Catholic Schools Week 2020

Founding Faculty of Ozark Catholic Academy

“True education seeks wisdom, not mere knowledge or technical skill.  It does not believe in shaping the person for the here and now, but for the eternal.”
Bradley J. Birzer

“The good educator knows, too, that the secret of the discipline he imparts is not the final secret of existence.  The world is not to become perfect, even with the best education for everybody. Education does not pose an insurance against error and sin.”
Mark Van Doren

“Accordingly, the whole of Christ’s life was a continual teaching: His silences, His miracles, His gestures, His Prayer, His love for people, His special affection for the little and the poor, His acceptance of the total sacrifice on the cross of redemption of the world, and His resurrection are the actualization of His word and the fulfillment of revelation.”
St. John Paul the Great

I have been involved as a teacher in education for quite some time.  I began my teaching career in Catholic education and, wherever I am, it is a part of me.

Reflecting on this year’s theme for Catholic Schools Week —“Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.”— is not a theme much different than what public schools in Northwest Arkansas, charter or traditional, might say to separate themselves from one another.

So what makes Ozark Catholic Academy, our local parochial schools, and even Catholic education distinct from what public education has to offer?  

Catholic education seeks to educate the whole person: forming the mind, body, heart, and soul of a student. It only takes a quick Google search to see what great athletes and musicians, as well as public leaders, have received due to a Catholic education.  My thoughts do not tend toward those we easily find on the internet, but rather the millions of students, like myself, who heard God’s call during their high school years and said, “Yes.” Such men and women are not only successful in their professional lives, but know that their relationship with God and their family comes before all.

The Rocha Family

Catholic education “fully alive” educates the whole person to its families and students.  It seeks to form the mind, body and soul of each student not through an institution, but through the teachers who work there.

Over the years, several teachers have inspired me to listen to God’s call and respond generously, as they exemplified.   Two great men, two teachers, Bob Mabry and Mike McConnell, influenced me in and out of the classroom.

These men assisted my parents in forming not just me, but other young men. Mr. Bob Mabry taught ancient history at St. Thomas High School in the late 1980’s.  Previous teachers had imparted the joy of studying history, but it was his demanding presence and the expectations he had of all his students that led me to want more for myself. To contrast that with another situation, my Theology teacher spoke to my parents during parent/teacher conferences and said they should be happy with my average grade.  As a football player my grade was considered “good enough.” Needless to say, my parents did not agree with my Theology teacher. Mr. Mabry led me to a turning point in my understanding of history. I realized that it was not for us to learn history for the test or personal interest, but rather the importance of learning from those who came before us.   It was our focus on the Ancient Greeks and the Persians that opened my mind to Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. What they said and taught mattered to a 14-year-old boy, if not even more now to a man in his late forties. Mr. Mabry kindled the fire that became my love of learning in college.

Mr. Mabry expected more of me and, during that first semester, went on to inquire if I would participate on the Forensics team.  It was a world that I had never heard of, knew about, nor even seen, until my first Speech and Debate tournament. I did not win that first tournament nor did I win any trophies or medals until my senior year.  But Mr. Mabry saw in me something only a teacher could. The trust I had — not to give up, not to give in, and not to leave the team — gave me the strength to endure challenges in which the outcome was uncertain.

Coach Mike McConnell’s height is about 5’6”, but his stature was that of John Wayne or Andre the Giant when he walked into the locker room. He can also be described as a rather quiet man with a presence that takes up the whole room.  Coach McConnell was the head varsity football coach and Dean of Students at St. Thomas. My first interaction with “Coach” was during two-a-day workouts before my sophomore year of high school. Towards the end of the two weeks and just beginning to work out in full pads, he called me into his office and spoke plainly.  As I recall, I had the size and natural ability of a lineman but the varsity team was stacked with experienced upperclassmen. I was not a strong enough player to compete for a starting position, so he gave me two options: I could start on the JV football team and get plenty of playing time or I could join the Varsity team and be a punching bag for the starters.  What I did not realize at the time was that he was presenting me with an opportunity to grow physically and mentally by hanging with the “big boys.” Coach McConnell kept a close eye on me and guided me through my remaining three years on and off the football field.  

Modeling and mentoring the Catholic faith is what truly happens in schools that are fully alive. Coach McConnell modeled his faith and family life actively at school; his son, Blake, was a few years younger than me and his wife, Dorothy, worked in the school Business office. Blake came to many of our practices and all of our games.  Even though he stayed out of his dad’s hair, you could see the relationship they had through their interactions. Later, I was able to coach with Blake as he was finishing his undergraduate degree. I could see much of his father in him. While teaching at St. Thomas, I would see Mr. and Mrs. McConnell having lunch together at school and their interactions with one another.  Their respect and love for each other could be seen in the small ways. As a student and teacher, I saw Coach attend Mass and serve as an extraordinary Eucharistic minister. The challenges he gave me on the football field were tough, but his modeling guided me to what it means to be a coach, a teacher, a father, a husband…a man.

Mr. Mabry moved on to law school when I graduated from college, but Coach McConnell was still at St. Thomas.  When I began looking into teaching at St. Thomas, he was the first person from whom I sought advice. He told me that I knew the answer on the inside…

There are other men and women who have guided me and given me direction.  Catholic Education is an education of the whole person. Without forming the souls of young men and women, we leave it to society to fill in the gap.  Forming students should not be left to institutions, but to communities of learning where each student can be seen for who they are…a creature of God.

In January 1995, 25 years ago, I began teaching. Twenty-five years ago, I answered the call.

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