Have you ever thought about what your life would be like going to a Catholic school? It certainly evokes strong negative or positive feelings and perceptions for people who have never been there and who make assumptions about the student life and experience in Catholic schools. I attended public schools until the 5th grade and then my family moved from Atlanta to South Florida. My mother enrolled me in a Catholic school for middle school and I continued to the affiliated high school as well. After being in a public school, I was shocked at first by the differences and stark contrasts that exist but quickly grew to realize that while the perceived negatives were low in intensity, the clear positives were indeed important and impactful for my development.
There are many differences between student life at a public school and a Catholic school, but I want to point out some differences that stood out to me. The first thing I noticed was the uniforms. No longer could I pick out my own outfits for school anymore. I had to wear the same skirt and white blouse to school every day and I was told what shoes could be worn to school. I did not like this as I am very into fashion and enjoy shopping for new clothes and having different outfits for school. It felt a bit stifling for my creative juices.
Differences in the classroom
The next thing I noticed was all of the rules I had to follow. Public schools can tend to be a bit loose on discipline and formalities and it was a wake-up call of sorts for me as I transitioned to the Catholic School about the existence and importance of this aspect of school life. We couldn’t speak in class unless we raised our hand and we were called upon to speak by the teacher. We were held accountable for adhering to the dress code every day and being punctual to your classes and commitments were ingrained in us as a key requirement for success. Most of the students were well behaved and respectful in their interaction with the teachers with the usual exceptions you have in any group. Coming from the public school environment where everything was more informal and casual, I admired and even enjoyed the deference and respect that the students showed for their teachers as well as their peers. Delivering on your commitments made to the teacher was a non-trivial objective and it was almost considered a form of disrespect to miss your commitment or put in less than your best effort. Students not only respected their teachers but also had a familial relationship with them. Many of the teachers had children that attended the school so it would be fun to chat with their children and have play dates with them and see the teachers outside the school environment and in their mom personas. Now that I am a large, public, university the classroom dynamics are much different from my Catholic high school. Many times, class sizes can be up to 200 people, so the professor will not get the chance to learn everyone’s names- much less get to know each student personally.
Another difference in my attendance at a Catholic school was religion class. I had attended religion class on Sundays when I was attending public schools but now, I would have religion class five days a week in school. Some people have an aversion to an overt expression of religious faith in public settings and to groups outside of their families. There is also perception and assumption about such activities being equated to a cult mindset or lifestyle. Such concerns and perceptions could not be further from the truth as I found the transparency of the Catholic school to be refreshing and creating a sense of freedom to be yourself. As a Catholic, I knew what to expect when we joined the school and these classes and religious discussions felt natural and even necessary to me. Entering college was quite a change for me. I could no longer assume that everyone at school would have the same religious views/morals as me, and it was up to me to attend church and to practice my faith.
In contrast, my middle school religion class would be taught by a nun from Ireland. She was stern and made us practice prayers daily in class. The students knew without a doubt not to misbehave in her class as the tolerance levels were quite low. In most cases, given the subject matter, the students were already inclined to be on their best behavior, but certainly, her presence and strict control of the classroom ensured it would be the case.
We would attend mass every First Friday of the month and she would grill us and test us about the readings and the gospel to make sure we paid attention. Contrary to what you may think, this did not feel like a free period for students. Instead, it was definitely about learning and studying while also being about spirituality and growing our relationships with God.
She was a tough teacher, but she taught us lessons and instilled morals in all of us that would continue to serve us well through adulthood. Although I no longer have religion class daily and school masses, I am grateful to still have close friends from my Catholic school who I know will always attend mass and practice our faith with me.
More involvement in extracurriculars
One last difference about going to a Catholic school was the participation in sports and the school spirit. Since there were fewer students in my classes at the Catholic school, there was more involvement in all the sports for most students. I learned to play volleyball, tennis, soccer, and softball at my middle school and enjoyed the teamwork with my school mates and the competition against other schools. The principal, teachers, and parents would come to all of the games and cheer us on to victory. It was always exciting to see the gym packed with spectators and rooting for our school. This is one aspect of Catholic schools that I thoroughly enjoyed.