collectively place around 400 teaching fellows every year in under-resourced Catholic schools.

While each university’s program serves different communities and has a different spirituality — Dominican, or Jesuit, or Holy Cross, among others — every graduate program commits itself to teacher formation, community living for students and spiritual growth.

Helm added each university’s role is to support these students in their ministry.

“Teachers who are out there in the field doing this program are doing it because they’re called to serve. Yes, they earn degrees, and experience, but it’s fundamentally a service program,” Helm said.  


Learning Together

Mercy Sister Rosemary Herron, president of Mercy Career and Technical High School, told the Register that her school has had “a great partnership over the years” with St. Joseph’s University.

“The [teaching fellows] who have come to us are generous, energetic and willing to serve,” she said.

Sister Rosemary said ACE teachers are “great for the faculty mix.”

They leaven their community through providing enthusiasm and joy to their ministry and the occasional technological expertise, while learning from teachers who have been involved in this work for 45 years.

“I think we model for the young teachers the generosity that you have to have and the humility in learning new ideas,” she said.

Catholic education is not without its challenges, Sister Rosemary explained. For teachers who are not much older than their students, dealing with teenagers poses a challenge.

Also, Catholic school systems in dense urban areas have lost a lot of financial support, as the original populations that founded them moved away.

Public schools, particularly the growth of charter schools, Sister Rosemary added, are another threat to the continued longevity of Catholic schools, because “it’s hard to compare with free.”

Even if there is less financial support than there used to be, Catholics schools still play a vitally important role in their neighborhoods. Sister Rosemary told the Register that parents in the neighborhood, many of whom are not Catholic, and who struggle economically, choose to pay to send their children to places like Mercy because they see its “loving environment” as a better option than public schools.

Students feel “safe, cared about and like what they’re learning.”

Teachers also become role models and advocates for their students. “It’s more than a job for our faculty — it’s a ministry,” said Sister Rosemary.


Forming New Generations

The graduate fellows enrolled in Catholic teacher-training programs take their vocations seriously.

Marissa Gioffre, who just completed her first year with St. Joseph’s University ACE at St. Frances Cabrini in West Philadelphia, said her faith has grown in the classroom. One challenge of her first year has been balancing being an educator and a spiritual role model for her students, making sure they’re not only memorizing facts, but also learning how to “shape themselves in becoming good citizens and the ways to take their education into their community.”

Her own faith has also deepened through the Jesuit spirituality of the program. While a Vincentian spirituality of finding God in the people around her had been an important influence on her earlier life, Gioffre said, Ignatian concepts like cura personalis, or care for the whole person, had helped her to live her faith better and care for her students through her teaching and as their choir director and basketball coach.

Amanda Heath, who graduated from the Pacific Alliance for Catholic Education (PACE) at the University of Portland, told the Register that she pursued teaching because her parents had started a school for children with special needs, and she likewise “wanted to provide the best to each child out there” as a Catholic teacher. Having graduated in 2015 from PACE, she continues to teach at Immaculate Conception School in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Heath told the Register that having teaching fellows living together in an intentional community helped develop her vocation as a teacher. In the house she lived in, the teacher-residents spent five nights a week eating in common, fostering community and deepening their faith together.

“It’s such a wonderful option that gives you teaching experience, that gives you a master’s, that gives you a community of other people who are going through the same things you are,” she said. As a result, she said, “I know I’ll always be in Catholic schools.”


Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Rochester, New York.