In recent weeks I have used this column to offer a word of personal appreciation for certain folks whom we Catholics (probably Protestants, Jews and Muslims as well) take for granted far too often, namely parish secretaries and those responsible for the material upkeep and maintenance of church facilities.

Today I add to that list a third group of treasured partners in the work of the Gospel, namely the teachers and catechists who share knowledge, faith and countless skills on all levels.

Over the years, early autumn has been the traditional time for what we have often called “teachers’ conventions.” It was a time for teachers at the various levels of primary and secondary education to gather for some new ideas and motivation. The lazy leisure of summer was definitely over, and classes had settled into the rhythm of learning once again.

Students – probably teachers, too – somewhat grudgingly readjusted to that routine, and by early October teachers undoubtedly found the value of sharing mutual experiences and a few laughs as well as horror stories in every teacher’s repertoire.

Such a gathering also provided the opportunity for seeking professional answers to a new challenge or two. It surely was time for students to enjoy a couple days off. Everyone appreciated a bit of relief from the weekly drill schedule.

I have respectful and even fond memories of all my teachers. As a matter of fact, I still pray periodically and gratefully for my first grade teacher by name. She taught me how to read and I have blessed her ever since. I attended a small public grade school on the outskirts of Racine. Stories of supposedly rigorous discipline from neighboring Catholic school friends always seem to pale in comparison to the order imposed on us public school kids as well in those days.

They were good years and I learned to cherish the knowledge we gained about the larger world. Long before the art of “googling,” I learned, above all, intellectual curiosity.

It was another day to be sure, but religious values were never far from those public classrooms. Moving to St. Catherine High School was a treat, especially in the new variety of personalities I encountered. The sisters were extremely gifted and the priests excellent models.

I learned that maturing faith and secular areas of knowledge can be freely intermingled. This has become essential for the needs of our modern world.

My best teachers were those with the blend of loving their material passionately and caring for the students on the other end of the equation. It was a learning community and everyone participated!

In retrospect I probably appreciated fair and demanding teachers the most because interaction with them made a lasting impression. A regret in these latter years is that there were individuals whom I now wish I had thanked more personally and directly, but I guess that task will have to wait until heaven. A no-nonsense Greek teacher in the minor seminary remains among the names on the top of that list. A few theologians from the university shaped my entire life.  

Because of my great regard and respect for my teachers over the years, I followed the 2011 unrest in Madison with careful interest and personal concern. We need to care for those to whom we commit our next generation.

It is very true that parents are always one’s first teachers. They make lasting impressions upon everything we are and do. They instill our basic prejudices, good and bad. “If you’re going to do something,” my father would always say, “do it right the first time.” (I still mutter the axiom to myself almost every day!)

Moreover, virtually everyone we meet can teach us something about which we hadn’t thought. The entire world is a classroom for anyone willing to learn.

It just strikes me that our words of thanks for people we take for granted should always include the litany of those who have been our formal and informal teachers over the years. Sometimes our closest friends become our stellar teachers.

Last week I had the privilege of reblessing the chapel for the new Notre Dame Elementary School on the south side of Milwaukee. Once St. Lawrence parish school, then a Protestant school for Hmongs, and now reclaimed by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, it was filled with young women scholars, teachers and parents for the chapel’s formal rededication to School Sister of Notre Dame Blessed Theresa Gerhardinger.

We celebrated a joyous new beginning for the educational mission of the church. I was very proud of the teachers.

The epistles of Paul on occasion list the different vocations found in every local community. Invariably teachers occupy special places of honor in his litany (cfr. 1 Cor 12:28; Eph 4:11). They deserve to be on our list as well. To each and all, we offer a word of deep and sincere thanks … in season and out of season … but especially in autumn when the leaves color and the rhythm of learning begins anew.