Dan Breen, a native of Massachusetts and a former Catholic school principal in Tennessee, was appointed the Diocese of Harrisburg’s Secretary for Education and Superintendent of Schools on July 1. In this role, he will oversee the operation of the Catholic schools in the Diocese. He will also work to support the Catholic identity of our schools, and support pastors and principals with their school related responsibilities.
As a new academic year began, Breen participated in a question-and-answer interview to tout what Catholic schools have to offer, and to celebrate those dedicated to their mission.
Talk about your own appreciation for Catholic schools.
I myself went to Catholic school as I grew up in Boston. I think that Catholic education in conjunction with my faith formation at home opened the door to God for me. There was a narrative, a wholeness that made sense to me as I got older. I was taught by the sisters of St. Joseph – I remember getting my birthday off because I was born on St. Joseph’s Day – and they had a profound impact on me. My own children have attended Catholic school, and I have seen their teachers as a perfect complement to the faith formation that my wife and I have tried to provide them at home. I only wish more people had a chance to experience that cohesiveness between school and home in things that are so eternally important!
What experience and qualities do you bring as Secretary for Education and Superintendent of Schools?
I think that at heart I am a teacher – in that way, I understand the daily work I have as an educator as that is the most essential role in a Catholic school. I was, in fact, a middle and high school teacher for more than 20 years and continued to teach as a principal. Good teachers know their audiences, make knowledge and success attainable and explain steps well. And I see every role that I’ve had since my time in the classroom as an extension of teaching. I am a veteran Catholic elementary school principal and I am certainly leaning on that experience in my current work.
More than anything, I want our stakeholders to know that I love the Catholic faith, that I am a fan and an advocate for Catholic education, that I will support our Catholic schools and I will work tirelessly to help them succeed. I believe that we have to look at Catholic education from a national perspective and, as I really enjoy learning what works throughout this country in Catholic education, I hope to bring those lessons and efforts to bear in an innovative manner in Harrisburg. In the challenging environment we operate in, we have to have a constant influx of new ideas and an effort to challenge the status quo and to push our story and successes to our stakeholders and to the next generation of parents as well.
How do you see your role – and the Catholic Schools Department – as one of support for school administrators and educators?
I do believe that the Education Secretariat in the Diocese of Harrisburg stands in service – that we are here to support and promote our Catholic schools and help them be as good as they possibly can be. That takes effort, resources, leadership, knowledge, creative thinking and problem solving along with passion for Catholic education and faith in what we are doing and in our Creator’s plan for us. I believe that Catholic education can open the door to salvation for many, many souls.
What do you consider our schools’ biggest strengths and gifts?
What impresses me in the Diocese of Harrisburg is that we have been very faithful in promoting and providing a strong authentic Catholic identity to our families. We have really been trying to live the Biblical call to excellence, and you can see that footprint in our schools. We have really tried to hire the best Catholic role models. We present them to our students as examples of professionals who are willing to continually improve in their personal and professional lives – in their walk with the Lord and in their professional calling. We are blessed to have in Bishop Gainer a priest of courage and virtue who walks the walk every day – he does everything we would ask of our Catholic school educators and leaders, and he loves, leads and promotes our schools.
What challenges are the schools facing, and how can we meet them?
Our Catholic schools face challenges as all Catholic schools in this country do. We are facing a culture that is less Christian than it was, and it is always a challenge to find successful financial models and to offer continually added value to the student experience. What more can we do today than we did yesterday? It takes a special dedication to ask such questions continually, and that is a challenge, but it is also an opportunity and a blessing.
What is your message for faculty and administrators as a new academic year begins?
My first message for our teachers and administrators would be a big thank you – thank you for embracing the Lord’s call to teach. Thank you for having the courage to put yourselves before our families day in day out, and to do the hard work required of us. “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire,” St. Catherine of Siena said. I would like to remind them that our hope is in Christ, and he is alive and he loves us deeply and walks with us through our ministry. When you really think of that as a reality and you reflect on all the good things we are doing in our schools, you have to see this time, this day, as a time for renewed faith, optimism and opportunity in the Diocese of Harrisburg. Let’s push our schools.
What message do you have for students and parents?
To our current students and parents, I want to say thank you as well for trusting us, and I’d like them to know that we are working daily to earn that trust and to make our Lord proud of our efforts. To prospective parents and students, I would say that we have a unique approach to education to offer you. Many people talk about educating the “whole child,” but we have a unique commitment and ability to really do so. The Catholic Church has an amazing intellectual tradition and a tradition in the arts that we tap into as a way to educate our students. In a time when recess is often cut in schools, we allow students time to play and move and offer top-shelf athletics programs. At a time when meditation and mindfulness are valued, we have a powerful tool in the Rosary! We strive daily to be sure that each child in our schools is loved, known and safe. Finally, we, of course, offer Christian community, a sacramental life and a chance to get to know Jesus in the Eucharist. It does not get better than that!
To learn more about our Catholic schools, visit: https://www.hbgdiocese.org/catholic-schools/.
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness