Expect Much, Praise Much, Be Present to Them

About this article

This article interviews an experienced teacher, Margaret Holcombe, to demonstrate that the most important factor in a student's education is not the materials but the teacher. Throughout the article it becomes very apparent that Marg is a model of teaching as Jesus did. Some good ideas are given, including the need for student feedback, and trusting in the movement of the Spirit. At the end of the article, Marg gives some thoughts and ideas on specific courses that she teaches.

Course materials, such as the high school religion textbooks and teacher's manuals published by Saint Mary's Press, are a significant ingredient in the education of our young people. But we all know that the most important factor in a student's education is not the books but the quality of teachers he or she meets every day. If Catholic high schools are more successful with students than their public school counterparts--which they are, according to national research--we can attribute their effectiveness in large part to you, their teachers.

In this issue, we focus on one religion teacher who embodies many of the qualities that make Catholic high schools the kinds of places where young people can thrive. She is Margaret (Marg) Holcombe, who has been a teacher for over thirty years, primarily teaching religion and English but also working as a parish DRE. She has advanced degrees in religious education and English. For the past four years, Marg has been teaching religion at the Academy of the Holy Angels, a high school in Minneapolis. She teaches Old Testament to ninth graders, sacraments and church history to tenth, life and death to eleventh, and prayer to eleventh. Marg graciously agreed to be interviewed by Saint Mary's Press about her experiences as a religion teacher.

Marg, tell us something about the school where you teach.

We have 650 to 700 students at Holy Angels in grades nine to twelve, and we've just added seventh and eighth grades. Formerly, it was a boarding school for girls, but now it's a coed day school with the whole spectrum of students in terms of abilities. I love the teachers in our school; they are fun people--delightful. And it's a well-run, well-organized school. We have six teachers in our religion department.

What is one significant thing that you do in all your classes?

I really make it a point to touch base with my students every day. We have five minutes between classes. I might be tired then, and I'd be glad to sit and collect myself for the next class. But I try to use that time when the kids come into class to deal with every kid, if I can. I walk up to them, check in with them. This is the one-on-one time with the shy kid who doesn't speak up in class. It's time to talk over little tidbits--whatever's happening in their lives. I can rally myself in this way. A student might just smile and say, "Hello." Then a few days later, he or she might say, "How is your day going? How are you feeling?" These five minutes are very important.

How do those five minutes of one-on-one time carry over into class?

I find that I really, really like the kids as individuals. I think that as teachers we need to expect much from them, praise much, and be present to them. That is what makes teaching such a thrill. We need to follow up on comments they've made, little signs they've given. We have to treat them warmly, as guests, and thank them for every contribution.

How do you deal with students' contributions when they disagree with what you're saying?

It's important that as religion teachers, we not panic when students disagree with us. Suppose a student has a view that differs from mine. I'd thank the student for his or her view, realizing that it might represent the views of many others in the class who don't say anything. I can't look at it as a power struggle. If it's an issue on which I need to make clear my stand, I might say, "I can see why that would be important to you. My experience is different from that. I see it like this...." I'd want to clarify my stand, and also the church's, but affirm and respect theirs. It's important that we realize we don't have all the answers.

It sounds as if you create a very respectful atmosphere. Can you say more on that?

Well, I try to check in with the students about their reactions to what we're doing in class. I might say, "Does this make sense to you?" "Am I out of touch with how you're feeling?" Or if they state something well, I might say, "You are right. I like the way you said that--better than how I said it." It's important not only to learn from the kids, which I do constantly, but also to let them know what I've learned from them.

Here's another example: If I had reacted strongly in class one day, for example, if I had gone overboard about something, the next day I might say, "I want to go back to yesterday. I said so-and-so. I think I overstated that. Looking at it and thinking it over, I would rather say this.... I'm not asking you to agree or disagree with me. But I thought it was important to say."

What do you like most about teaching?

The students touch me again and again. Maybe it's that tremendous trust they place in you--that vulnerability. They are so valuable and wonderful. To think that they would come to you every day and be there with you. It's an honor and a privilege.

And I do like to laugh! The kids are so funny. They make me laugh! By the end of August, I'm anxious to be with these funny kids again. I enjoy being with them, and they know it.

I've experienced so many thrills in teaching. I remember working with one boy in my Old Testament class. He was a poor student; he had an attention-deficit disorder and really had to struggle. Well, he began--by dint of will and by my checking up on him--to work. Anytime he did the whole assignment, I raved on, supporting and encouraging him. He began to see that if he worked, something happened. One day he said to me, "Did you notice how I've changed? I actually find this stuff interesting. I'm starting to read this stuff on my own. I like it!" When I see that spark of recognition in a kid--that all of a sudden this material makes some sense, makes a difference--it's a great thrill for me.

Where did you get your orientation to teaching?

I had several good models of teachers. For one, I come from a family of teachers--my mother, aunts, great-aunts, and my sisters. My mother was a wonderful, remarkable woman. She taught in an old country school. When I first went out to teach, Mother sent me a letter that said words to this effect: "When somebody comes to you in the morning, in the classroom, life may not have been the greatest for them at home. And so they look to you for that day. Be gentle and reverent with them. You may be for them the only person who really recognizes them. Do that carefully, and be a good, warm, and loving teacher. They can get their geography from someone else, but they will not get the same kind of love from anyone else that you will be able to give--so give it." I have never forgotten that.

