When Amie Trahan began teaching English more than 20 years ago, she thought she knew what she was doing.
It was clear to her, for example, that her students needed to memorize foundational facts and information.
“It was just obvious,” she told The Pillar. “You need to know what a noun is in order to write a sentence.”
But as she continued in her career, and attended professional development sessions and national education conferences, she was repeatedly warned against this type of memorization in the classroom. She encountered a mindset that saw memorization as a waste of time and an unnecessary distraction from critical thinking.
“And so you take from your peers, the ones who are the leaders in your field, and you say, ‘Wow, I've been doing this wrong the whole time’,” Trahan said.
She was also encouraged to eliminate phonics and to de-emphasize literature in favor of excerpts and skill-based texts.
The education field was shifting its approach to teaching, and Trahan was starting to feel confused and disillusioned.
And with that shift, she was noticing something else. She was more often encountering students who did not remember basic fundamentals, and who could not write clear sentences or coherent paragraphs – even in high school.
Trahan left teaching about four years ago.
But today, she has a new enthusiasm for the profession.
Trahan is helping start an independent classical Catholic school in Shriever, Louisiana. The school, Holy Trinity Academy, will open next school year and will serve students in pre-K through 12th grade.
Trahan says that a central part of her renewed excitement about teaching is the discovery of the classical model of education.
“Learning about classical Catholic education has really just rekindled that fire - wanting to bring children into that environment so they can learn and understand salvation history and how everything works together and creates this beautiful arc, for them to have a greater understanding of why they learn what they learn, instead of just individual subjects that are not connected,” she said.
Trahan is a student in the Catholic Educator Formation and Credential (CEFC) program, offered by the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. She started the CEFC program in August, and is about one-third of the way through the course.
She has found it refreshing to attend the CEFC classes, which reaffirmed the truths about teaching that she had originally known, but had come to question after years of being told that she was wrong.
“We start out at that foundation because yeah, kids need to know their foundational skills. They need to know their math facts. They need to know the parts of the sentence. They need to memorize to build that….muscle in their brain,” she said.
The classes have taught Trahan how to help her students memorize information in a way that is consistent with their development.
She has also learned how to identify good literature, considering qualities including precise language, emotional appeal, and universality to assess whether a certain piece of literature is worth teaching in class.
Trahan is hoping to bring the knowledge she’s learned back to the teachers at the new Holy Trinity Academy, where she works as curriculum coordinator, and is a member of the board of trustees.
And Trahan has recommended to the board that all of the school’s faculty members eventually receive this type of training.
‘Forming human beings - for this world and the next’
Trahan’s experience is not surprising to Beth Sullivan, executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education, which designed and runs the CEFC program.
Sullivan hopes that more participants in the program will experience the renewed enthusiasm for teaching that Trahan has found.
“We think that teaching is a noble profession and that anyone called to the vocation of teaching in a Catholic school deserves the rich formation of the Church's intellectual tradition,” she said.
“In nutshell, that's why we developed this program,” Sullivan told The Pillar.
“We very much admire people who respond to this important vocation. Our Catholic schools are an engine of evangelization for the Church. This job is hard. They don't go into it for fame and fortune, and we just want to nurture them so that they can really do what their hearts desire, to really pass on faith and knowledge to these children.”
Sullivan said the CEFC program was created because it had “become clear that nearly all teacher training programs are fundamentally secular. They're rooted in a secular philosophy that essentially omits the divine and does not take into account the nature of the human person.”
Catholic school teachers often undergo secular state credentialing programs. And sometimes, Catholic schools base their curricula on secular models as well, such as the national Common Core standards.
But by their very design, secular approaches to education aim only at temporal goals – career and college readiness, Sullivan said. These approaches, purely pragmatic and utilitarian, have no room for the mysteries at the heart of the Catholic faith.
“[Secular education] doesn't encourage a sense of contemplation, which is really the necessary foundation for prayer. It doesn't encourage looking at what is in creation as signs and symbols of God's goodness and truth and beauty. It doesn't encourage a child to discover meaning or to develop a sense of wonder and awe about this world that God has created,” Sullivan said.
