Thursday, July 23, 2009

New Teacher Orientation

Editor's note: This is Mr. Weber's address to new faculty at JPII for the 2009-2010 school year.

Welcome to JP II!

You'll be getting a lot of advice and information today and over the next month or so—frankly, we expect you will forget most of it initially! —but if you need to remember something like whether the bell that just rang is for your class' lunch period or someone else's—ask a colleague, not a student! Our students are wonderful, but they will also be happy to lead you down the proverbial primrose path if you're willing to follow.

As you begin with us, I'd like to talk about the school's mission statement. It's very simple, but there's some depth worth exploring:

Inspired by Faith, Pope John Paul II High School, prepares students to be strong in mind, body, character, and spirit for lives of learning and service, according to the Gospel.

I think there's four things to point out about our mission:

First, it says we care about what kind of people our students become. We may think that our “subject” is Math or Science or History, but the real subjects are the students themselves, and whether or not we help them become people who are strong of mind, body and spirit to serve others.

We're not just deliverers of content or grading machines. Rather, we care about how individual students in our classes are doing. Young drivers, shortly after they get their license, tend to fixate their gaze on a zone just 10-15 feet in front of their car. They don't see globally, they don't allow their peripheral vision to soak in the landscape in front and alongside them. New teachers often make the opposite mistake: they tend to look at their classrooms globally; they are so fixated on covering material or keeping classes in order they forget to measure the impact on the individuals in their classes. We don't measure our success by classroom averages or the rate through which we cover material, but by how Suzi in the third row is doing. If she's floundering, how can I get her help? What can I do for her? How do I make a connection to each of my students? Do I stand at the door and say hi as they enter? Do I have the ability, because I was there cheering, to tell Johnny “good catch last night?” Am I up on my grading enough to know that “Bill” is beginning to slip? Do I notice that Jennifer seems to need an encouraging word, or is that “seldom heard”? Do I express concern to kids personally about how they're doing?

We hear a lot these days about “individualizing instruction”. The most important thing is that we actually notice each kid. Educational psychologists say that if students receive just 20-30 seconds of truly individual attention from their teachers each day, it catapults them to success. I think it's our greatest challenge as teachers. It's also brings the most JOY into what we do.

The second aspect of the mission statement is we want our students to be strong in mind, body, character and spirit. I want to emphasize here the conjunction “and”. Not strong in mind, or body, or character or spirit, but all four things. There are many high schools that tell their kinds you can be a great athlete, but not a good student. You can be a good singer, but you can't play ball. It's very subtle: a counselor might say “Be careful not to load up too much on the A.P. classes given your commitment to sports”, or it may be whispered among the student body “Only geeks are in the band”. At JPII, we want our students to be renaissance people. We not only want our kids to take Fine Arts, we require it for 3 years. That means the most masculine, jock-ish boy in the school is going to be in chorus, visual art, theater or band for 3 years. Last year Wesley Tate, who signed a full football scholarship to Vanderbilt , was in the Advanced Men's Choir. We're going to require every frreshman this year to join something because we know that they become integrated into the life of the school when they are involved.

What I think what that means for us as teachers is that we support our kids in these dual roles. Support, first of all, by our interest in their other ventures, by attending games and concerts, by coming to appreciate their other talents. Support, secondly, in our willingness to coach teams and moderate clubs, modeling to students that we, too, value the “renaissance” emphasis. Our soccer coach, Al Mila, is also a math teacher and our Spanish teacher, Veronica Devalle, coaches cross country. Support, thirdly, in realizing from time to time there will be conflicts—all state choir, for example, will require students to miss class all day. Sometimes a spring sport will require an early check-out. It works in the opposite direction too: Sometimes a student in tutorials she will be late for practices. We have to be willing to bend a bit, be inconvenienced a bit, to help students achieve that balance our mission statement calls them to. I challenge you to see these many activities not as “EXTRA-curricular” but “CO-curricular”. We ran an advertising campaign last spring that a picture of a student, along with a brief synopsis of his or her many talents. Leah Loven, a rising junior, was featured as an honor student, all state soccer player, and a clarinet player in the band. Ladd Caballero, a rising sophomore, was featured as a basketball player, honor student and piano player. The tag line on both ads was simply “BE MORE”. That “BE MORE” campaign is at the heart of what we want our students to be.

