Bonnie Spurrell has gathered her Grade 2 students around her to read them a book in her classroom.
They look to her, hanging on her every word. But they’re also watching her behaviour, her actions – and her faith – whether it’s reading a book, giving a lesson or playing guitar in the music ministry during the liturgies and celebrations at Notre Dame School in Leduc.
Spurrell knows that students see her, and other Catholic teachers, as a role model. And for more than three decades, she has taken that responsibility very seriously.
“We help them along their journey. They’re not going to buy into anything you tell them if they don’t see you doing something that aligns with what you’re telling them,” said Spurrell.
“My role is to inspire them to want to learn more about Jesus but to see around you, that you’re in right relationship and your behaviour is responsible and you’re learning everything that you need to know to help you in your life, because that’s what God wants for you.”
Catholic Education Week is being celebrated across Alberta and some other provinces May 6-10. It’s an annual opportunity to showcase and celebrate Catholic schools, staff, students and what makes them different from other school systems.
“It’s the way we address each other and being able to see the face of Christ in everybody we deal with – our students, our parents, or anyone in the public,” said Serena Shaw, president of the Alberta Catholic School Trustees Association.
The ACSTA represents 24 school districts that educate more than 181,000 students in Alberta, Yukon and Northwest Territories.
“We’re called to interact and be in a relationship differently. That isn’t something that happens just in a classroom on a day or through a program.”
In light of Catholic Education Week, Grandin Media asked two highly recognized teachers in the St. Thomas Aquinas Roman Catholic school district to reflect on the role of the Catholic teacher.
Kimberley Weber, a 2018 graduate of the University of Alberta, is STAR Catholic’s nominee for the Edwin Parr Award given to a first-year teacher by the Alberta School Boards Association.
And Bonnie Spurrell is her district’s choice to receive an Excellence in Catholic Teaching Award this year from the Council of Catholic Superintendents of Alberta. She has taught her entire career in Catholic schools.
“Definitely it’s about formation and evangelization, of course, and it’s purposeful teaching students about the faith, but to me it’s more modelling Christian values and Gospel values and inspiring kids to really feel like any situation is able to be handled if you look at it through the lens of faith,” said Spurrell.
Faith, she said, is taught across the curriculum and it permeates every part of the school environment.
In a math or a geometry lesson, for example, she’s used the Holy Trinity as an illustration. Her students are learning about social justice by participating in a Jackets for Jesus and Coats for Christ event through Catholic Social Services.
And there are tough lessons as well. Spurrell teaches about the role of the Church in Canada’s residential school system. It’s of particular interest to Spurrell, who taught in Wetaskiwin, north of Maskwacis, where a large part of the student body was Indigenous.
“It’s the freedom to create that faith formation in other parts of the curriculum. We have the freedom to talk about Jesus when we’re disciplining and when we’re guiding and when we’re engaging with kids with issues that they have,” Spurrell explained.
“We engage with them on issues of anxiety, and anxiety levels are escalating. Kids are faced with a lot today. It’s a challenge, but it’s also an opportunity for them to be exposed to a hopeful, positive message, that you can rise above some of these challenges that you have through faith. We have students here who are never exposed to God or the Gospel” outside of the school.
Weber, a Grade 2 teacher at Sacred Heart School in Wetaskiwin, agrees.
“I think the difference between a Catholic teacher and others is the opportunity for faith formation and evangelization, and to start the conversation about Jesus and who he is and that he loves us,” she said.
“We start each day with prayer. I do my own prayer intentions with my class. Catholic school students have the feeling that God is with us every day. A religion class is not the same thing.”
During Holy Week, for example, Weber had her students use the word “sacrifice” as their cue to stop and pay attention, then she had them pause and silently reflect on Christ’s own sacrifice at Easter.
The young teacher’s “ability to build relationships has been outstanding for a first-year teacher,” said STAR Catholic Schools superintendent Charlie Bouchard. “Knowing what students need and providing it to them is a challenge for any teacher at any point in your career.”
STAR Catholic in particular is highlighting social justice projects in its schools this year, including the Notre Dame students’ clothing drive. That also highlights the role of a Catholic teacher, Spurrell said.
“A big piece is to teach them that the gifts they have can be put to service for others. It’s not to be just kept in a box; letting your light shine gives other people permission to do the same because it’s inspiring. There’s a formal curriculum and then there’s a living curriculum.”
Bouchard added it’s Spurrell’s commitment and faith that’s being recognized with her award.
“Both in school and in her personal life, she works because of her faith. It just stands out.”
And she passes it on. Spurrell has taught other grades, but she’s particularly fond of Grade 2.
“It’s really wonderful because they are so impressionable and I find that they are the perfect age to be hopeful. You just feel so reassured by talking about things across the curriculum that have to do with Jesus.”
Outsiders can see that when they enter Spurrell’s classroom, said Monique Tellier-Philllips, the principal of Notre Dame School, one of two administrators who nominated her for a teaching award.
“You sense that the way things are going that our Catholic schools are threatened here, and we have to make sure that we spread the good news about how awesome it is to have your faith as part of a school,” Tellier-Phillips said.
“Bonnie is such a role model of the Catholic faith to her students. It is just very obvious when you walk into Bonnie’s classroom that it is faith-infused. She’ll find a way to bring God into what they’re talking about.”
A teacher for more than three decades, Spurrell began her career as a Catholic teacher in her hometown of Fleur de Lys, on the northern tip of Newfoundland a province that voted to end its publicly funded Catholic system in 1995.
Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan are currently the only provinces with publicly funded Catholic schools. And in Alberta, some critics are advocating one amalgamated, single school system.
Nevertheless, Spurrell is a strong advocate for Catholic education. She noted that her own personal faith has grown by teaching in Catholic schools and that level of commitment can’t be reduced to a class or a religious education program, as some critics have suggested.
“My sister worked in a public school. Her faith was strong but I have many more opportunities to grow my faith because of the environment that I’m in,” Spurrell said.
Asked about her home province of Newfoundland, she said she believes geography – the wide distances between schools – and government finances contributed to the vote to end the Catholic school system.
“We learn from other people’s mistakes, right? So hopefully, if there’s anything that can be gained from that, it’ll be that the trend doesn’t continue.”