But Catholic education has a different goal, she continued.
“We are aiming at human flourishing. We understand that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God, a composite of body and soul, and we want to take very careful account of the nature of the human soul, because we're not just teaching math or literacy or science. We're teaching children, we're forming human beings - for this world and the next.”
The Catholic approach is based on an entirely different worldview, Sullivan said. It has a different orientation and goal, and so its curriculum, content, and pedagogy will all be different from a secular approach.
The Catholic vision of reality includes a world created by God – and so knowing truth means conforming our thoughts to this reality that God created, Sullivan said. God speaks to us through creation, she continued, so there is meaning and purpose in the created world and the nature of the human person.
Ultimately, the goal of Catholic education is not just to know things, she said, but to love that which is worth loving, in imitation of God, who is love.
The Catholic Educator Formation and Credential program was born from a desire to help teachers reclaim that Catholic worldview in the way they teach – and the way they think about teaching.
The 18-month program is designed as an alternative to state licensure for teachers and school leaders. It is billed as “a credential program that prepares educators to infuse a deeply Catholic philosophy and practice of education into their teaching.”
There are five courses, taught through a combination of online meetings and in-person workshops, at Aquinas College in Nashville and other locations around the country.
The courses teach things like lesson planning and pedagogy techniques. But the program is not based on “best practices.”
Instead, it focuses on a Catholic understanding of the human person and the role of the divine Logos, Jesus Christ, as central to the task of education.
The first course focuses on classroom management, rooted in child development and human dignity. The second considers foundations of pedagogy, grounded in human nature and aiming at facilitating the discovery of the true, good and beautiful. The third course explores language as a medium of thought, focusing on grammar, logic and rhetoric. The fourth looks at the place of math and science within the Catholic liberal arts. And the fifth considers the “Catholic Intellectual Tradition,” with a focus on the philosophy, theology and history that form the foundation for a Catholic worldview.
Participants also have a chance to teach sample lessons, with their teaching observed and receive feedback from instructors.
The program was launched at the request of Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila, as the Archdiocese of Denver looked for an alternative to state licensure for new teachers.
The CEFC program is not a pathway to a state teacher’s credential or license. While some diocese accept the program as an alternative to state licensing, others require teachers to have traditional teacher credentials, and look on the CEFC program as an enrichment formation program.
But in either case, teachers and schools across the country have expressed interest in the program, which now operates nationally.
Registration is now open for the second national cohort, which begins this summer and runs for 18 months.
The courses are taught by practitioners who have spent years applying the ideas, allowing them to draw from their practical experience in the classroom instead of presenting only theory.
“It's very relational,” Sullivan said. She noted that the cohorts give themselves names and choose a patron saint. Members tend to keep in touch outside of the formal program itself.
Classical or Catholic?
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education focuses on promoting liberal arts-based education, sometimes known as “classical education.”
Nailing down a precise definition for this model of education is tricky, as even its advocates will often acknowledge. But some of its key features include an emphasis on the “trivium” of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; a focus on the foundations of Western culture; the use of literary works and primary sources rather than textbooks; and a cohesive presentation of subjects as being inter-related, rather than individual, disjointed topics.
The “classical approach” to education has been experiencing a revival in recent years, both in Catholic schools and in other educational circles. Hundreds of schools across the country have adopted some iteration of a “classical” or “liberal arts” model.
But for her part, Sullivan explained that an authentically Catholic education is more than what most people mean by the notion of “classical” — because it’s rooted in the truths of the Incarnation.
“The Church's tradition encompasses many of the approaches of the classical tradition,” she told The Pillar, “but it goes far beyond it.”
Classical education, Sullivan said, historically did aim at human flourishing and seek to cultivate wisdom and virtue. But it was incomplete, because it did not address the supernatural reality of man and the world.
“Classical education is not comprehensive by itself,” she said.
But Catholic education is something different, she said.
“After the coming of Christ, the Church takes up many of these approaches and the spirit of inquiry [from classical education], but orders it toward Christ, so it becomes a different thing. It becomes the Catholic intellectual tradition.”