During my first year of teaching, I taught fourth grade. In my desk drawer, I had a little picture, cut from a magazine, as a reminder to me. It was of a boy puffing his arm around his little brother, with a protective look. That image reminds me that there's a fragility in our lives, and so I would not want to trample on the students' feelings or thoughts. When I think of this picture, I say to myself, "Go gently."

What do you hope will happen for students in your religion classes?

I want the experience the students have in class to be significant to them--and not necessarily in the way I planned it to be. Maybe what they get from the class is a new friendship with the kid siting next to them. If the material is not pleasant to them, maybe the discussion will be. Of course, I do want the content of the class to have meaning for them.

I once heard a teacher compare teaching to pouring syrup on pancakes, seeing how much syrup soaks in. I don't view teaching that way. I'm here to encourage the kids and help them dialogue with each other. Ideas and attitudes change slowly. We all change slowly.

It's important that my classes be interesting for the students, but I have to remind myself that I will connect with some of them but not others. I'm not the only teacher they will ever have; this is not the only religion course they will have. The Spirit will breathe where it will. We are not totally in charge or totally responsible. With religion classes, we are dealing with a whole faith dimension that we do not control. We need to realize that.

What do you find difficult about teaching?

At this stage, fatigue is the most difficult thing for me. I seem to need more sleep as I've gotten older. But what is surprising to me is that I may feel tired driving to school and I may drag into my first class, but when the first kid walks in, I wake up, I come alive. In the winter, maybe we'll watch the sunrise from my classroom window and talk about how beautiful it is.

For myself and for the kids, to ward off fatigue, it's very, very important to have a variety of materials and activities and within one class session to have a variety of approaches. If you do the same thing for fifty minutes, the kids zone out, especially if you lecture. So it's important for me to prepare well, to plan what I'm going to do. I will punt only very rarely. I don't want the fifty minutes to be a waste of time. I see preparing well as a tremendous responsibility.

How do you get feedback on your teaching?

At the end of a course, I do an evaluation with the kids. They either write it out or we discuss in class questions like, What about the teaching methods was helpful, not helpful? What would you suggest I do differently, or continue to do? Which films, speakers, activities, assignments, made sense to you, and how so? I'm always grateful for their suggestions. I also invite other teachers in my department to come into my class to observe and give me feedback.

If things aren't going well in a class, I talk individually to a few students about it. I get their advice; they do know what is helpful. I talk with individuals. I don't look at them as a group, a mass, but as wonderful individuals.

What do you do to renew yourself?

I read everything--novels, non-fiction, magazines, educational materials, cereal boxes--you name it. And I love learning. I take classes and workshops--some that connect with teaching and some just to put myself into new situations where I'll learn a new skill. I've taken classes in upholstering in the last two years; I've reupholstered seven chairs. And a course in basketry. I make a lot of baskets, and for some I gather the materials in the woods. I've taken violin lessons and workshops on scripture and journaling. I also do some writing.

I travel and go camping, and I can solo camp. I love nature a great deal. In summer, I love getting away to where I'll find water and trees and stone, and just sitting. I can sit for hours. It does renew me. I've volunteered at a state park the last few summers, and I spent two summers in Appalachia--to learn and to give.

Marg's Thoughts on Teaching Her Courses

The Sacraments

I want my sacraments course to offer a fresh perspective for students, not a repeat of what they've had in grade school. I try to make it not so much an informational as a "what difference does this make in my life?" approach. I guess I'd call it a revelation-type class. I try to engage the students a great deal in sharing their experiences.

The Old Testament

I see the Old Testament course as being about the experience of God in the lives of the ancient Israelite people. I don't focus much on battles or eye gouging but on how the people saw these events in their lives. As freshmen, the kids are a bit young for this class, but I do a lot of activities with them. The students might do a review of material through skits, with each group doing a skit for the rest of the class. I work a lot with groups. A group might work up something they've read into an outline on overhead sheets and then present it to the class. Ninth graders need a lot of action to be really involved.

Church History

The church history course looks at the big issues of how we went from our Jewish heritage to being the Eastern and Western churches of today. What forces made us what we are today? I want the students to see the whole picture. There are many bits and pieces of church history, and memorizing them is great for being on "Jeopardy," but they really don't make a difference in your life unless you see them as part of a bigger perspective. So even though we're looking at specific incidents and issues, I want the kids to see the trends that came about--how and why we got to be the way we are.

Life and Death

One mother told me that when there was a death in their family, her daughter, who had taken the course on life and death, amazed them all by knowing how to help the whole family--even physically. The mother said she felt they were with someone who really knew what to do.

A young man who had taken the course called me during Christmas vacation to say that his grandma had died. He had planned the entire service, ritualizing things about his grandmother's life. Because of the course, he felt able to do that for his grandma and family.

As a teacher, I try to be open to kids who are experiencing painful losses--whatever they might be--to express my sorrow. It's important that I model for the students how to say things, what to say. The kids are gradually able to respond to each other compassionately.


Some of these kids are very spiritual people. Especially in the prayer course, I feel I am a peer with them.

I have the students in groups prepare prayer services for the class, and I give them themes to choose from. Say in Lent, a group chooses the theme of fasting. I would suggest that they look at fasting as giving us a chance to be one with the poor. Then the group prepares the service, and each one in the group leads some part of the service. One thing they have to do is involve the class members somehow during the service. So the group that does a service on fasting might ask everyone to "think about a time you felt you were one with the poor--or you wished you could have entered in, but didn't." The class members respond in turn, sharing their reflections. They have the option to pass, but no one ever does. The experience of listening to what other people in the class feel is the most reverential, prayerful time.


Copyright © 2009 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095 or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.

Published April 1, 1991.