Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Why I teach

Note: Mr. Weber shared this reflection with the faculty of JPII at the beginning of the 2010-11 school year.

In his famous sonnet that begins "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?", Shakespeare has a wonderful line that resonates with us all:

"Summer's lease 
hath all too short a date."

Yes, it does!

Still, it's good to be back together with you.

Many of you many know that John Wooden died this summer. He was the greatest basketball coach of all time—few informed persons would argue that point. His U.C.L.A. teams won 10 national championships in a 12 year span, including an unprecedented 88 straight games (before losing to Notre Dame to end the streak.) During that entire run, including his 10th national championship season, he never made more than $35,000, and he never once asked for a raise!

What is less known is that he began his career as a high school English teacher. He taught and coached in relative obscurity before moving into college coaching, and would later comment that he missed the classroom teaching. When asked once by a reporter why he was so fond of teaching, he quoted this little known poem by Glennice Harmon, which I thought appropriate to begin our year together:

They ask me why I teach
And I reply, "Where could I find more splendid company?"

There sits a statesman,
 Strong, unbiased, wise,

Another later Webster, silver-tongued.

And there a doctor, Whose quick, steady hand

Can mend a bone or stem the lifeblood's flow.

A builder sits beside him -- 
Upward rise the arches of that church he builds wherein

That minister will speak the word of God,

And lead a stumbling soul to touch the Christ.

And all about
--A lesser gathering
 of farmers, merchants, teachers,
 laborers, men

Who work and vote and build

And plan and pray into a great tomorrow.

And, I say,
 "I may not see the church,
 or hear the word,
 or eat the food their hands will grow."

And yet -- I may.

And later I may say, 
"I knew the lad, and he was strong,

Or weak, or kind, or proud

Or bold or gay.

I knew him once,

But then he was a boy."

They ask my why I teach and I reply,

"Where could I find more splendid company?"

We are blessed to be teachers here. May we always be thankful for the splendid company we keep.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame

I am blessed to have three children at Notre Dame this fall: Faus, in graduate school through the Alliance for Catholic Education, Cynthia, a senior, and Aaron, an incoming freshman. For all its flaws, Notre Dame remains a powerful force for good in this world. I am proud to be a parent and alumnus.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Modest Proposal for Priestly Life

I was alarmed when I saw him.

Twenty years earlier he had been our high school chaplain and teacher. As a young priest, he was quick-witted, smart, knew us each by name, played pranks on us and received some pranks back in return. The diocese put him in charge of a camp alongside the bay that had fallen into disuse and over the summer, my friends and I spent weekends clearing out brush, painting, and mowing the grass. We loved that guy.

But the priestly years had not been good to him. He was over-weight now, without spark, a shell of the man I remembered. There were whispers of alcoholism, some stints with rehabilitation, and then, a few years later, the bomb: he was accused of illicit liaisons with teenage boys, dating back to the late 1980's. He was quickly removed from the priesthood and lived out the rest of his life in shame, dying a broken man a few years later.

I am now a Catholic high school principal. Seven years ago a young priest was sent to us for his first assignment. He had the makings of an excellent teacher: a deep knowledge of his subject, theology, with that hard to define “with-it-ness” – a quick-wittedness and quirkiness that fascinated his students. I remember once visiting his classroom as he was standing on top of his desk, peering over the ledge in mocked pain. “Rebecca”, he said, “if you don’t know the answer to this question, I’ve failed as your teacher and I’m going to jump.” The class sat on edge, hoping Rebecca would get it wrong.

He combined this talent for teaching with a zeal to serve the Lord and his Church. He attended ball games. He talked sports with the boys and teased with the girls. He heard confessions and gave thoughtful, passionate homilies. A black woman, hearing him preach one day, told me “he had the anointing”. Students loved him.

On June 28, 2005 he took his own life.

We were completely devastated. What happened? Apparently, he suffered from clinical depression. No one knew that, except a very few people in the chancery some 170 miles to the south.

I shudder when I think back to a remark he made to me a few months earlier: “When you’re in the seminary”, he had said, “you are surrounded by 30-40 guys who all aspire to the same thing: ordination. The community, the laughter, the challenge to live a holy life, is incredible. My ordination was everything I dreamt it would be, the best day of my life. The very next day, I was assigned to a parish and I was suddenly all alone.”

How many good men must we see crash and burn before we realize our model for priestly living is wrong?

Up until now, our response to the sexual abuse crisis has been primarily procedural, fashioned by lawyers to protect diocesan liability. We're doing background checks, running workshops for teachers and volunteers, and teaching children the difference between a "good touch" and a "bad touch". In the event of an accusation, everyone knows how to respond.