“This pertains to every Catholic school,” she continued. “We would say that it’s universal.”
“We would say there's only one Catholic philosophy of education, and it's rooted in this unity of faith and reason. It's a continual discovery of the depths and richness of how to teach according to the nature of the human person and the nature of reality.”
Some Catholic schools making transitions to a liberal arts approach are hesitant to use the word “classical,” fearing that its implications may be unclear, or that it may carry connotations of an outdated and impractical approach to education — but despite those efforts, the label tends to persist at most schools using the approach championed by the ICLE.
Still, Sullivan clarified that the CEFC program is for all Catholic teachers, regardless of their school’s pedagogical methods.
‘Show, don’t tell’
Sullivan said the CEFC program aims to impart a teaching philosophy that conforms with the nature of both reality and the student, in order to help learners develop their minds and hearts and souls in imitation of Christ, the true teacher.
“It's not just what we teach, but it's the way we teach,” she said.
“We put a lot of emphasis on a pedagogy that reclaims wonder in the classroom, that is based in the Aristotelian, Thomistic train of thought [which] understands that we begin to know through our senses and that we can, through our common sense, see the meaning and purpose of things and understand these things and develop a sense of the supernatural through that.”
Participants in the CEFC program are taught to encourage encounters with real, concrete, and tangible questions, for example, by studying nature and by observing the world and asking meaningful questions.
“There's a whole tradition of grammar, logic and rhetoric that trains the mind to look at something and to receive information through our senses and ask the right questions, discovering pattern and order through observation,” Sullivan explained.
“There's a great deal of questioning and a lot more discussion in the classroom…The teacher is modeling a habit of inquiry, a spirit of inquiry by asking these questions.”
While Sullivan believes there is a place for lecture in the classroom, she is concerned that constant lecturing and testing is a passive way of learning that fails to cultivate habits of wonder and inquiry.
Teachers who go through the CEFC training are taught to “Show, don’t tell.”
“It's kind of, in many cases, reframing the structure of a lesson to encourage children to extract and discover what's common or what a pattern is or what the commonality is. Because what is critical thinking? It's being able to distinguish things that are similar and different, to be able to develop pattern recognition,” Sullivan said.
And this is a very practical skill, she added. “What does a physician do? A physician sees patterns in symptoms in order to make a diagnosis. A lawyer sees patterns in principles of jurisprudence to try a case. A quarterback looks for patterns in the defensive line.”
The CEFC program also places a heavy focus on language as a medium of thought.
“How do we express ourselves, express the truth beautifully and eloquently, to be able to witness to the truth? There's a lot of attention to language, a lot of writing, a lot of speaking, a lot of reciting beautiful poems, learning beautiful poems by heart, for example,” Sullivan said.
Additionally, the program emphasizes the cultivation of both moral and sacramental imagination in children.
“Moral imagination is cultivated through story. Saints and heroes. How do those virtues and vices apply to our own lives? What are these themes, like justice and truth and love and forgiveness across the centuries in literature and history? All of that cultivates the moral imagination,” Sullivan explained.
“And the sacramental imagination, a sensibility of the signs in the world God made, because God is speaking to us through His truth and His goodness and His beauty, and we want to be attentive to receiving and seeing those signs, and we can't see that when we're glued to a screen on our phones.”
For Trahan, learning these principles has given her a whole new perspective on what teaching should look like, even though she has spent decades in the profession. For example, she now uses a completely new approach to teaching vocabulary.
“Usually it's ‘Here's your list of words. These are the definitions. Okay, we're moving on’,” she said. But in her CEFC classes, she’s learned to be intentional in choosing words from a piece of literature that she wants her students to know, and then creating ways for them to interact with those words.
She said, for example, that as she read “The Lord of the Rings” with the boys she currently tutors, she realized that the word “cunning” is used repeatedly throughout the book. But she also realized it was being used in two different ways – both in its archaic definition (skilled in a particular ability through study or experience) and its modern definition (crafty and artfully shrewd).
Since author JRR Tolkien was a linguistics professor, Trahan said, he would have understood the nuance in the two definitions, and would have used them both intentionally.
