Wednesday, December 14, 2011

In the Bleak Mid-winter

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give him: my heart.

(Text: Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894, music, Gustav Holst 1874-1934, performed by the Choir of King's College, Cambridge)

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Advent in the First World

This is Mr. Weber's Advent message to the students of JPII during assembly on November 28, 2011.

My brother sent me an email of a list of “First World Problems,”--a series of quips that mock how lazy we’ve become as part of a wealthy culture. To give you a sense of them:

• My hand is too fat to shove into the Pringles container, so I am forced to tilt it.
• I forgot to bring my smartphone with me when I used the bathroom, so I was bored the entire time.
• I can’t hear the TV while I’m eating crunchy snacks.
• My laptop is low on battery, but the charger is over there.

Those quips are funny, partly because there’s an element of truth to them. We live in a culture of excess, where our values become skewed in pursuit of things, at the expense of our relationships with God and with others. You may remember the accounts a few years back of a woman being trampled to death by customers when a Walmart opened on "Black Friday". This past Friday in a Los Angeles Walmart, a woman was arrested for pepper spraying 20 fellow customers so she could clear the path to be the first one to get to the Xbox consoles that were on sale. And there was also a story of a man who had just come out from shopping at Walmart in California at 1:45 a.m. , and was accosted at gunpoint by another man in the parking lot, who demanded that he hand over everything he had just purchased. The man, protective of his new stuff that he had been up all night to purchase, refused. He was shot. He is in the hospital, in critical but stable condition. No word as to whether he was able to keep his things.

One might hope that excess becomes self-regulating—that once one had too much, one might grow bored and seek less. But the opposite is true. Once one has too much, he does indeed become bored, but instead looks for MORE to satisfy his boredom. There are estimates that the average American will gain 5 pounds from over-eating from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day this year. Others believe this estimate is too high. But what BOTH sides agree on is that those who are already over-weight going into the holidays will gain much more weight than the average American. Excess, unfortunately, inspires more excess.

One of the great things about the Advent season, which began yesterday, is that we’re reminded we’re still in need of a savior. We are still sick. Yes, Jesus came and died for us almost 2000 years ago, and he is ever ready to forgive us and heal us. But we forget that we need him. Perhaps that’s the most serious danger about being in a first world country—it’s not even the excess or the laziness, but that we tend to think of ourselves as self-sufficient, as independent, as NOT NEEDING a savior. People who have nothing rarely forget God. They pray to him for their next meal. They ask him to cure their daughter’s illness. They worry and pray about where they’re going to sleep when the winter comes. But too often, we believe our success is all about our talents, our brains, our good decisions, and we forget that all of the good things we enjoy are blessings from God, and that we still need him to be Lord of our families, Lord of our relationships, Lord of our school work and our business dealings and Lord of our decisions.

Recently, my computer at home had become very sluggish—irritatingly so. It’s been a while, so I spent some time this weekend defragmenting my hard drive, deleting old files, getting rid of some preferences that are clogging things up. It’s working much faster now.

Advent is a time in our lives to do the same thing: to delete some of the things that are taking us away from God, to pray more, to study harder, to become more grateful for God’s gifts and more serious about our relationship with him. The psalmist from this Sunday’s readings prayed: “Turn us again to yourself, O God. Make your face shine down upon us. Only then may we be saved.” (Psalm 80:3).

As we prepare for Christmas even within this culture of wealth and excess, and even as we jockey for position in department stores and malls (hopefully, without using pepper spray), may use this Advent season to turn again to God, so that his face may shine down upon us and so that we may welcome his birth in our hearts in a new and deeper way.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Keeping Balanced

Mr. Weber discusses the new extra-curricular policy with students.

Keeping balanced is one of the most challenging things about being a student at JPII. There are so many good things to be part of in this school—from athletics, to Model UN, from Chorus to Instrumental Music, from Math teams to Science Olympiad teams—that it’s easy to overcommit ourselves and for our studies to get the short end of the stick. Notice the choice isn’t usually something like: do I do my homework tonight, or should I go out and get drunk? It isn’t a choice between good and bad. It’s most often a choice between good and good, and keeping all these good things you want to do in some sort of order.

