When Justin McClain first started writing brief reflections on what he had learned as a teacher over the past decade, he didn’t know what would become of them. But before long, the theology teacher at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville had written 365 reflections – one for each day of the year – and put them together into a book titled “Called to Teach.”
Each reflection begins with a quote from Scripture and offers a paragraph of advice. McClain designed each reflection to be read in one to two minutes to provide teachers with spiritual renewal and a brief reminder of why they teach.
“We can’t give what we don’t have,” he said, “So it is important for teachers to seek spiritual revitalization when they need it.”
McClain’s biggest hope for the book “is that teachers have hope,” because “Catholic schools are called to bring hope, a hope that is not something that the world in itself can bring; rather only the hope that Jesus Christ can bring.”
“Called to Teach,” published this past fall by Ave Maria Press, addresses the well-being of teachers on all different levels, ranging from getting a good night’s sleep to eating healthy food to making time for prayer. While McClain is a theology teacher, he wants the book to be accessible for teachers of all subjects, because he said there are ways to bring Christ to students through all different topics.
“If a teacher is on fire for Christ, then exceptional things happen in the classroom whether you are teaching physics, biology, art history, (or) music.” McClain said. “No matter what you’re teaching within a Catholic school, there is some way to bring your faith into the classroom.”
McClain remembers when he was in high school at Bishop McNamara, and he said he was always the student who asked his theology teachers difficult questions about Church teachings, and not always in a nice way.
“I thought they were just rules imposed by a hierarchical structure that didn’t really have our best interest at heart,” he said.
It wasn’t until he was in college at the University of Maryland, studying Spanish and criminal justice, that he was inspired to take his faith more seriously by Father William Byrne, then the chaplain at the university’s Catholic Student Center. After college, McClain entered the seminary, but discerned out after a year and started teaching Spanish at his alma mater, where he has now been teaching for 11 years. After four years, McClain started teaching theology in addition to Spanish, and four years after that, he shifted to just teaching theology, which he said he thinks is his particular calling.
Now, McClain encourages his students to ask the tough questions that he used to ask, because, “It is not good enough just to be told something, without seeking the truth.” Through those questions, McClain hopes to lead his students to a greater understanding of the “why?” behind Church teaching.
“It is important always to lead students to see the love of God at the underpinning of everything,” McClain said. “If we start with law and morality devoid of God’s love, then we are just talking about legalisms and legislative things and litigiousness.”
McClain said the most difficult part of teaching is finding ways to “Wow” his students, recalling one time on a retreat when he told his students to look at the scenery around them, and one responded by saying, “I could just look that up on my phone.”
“But, as I and other teachers have to remind ourselves, it isn’t always about ‘wowing’ them. Sometimes that movement of the Lord in their hearts happens years down the road, or decades down the road,” McClain said. “It is something in which we attempt to plant seeds and hope that they germinate, hope that they later blossom into a life that flourishes… .If we are able to be the face of Christ for them, then those seeds will bloom later.”
His students who do not believe in the Catholic faith sometimes think he will be disappointed or appalled, McClain said, but he tells them, “We are all on a faith journey,” and no one ever gets to check off the box to say that they have reached holiness. “We are constantly undergoing interior conversion,” he said.
McClain hopes that new teachers in particular will benefit from his book, because he remembers making mistakes when he first began teaching. He was very rule-oriented, he said, until he realized that the people he was teaching “are humans first…students second.” He hopes that other teachers can learn from what he has learned over the years, and that even beyond his own book, teachers find some spiritual reading to inspire them.
“The most important teacher is the Divine Teacher,” McClain said. “His word matters more than every word in every textbook that has ever been made, because he brings it all together.”