So she used “cunning” as one of the vocabulary words for her students. They discussed example sentences and synonyms for the word, and they also looked at different characters in “The Lord of the Rings” – and from other stories – who could be described as cunning, comparing the two definitions of the word.
“I didn't even know that this was a way to do vocabulary,” Trahan said. “I've been teaching English for…all my career, and never did I realize or was taught this kind of way of utilizing and getting kids to learn vocabulary. So it's been pretty eye-opening.”
The importance of stories
Katie Gillett teaches music and Latin at St. Therese Catholic Classical School in Aurora, Colorado. This is her third year as a teacher, and she teaches kids from pre-K through 8th grade.
Gillett told The Pillar that she did not have a background in education, but studied theater in college.
However, she comes from a family of teachers and had always enjoyed teaching kids through summer camps, swim lessons and tutoring. Theater jobs were thin when she graduated in 2020, so she applied for a job as a teacher, and was hired at St. Therese.
At the time, the school was in the process of making the transition to a classical model.
Gillett began teaching music her first year. The next year, she was asked to teach Latin as well. She didn’t have a background in Latin, but says she “picked up a Latin textbook and just started working through it.”
Gillett did not have any formal training as a teacher, or any credentialing. Like a number of dioceses, the Archdiocese of Denver allows newly-hired teachers to go through a credentialing program within their first few years as a teacher.
Rather than go through an education program at a local university, Gillett learned about the CEFC credentialing program, and decided to join the first cohort, which began in August 2021 and concluded in January 2023.
During the two years of program, she has been struck by the faith of the teachers.
“They’re obviously very smart and very competent, and they're excellent teachers themselves. But I think the thing that has been most impactful for me and my relationship with them is seeing how much they love the Lord and how much they are responding to His call in their own teaching work. I think their example has been really impactful for me.”
Gillett said she learned practical skills through the course – lesson planning, classroom management, and professional communication, for example. But in addition, she was introduced to the foundations of the Western cultural tradition throughout the centuries.
“Most of us who are working in classical education, or who are working in Catholic schools at all, didn't receive a deeply Catholic education that looked at history through the eyes of faith, or that helped us to see how the story of the Church and the story of Western civilization are so closely intertwined,” she said. “So one of the things that the program gave us was just helping us to enter into that story for ourselves so that we can teach it to our students.”
This formation has profoundly impacted the way she teaches, implementing stories and narratives, as well as connecting elements of what she is teaching to other parts of the curriculum.
For example, she said, the term “dynamics” in music means, essentially, volume. The two basic dynamics are piano (soft) and forte (loud).
“You could have a lesson where you just write on the board, ‘Piano equals quiet, Forte equals loud.’ And say, ‘All right, kids. Now you know. Now remember that’.”
“But one of the big takeaways for me from the CEFC program is the importance of narratives - helping students to tell stories about different concepts that they're supposed to be learning,” Gillett said. “So when I teach that lesson on dynamics now, with my youngest students, we tell a story of two animals, a bunny named Piano who has very quiet steps and a very quiet voice, and then a bear named Forte who has very loud steps and a very loud voice.”
“Students are totally engaged by it. They remember it really well. They love to retell the story when I see their class the next week and the week after that.”
In addition, she said, the CEFC program helped her understand the importance of the broader narrative of music history - teaching students the stories of different time periods of music, of different composers, and of different songs that they're singing in class.
“So to go beyond just, ‘Alright, kids. Here's the song you're singing today.’ But to help them enter into, ‘Okay, what was the composer thinking about? Or what was he responding to when he wrote this piece of music? Or how does this piece of music help us to understand this culture or this time period?’ And making broader connections with the rest of their curriculum.”
Gillett also thinks about the principles she has learned when she makes lesson plans for Latin. Most of her students are English-language learners, so she tries to break concepts down into smaller steps and make lesson objectives as concrete as possible.
“I would say particularly the focus on mimetic lesson planning and on lessons that are ordered towards a single truth or logos, help me to build my lessons in such a way that I can give the content to my students, one manageable step at a time and help them to make connections with the English language [and] with the languages they speak in their homes,” she said.