The third aspect to the mission statement to emphasize is the phrase: “Strong in mind”. We make no apologies for setting the academic bar here very high. And when students get to the point they're jumping over it, we set it a little higher. If kids are struggling, we'll provide them additional resources, such as tutorials, but we won't lower the standard, or put them in some sort of below-par set of classes. There are really only 2 tracks at JPII, advanced and regular. We don't give D's. We make kids take 27 credits out of the 33 required for graduation, including 4 years of Math, Science, History and Theology and 3 years of Science, Foreign Language and the Arts. Students must pass every subject they take or go to summer school to restore their failing grades in order to be accepted back the following year. In the classroom, we want serious reading, discussion and thinking to be taking place.

Here's what we know: If we hold kids to high standards and then give them the means to achieve those standards, they become confident in their ability to conquer unforeseen problems that will await them later in life. Plus, they'll feel better about themselves. It's similar to what happens to us when we exercise: When we exercise routinely and push ourselves, we feel better. We may not want to exercise, we'd rather be a couch potato, but when we get off the couch and go outside and run, we seem, somehow, to bring an internal order to our lives. When kids stretch in the classroom, they feel better in the same way. Regrettably, our society tells teenagers they are not capable of stretching and incapable of heroism or virtue . Practice sex safely, because we know you can't live morally. Live, we tell them, “in the real world”, instead of the world where principles and character matter. I believe most kids truly want to be challenged—there is an idealism within them that wants to make a difference, wants to strive toward excellence, but they are not quite sure they're capable of it. They need to see in our eyes and in the quality of our teaching that excellence is not just possible, but expected of them. Our faith and optimism in them to achieve helps them do so.

The 4th insight from our mission statement: Everything we do is “inspired by faith”. We've been using an interesting phrase lately, that our “Faith is the lens through which all else is focused”. I really believe that's true. What connects all the dots at JPII is a our common commitment to building disciples. Its why we have Mass every week, it's why we take our theology classes so seriously, it's why we offer retreats, begin classes with prayer, pray before ball games. One of the great blessings of being in a Catholic school is that we end up doing all those things routinely—so routinely, it almost goes unnoticed, like breathing. But by becoming an ORDINARY part of our kids' lives, we help them forge a world view where faith is integral to their lives, where the insights of their faith matter.

If you're not hired as a religion teacher, we don't expect your classroom to become a place where you or others are testifying each day. You are teaching English or Math to our students, not theology. But there are occasions, most often in one to one settings, where telling them how your faith matters is appropriate and appreciated. Students will be watching you closely to see if you're at school functions, participating in the mass, and your attitude will affect theirs, for better or worse. If you're not Catholic, that's OK—your authentic witness to you faith and by the way you live—add to what makes us such a vibrant Christian community.
Lately I've been thinking about legacies—from a personal viewpoint, the legacy I have inherited from my parents and grandparents—from a professional viewpoint, as headmaster of JPII, the legacy we have received both to the founders of this school, but also those who made Catholic schools around this country what they are—the nuns, who worked for so little—a feisty, uncompromising collection of women who insisted that even the poorest immigrants were capable of learning and worthy of their efforts to teach them.

As you begin your careers here—some of you, as first year teachers—others of you in the continuation of your careers—I challenge you to accept the torch that so many people are now passing on to you. I ask that you honor their work and the reputation they have built for this school by working hard, by seeking counsel from your colleagues, by respecting the authority and wisdom of your departmental chairs and the leadership of our academic dean, Karen, by preparing good lessons, by grading work carefully and getting it back on time, by communicating well with parents and students, by attending student extra-curricular events when possible, by getting to know your students, their strengths and weaknesses, their aspirations and their fears, by staying abreast of your field by reading diligently and seeking out professional development opportunities, by meeting school deadlines, by helping students in tutorials, through doing your weekly duties with a generous spirit, by a willingness to forgive both your students when they don't act as they should, by a willingness to forgive yourself when you screw up, through your support of the school's religious activities and through what we hope will be a place that your faith life is also strengthened—these are the traits that make for good teaching, these are the traits that carry the torch handed to you forward. These are the tools through which you will build your craft. Yes, it's challenging. But yes, it's also very rewarding.

You are fortunate to be teaching at what I regard as one of the finest Catholic high schools in the country. At the same time, we are fortunate to now have you on our faculty and are excited about what you will add to this wonderful place we call affectionately, “JPII”.

May God bless you this year.

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