Friday, August 18, 2017

My Message to New Students: "I hope you'll fail often here."

Fake news? No. Those were my exact words this morning during new student orientation. But listen, please, for the context of my remarks. 

I recently observed an endearing moment while on a walk in my neighborhood:  A young boy, perhaps 5 years old, was learning to ride a bike, with his mom and dad helping him. The boy would sit on the bike, with anticipation and a little fear in his face, and his father would gently push him forward and let go. Within seconds, the front wheels would begin to wobble, and the boy would crash. But he would hop up, run the bike back to his father and say,  ‘Again, Daddy.’ The father gently pushed, the bike would wobble, then, wobble some more, and crash.  ‘Again Daddy.’ I watched this happen at least five times as I walked passed this young family, and when I rounded the block ten minutes later, they were still at it. But then a break-through moment occurred: For 20 glorious seconds, he rode the bike without crashing, shouting with electric joy, ‘I’m doing it! I’m doing it!’ as his parents cheered and clapped for him. 

This was a wonderful moment in a young boy’s life. But what was fascinating to me was the boy’s relentless desire to succeed, even though he kept crashing. Some where along the way as we grow up, we stop taking risks. We “play it safe” for fear of failure.  We don’t want to be laughed at, we don’t want to be ostracized for being wrong, we are fearful of rejection. 

I hope St. Michael will be a place that’s the opposite of that—where you will have the courage to risk failure. I hope you’ll try out for a team, even if you get cut or don’t play much. I hope you’ll run for student government, even if you’re not elected. I hope you’ll ask a girl out, even if she says no, or that if you’re a girl, you’ll say yes, even if “he’s not your type.” I hope you’ll volunteer an answer in class, even if it’s wrong. Ladies, studies show that beginning in middle school, you too often take a back seat to the boys in class, unwilling to challenge their ideas or declare your independent thoughts. I hope you’ll do the opposite at St. Michael—that you’ll speak out, even if it means you’ll have to tell a boy he’s wrong.

I want you to fail often because that means you’re trying new things, taking risks, exploring new possibilities often. The electric joy we feel, like this boy learning to ride a bike for the first time, comes in achieving things we work hard for.  It’s what makes life such a fantastic adventure!


As you begin your time at St. Michael, pray that God will give you the courage to try new things. Pray that he will give you the courage to fail!  

Thursday, August 03, 2017

What We Believe: Founding Principles of Catholic High Schools

August marks the beginning of a new school year, and it's also a time we think about first principles. Here's my take on the foundational principles of a Catholic high, excerpted from our faculty handbook at St. Michael Catholic High School:

Students are “children of God” and “temples of the Holy Spirit,” which should fill us with optimism in who they are and what they are capable of achieving. Our culture is extraordinarily pessimistic about youth, telling them they're incapable of virtue ("safe sex"), incapable of scholarship (inflated grades) or handling the idea that some are more athletically talented (so everyone gets a trophy). And the worst part about this messaging is they begin to believe these things about themselves. We must be the opposite, challenging students to yearn for more. Our aim is to form great hearts and minds so that students will do great things for others! As such, we should ask our students to “stretch,” even while providing the practical and emotional support to do so. 

Our faith is the lens through which all else is focused. The “Catholic” emphasis of the school is much more than religion classes. Rather, faith is the unifying principle that brings synthesis to the fragments of a busy teenager’s life, giving it purpose, direction and meaning. We will have weekly Mass on Wednesdays, an explicit witness to our school’s self-identity.  But if we build the culture here correctly, the Catholic ethos of the school will be so implicit, so natural, that in many ways it will often be un-noticed by our faculty and staff, almost like the oxygen we breath each day. Even so, where appropriate, we should be willing to make explicit what may often be felt implicitly.

Parents are the primary educators. Our job, as teachers, is to assist parents in their primary role. To do so, we must communicate well with each other, both in formal and informal settings, and in both directions. We should work very hard to develop a sense of “we” with parents and learn their first names—not simply “Johnny’s father.”  We should trust parents, and ask them to trust us. In an increasingly divided, distrustful society, this takes work on both sides!

We believe in a “Renaissance vision” of the human person and believe that teenagers thrive when they are asked to develop all facets of their personality—spiritual, academic, athletic, and artistic.  Accordingly, we are a “both-and” school, committed to building a culture that discourages students from becoming “specialists”: scholars, but not musicians, musicians, but not athletes, etc. High school should be a time when many doors are opened for students and they are invited to walk through those doors and experience new things. The time for choosing a profession and shutting doors is later. We want scholar-athletes! Scholar-musicians! Warrior poets! Scholar saints! We must flexible with each other as teachers, coaches and music directors to minimize their conflicting commitments so as to promote this vision! 

Order is essential for a school, and rules and lines of authority are essential. However, our normal day to day interactions with students and with each other should be human ones, governed by relationships. For sure, where those relationships are not respected, rules and authority should be invoked to insist on order. But these are exceptions, not the principal way we interrelate with each other. 

“Order” does not equal “uniformity.” Within the broad outlines of our policies and procedures, teenagers need breathing room, and we should allow room when we can.  The saying attributed to Augustine is appropriate: “In essential matters, unity. In non-essential matters, liberty. In all things, charity.” We want to build a school where students are treated as individuals, not as part of a template, and where they can find their unique “voice”, even while they also learn to accept their responsibilities and obligations as part of a community.