I have been blessed to walk the Camino de Santiago, twice, from Southern France, across Northern Spain, to the Atlantic Coast. The ritual of walking echoes through my bones. When you walk with someone, you create an intimate space for mutual growth. Each person is responsible for setting the pace, supporting each other over obstacles, and pausing in awe at what they discover along the road. As a pilgrim, you humbly offer yourself before the elements, accepting graces as they arrive, and recognizing that each step is a moment of growth and learning. Pilgrims walk as companions, not as guides, experiencing the hills, valleys, and terrain together. No matter how many times a pilgrim has walked a particular route, they have not walked this path at this moment in time, at this point in their life, and with these people walking with them. Teaching is a pilgrim practice.
Teaching is an intimate and sacred vocation. It begins with a shared union (re)established each semester between the student and the teacher. No matter how many years someone has been working or learning in a school, the combination of students, teachers, and courses always results in a new equation. As they work to resolve this new learning equation, the classroom provides a place where people can be wrong, given the grace to learn, and the opportunity to try again. The classroom offers a safe space for intimate sharing and reflection. Amidst the chaos of one’s life, the classroom is a respite, a place to reorient one’s life towards a distinct goal. At a school, a person brings their whole-blistered, callused, and strengthened-self. Through the companionship between the teacher and student, they support and encourage one another as they walk through the curriculum. Like an oasis in a desert, the classroom ought to be a moment in a person’s life to refuel, reassess, and discover how to move forward after the bell.
In the Gospel story of the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13-35), we encounter two people attempting to process the traumatic events of the crucifixion of Jesus. Along the road, they meet a stranger, whom they do not recognize as Jesus. Rather than making assumptions about the two, Jesus asks them questions and invites them to share their experience and knowledge. After attentively listening, Jesus responds by filling in their gaps and drawing connections to their lives and the broader story. By beginning with the two’s experience, they felt trusted, heard, and knew that what would be shared in response would come from a supportive perspective—an affirming relationship was established. As the strangers become companions, they continue their conversation over a simple meal, when the two experience a moment of clarity and discovery for themselves the profound truth of Christ’s presence among them. The Road to Emmaus provides a curriculum map for education.
Each year teachers and students are provided the grace to walk together as they uncover their course. The educators’ goal is to listen attentively to their students’ knowledge and experiences, recognize where their students are coming from, and how they arrived at this point in their education. By beginning with a trusting relationship, educators engage their students, affirm the students’ strengths, and identify skills that may need conditioning. Rather than presuming that students know-nothing, the Road to Emmaus reminds educators that they must consider their students’ experience, fill in any noticeable gaps, and help them make broader connections. Education provides the tools, resources, and support for students and teachers to walk alongside one another. It is the task of each individual to take the step and recognize the gift of the person walking next to them.
The pilgrim practice of education provides a pedagogy for Catholic Education. It is not merely enough to pound the pavement of a curriculum map reaching every checkpoint with precision and speed. The pedagogy of a pilgrim is to take into account every aspect that surrounds a person’s life. To see how every step of one’s life is a teachable moment. To notice that what happens outside of the school building influences how we engage the world. To recognize that what takes place within a classroom can fundamentally shift our worldview. To believe that what occurs on a retreat redefines how we relate to other people. To understand that service opportunities are learning opportunities. To know that what happens in the Liturgy is a reminder that we are all one and that we are called to go forth as pilgrims sharing the good news of our life. A pilgrim’s pedagogy is a reminder to stand at the crossroads and look where our paths intersect, and walk in the knowledge that this path will provide rest for our souls (Jeremiah 6:16).
Catholic Education has been the intersecting path in my life. Beginning in Pre-K, through elementary school, high school, college, teaching, and then to graduate school, every year of my life has been spent on an academic calendar attending and working at Catholic schools. Beyond the material, Catholic education taught me how to love and be loved. Every moment I walked into the classroom, I knew I was enveloped in a loving and supportive environment where teachers cared about me as a learning, growing, and developing person. Teachers became mentors and counselors who advised me about life outside the classroom and recognized when I was struggling.
When I was blessed to walk into my first classroom as a teacher, I remember wanting to instill the same level of support, concern, and rigor I received from my teachers. On my first day of teaching, after failing to include enough material for the lesson, I invited students to share about their life. What began as an improvised scramble by a naive teacher quickly became practice—starting each week with an invitation for each student to share their story. The trust established in those first weeks paid dividends throughout the semester. We were walking as student-teacher companions, pacing one another as we discovered each turn in the lesson. Classroom management was second-nature because of the companionship we established from the beginning. The students knew that I invested in their lives as individuals and as learners. As a result, they shared mutual respect with their classmates and me.
It is said, “to get to know someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.” The problem with this metaphor is that it removes the person from the situation. With a pilgrim’s pedagogy, teachers and students are invited to walk alongside one another to share life stories, to connect the curriculum to the broader world, and to recognize the presence of Christ in the person next to them.
Reflecting on the paths we have walked, every person has arrived at this point in their life because of a teacher. Teachers were the men and women who inspired us to be greater than we imagined possible. Teachers encouraged us to dream impossible dreams. Teachers walked alongside us in moments of difficulty. Teachers cheered for us from the bleachers, clapped for us in the audience, and hugged us at graduation. Our lives are blessed because of our teachers.
- Were not our hearts burning in the classrooms?
- Were not our hearts burning when we got a high-five for getting a correct answer?
- Were not our hearts burning when we were finally able to solve the equation or understand a difficult concept?
- Were not our hearts burning when our teachers introduced us to our lifelong friends?
- Were not our hearts burning when we walked across the stage, received our diploma, looked into the audience, and noticed the beaming pride from our teachers who have loved us and supported us every step of the journey?
The destination of a pilgrimage is not the ending. It is the start of a new journey. When we embrace an educational model of pilgrimage, we are inspired to learn from every step, to ask for support as we climb steep hills, to pause in awe at the peaks, and to recognize that the horizon holds endless more paths towards lifelong learning. May we have the courage to take the step.
O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans,
protecting him in his wandering across the desert.
We ask that you watch over us, your students, your pilgrims,
as we walk in the love of your name towards lifelong learning.
Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide in the classrooms,
Our breath on the fields,
Our protection in danger,
Our home along the way,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.
So that with your guidance we may arrive
safe and sound at the end of the road,
and enriched with grace and virtue
we continue safely filled with joy.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Apostle Santiago, pray for us.
(Adapted from The Prayer of the Pilgrims along the Camino de Santiago, author unknown.)