Gillett said the CEFC program has strengthened her enthusiasm and confidence as a teacher, and especially in the Catholic school system.
“It's really just helped me to be confident that this is a good place to be and a good place to invest energy, even on days when it's hard.”
Spreading the vision
Sullivan said the CEFC program has been met with gratitude and enthusiasm by the teachers who have gone through it.
“You give them this vision, and you give them these tools, and they're off and running, and they love it,” she said.
“It's the most beautiful thing to see them, these teachers just renewed in their vocations and excited about their vocations and understanding just how important it is to restore faith and reason from a child's earliest years,” she said.
“Their own learning has been stimulated by this, and a teacher can't give what a teacher doesn't have, so to have this renewed joy in learning themselves is spilling over into the classroom with their students.”
Some of the teachers who have gone through the program are new teachers, but Sullivan said about half are veteran teachers who want to reframe their teaching through a more Catholic lens.
“That surprised us a little,” Sullivan said. “We thought we'd just get brand-new college grads or career changers who are new to the classroom. [But] some of these teachers already have state licenses, but they're committed to their vocations and they want to infuse their vocation with a more deeply Catholic vision of teaching.”
A few participants were sent by their bishops to help spread this vision in their dioceses.
Sarah Zook, principal at Aquinas Catholic Elementary School in Lincoln, Nebraska, is one of those. She and a handful of other administrators and teachers from the diocese are attending the CEFC program, at the request of Lincoln Bishop James Conley.
Zook has been a principal for 15 years. Before that, she was a high school teacher for about 10 years. She has also worked as a professional development trainer, helping teachers identify and implement best practices in the classroom.
“I have found it very invigorating and refreshing,” Zook told The Pillar. “I've been in teaching for nearly 25 years now, and I think it just kind of clarified a lot of the practices that we've kind of picked up over the years as good practices.”
“It definitely has put my focus back on the roots of solid instruction - looking more at wonder and at teaching children what is good, what is true, what is beautiful,” she added.
Zook said the program offered a good balance of theory and practical.
“There was enough theory that you understood the rationale behind the thinking. But then enough of the practical that you can take it and do it,” she said.
She was struck by learning about child growth and development, and how the progression of grammar, logic and rhetoric can be taught in each phase of childhood learning.
“That really has helped me understand better what stage our children are at developmentally and how best we can teach them at that phase,” she said.
As Zook finishes up the CEFC program herself, she is bringing back different practices to her school, and having her teachers try them out.
“We started with just recitation of poetry, and [the teachers] came back and said, ‘This is great. The kids love it. They're doing it so fast. They're very able to do this’,” she said.
“And we took it on initially as a way to improve memory, but also to get some beautiful language in there. And they've kind of reported back, they've seen all those things. So yeah, very positive and then open for more.”
The process is part of the elementary school’s transition to a new pedagogical model, which Zook described as “traditional Catholic instruction.”
This summer, Zook will begin sending groups of her teachers to go through the CEFC program as well.
In addition to the Archdiocese of Denver, the Diocese of Colorado Springs is also offering the CEFC training. And there are four other dioceses that are preparing to bring the training to their teachers as well.
“The response tells us that this has been very much needed and bishops and priests and principals see that this is needed,” Sullivan said.
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education has also had requests from other dioceses that want to have the program run for their teachers. If the diocese has 30-40 candidates, the institute is able to work with them to bring the training there.
In addition, several Catholic institutions of higher learning are working with the institute to grant graduate level credits for the program. Sullivan said the program was built to match the requirements for graduate level credit.
“We all agree that we want these well-formed teachers to stay in Catholic education, so the graduate level credits at these different universities would be to encourage our graduates to go on for graduate study and get a master's degree, whether it's Catholic school leadership or whether it's in the classics or whether it's Catholic Studies,” she said.
Ultimately, Sullivan believes a renewal in Catholic education can play a key role in combating the loss of faith and the decline of virtue in modern American culture.
“Catholic schools, when they reclaim their own tradition and dive deep into rediscovering what [Catholic education] is and how it looks and how it produces joyful learners and believers, they flourish.”