But we haven't attacked the problem pastorally. The root of it, echoing the words of our chaplain, is that most of our priests live completely alone. Gone are the days when rectories were full of priests, thus providing them with a kind of automatic community with built in opportunities for fraternity and fellowship. Now our parishes have typically one priest, living alone in a rectory, largely unaccountable and generally lonely--many living this way for fifty years! And yet, we're surprised, disappointed and angry when our priests become alcoholics or develop sexual problems.

No, this isn't an argument for a married priesthood. I'll let others argue that point. Instead, I am making a modest proposal: that we rethink our paradigm of how priests live. The parish rectory is an anachronism, designed for a time when people couldn't drive or talk on telephones. To see a priest, one had to walk to the parish, which was often the center of town life. But today, with cars, telephones, cell phones, voicemail, call forwarding and email, the idea of a “priest in every parish rectory” makes little sense. Instead, let us begin to insist that priests from surrounding parishes live together and share some sort of life together. Make a minimal common rule (prayer and dinner once/day, perhaps?) and then send these priests to their various ministries all over the city.

It is worth noting that although the religious communities have not been immune to the scandals, the much bigger problem has been with diocesan priests. It only makes sense: in a community with other men, destructive personal behavior can be addressed long before it becomes an entrenched sickness. But more fundamentally, the laughter, friendships, and yes, the aggravations and "opportunities" for personal growth that living in a community requires are all healthy for priests--indeed, healthy for all of us.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

To A.P. or not A.P.?

That is the question.

So we're at that time of year again when you must begin thinking about selecting classes for next year--unless you're a senior, involved in selecting which college you want to attend.

One of the common questions you'll be asking yourself is how hard of a schedule should you take next year. So, for example, should I take an AP class, or two (or three, or four)? What if I take the A.P. class and end up with a lower grade--will that hurt me for college?

Take the A.P. class.

Colleges won’t tell you this outright, but the truth is that grade point averages are so inflated and differ so wildly between high schools that colleges cannot use them to make any meaningful comparisons between applicants.

Instead, they increasingly rely on two simple measurements: entrance test scores and the difficulty of the curriculum taken in high school.

Mr. Brown has been collecting data for years now that confirms the primacy of test scores: Incoming freshman at schools like Belmont or University of Dayton have virtually identical high school GPA’s as Vanderbilt or Notre Dame, but Belmont students score an average of 25-26 on the ACT, whereas Vandy and ND students score an average of 33.

Fair or unfair, test scores allow universities to make a quick “apples to apples” comparison of applicants, regardless of which high school an applicant attends or region of the country he or she resides.

Unfortunately, this means that some students may work very hard in high school and get nearly all  A’s, but if their test scores aren’t within range of the freshman class to which they’re applying, they have almost zero chance of being accepted, unless they possess some virtuoso talent of importance to the university (like football ability) or are part of an under-respresented group the university desires.

The second critical variable in college admissions is the difficulty of curriculum taken while in high school.

On the “common application” now required by 400+ colleges for admission, there is a telling question that must be filled out by the high school counselor:

In comparison with other college preparatory students in your school, the applicant’s course selection is (choose one): “most demanding”, “very demanding”, “demanding”, “average” or “below average”.

I believe that if the counselor must choose anything less than “most “ or “very” demanding, you have very little chance of getting accepted to an elite school.

There’s a seedy side to all this. Because publications like U.S. News and World Report rank colleges partly on the basis of acceptance rates of applicants (thus determining whether the school is “very selective” or merely “selective”), colleges do their best to encourage as many applications as possible so they can reject as many as possible. The “common application” makes it easy for kids to apply to multiple schools and thus plays into this game very neatly. Ever since the common application became—well, common—the volume of applications to the typical university has grown tremendously.

Unfortunately, college admissions offices have not grown proportionately, meaning that counselors now must look for quick, simple ways to sort through the overwhelming pile of applications on their desk. College entrance scores and the difficulty of courses become even more important in this light.

Which brings us back to " A.P. or not to A.P.?"

Advanced Placement courses are based on first tier curricular standards. A.P. teachers must attend professional development workshops sponsored by the College Board to be certified to teach to these standards. They are typically among the school's best teachers. If a child spends a year being challenged by conscientious, talented teachers who are guided by demanding standards, the reasonable expectation is that the student will acquire knowledge and skills that will help him for life—and in the nearer term, improve his college entrance scores.

And oh, by the way, Mr. Brown can check off that “most demanding" box!

And if you're not in that AP or not category, be sure to take the most rigorous set of electives you can handle next year--the logic works the same way: If you push yourself, you'll do better on those national tests, which make all the difference. In the end, hard work matters. It really does.