That’s why we implemented the extra-curricular policy this year, to help you keep things in balance. Just to be clear about the policy:

If you have more than 2 or more F’s at mid-quarter or the end of the quarter, you are placed on academic probation, and sidelined from any school activity that takes place outside of the 7:50-3:10 school day.

That probation lasts a minimum of one full week. To become eligible to play for the next week, you must get permission from all 8 of your teachers on Thursday or Friday via a signed form, and give that form to your coaches or advisor.

That will allow you to participate from Monday through Friday of the following week, but you must take around the same form and have your teachers sign the form if you want to play the week after that, and so on until the next set of mid-quarters or quarter grades come out and it’s determined if you’re off academic probation.

It’s your responsibility—not your teachers, your coaches, nor your advisor—to get those forms signed. If they’re not completely signed, you’re ineligible for another week.

And what are teachers looking for before they can sign permission for you to participate again? One simple word: effort. You may be in a class that is tough for you, and even if you work really hard, you may not do well on a test every now and then. But all 580 of you have complete control over how much effort you put into a class.

It’s not hard for teachers to determine if you’re trying or not. It begins with homework. I know there are other schools and school systems that have given up on the idea of requiring homework, but we haven’t. That’s YOUR commitment to your studies, and you’re either doing it or you're not. The second way for a teacher to determine effort is whether or not you’re going to tutorials. If you’re failing a subject because the material is hard, and you’re not coming in to get extra help, you’re not taking the steps you need to get yourself right. The third piece is making up missed work: Have you or haven't you? Those are the questions teachers will be pondering before they do or don’t sign your permission to participate the following week.

So I think it’s important to realize that becoming re-eligible is not a matter of bringing your grade back to passing. You may have had a bad test grade and getting your grade back up isn’t something you can do in one week. It’s not about getting your grade restored, but your effort restored. If you really care about the activity you’ve been sidelined from, you have the ability to get yourself right back within the week by working hard in those classes. We believe if the effort is right, the grade will usually take care of itself.

As I look over the academic probation list, I have an observation. At the end of the first quarter, we had the best set of grades and fewest failures in the history of JPII. Unfortunately, as a result, some of you decided to give yourself a vacation during the first four weeks of this quarter, as if you can't tolerate prosperity. I hope you're back from vacation! If you’re a hockey player, the team needs you back. If you’re a choral student, the Christmas concert is just around the corner and they need you. If you play basketball, this could be a special season if you keep up with your studies. Do what you need to do. Don’t let your team, your coach, or your advisor down.

Get the balance right and enjoy all the good things JPII has to offer.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Elevating Spirits, Nourishing Souls

Many of you remember my son Aaron, who graduated from JPII in the class of 2010 and is a current sophomore at Notre Dame. You may also remember me telling a brief story about him when he was a young boy. From the time he was a toddler, he started banging on pots and pans in rhythm to music. I think the first time we realized he had talent was when he was nine, after he executed a drum roll using two forks on a frying pan. So for his tenth birthday, we purchased him a Tama drum set. When he saw the set, he said something that I thought was unusual for a ten year old. Not “thanks Mom and Dad.” Not “Wow! That’s really cool!’ He said instead, with complete joy on his face, “I’m free! I’m free!”

I was reminded of that story as I watched the actors and actresses perform in our school play “Harvey” yesterday. The play was excellent, and I really enjoyed it. But if you really watched the students perform, it was obvious that they really enjoyed it, too. There was joy on their faces, as if performing in the character of someone else, getting out of their own skin and becoming someone else, is, in fact, liberating. And I saw that same joy in those of you who performed in what was a very touching Veteran’s Day concert last week, and as I watched some of you draw striking facial images on the large cardboard posters last week in the back hallway. And if you watch our best singers perform in concert, they almost can’t help smiling as they sing.

“Where words fail,” someone once said, “art often speaks, elevating the human spirit and nourishing the soul. “ That’s why I believe the arts are so important to JPII, so important to our life and identity here. We are a very unusual school in that all students are required to take three years of the arts here—most schools require just one—but because of that, your teachers are able to go much deeper than what too often amounts to “arts and crafts” at other schools. I was reminded of that when I walked into Mrs. Deal’s class last week and they were critiquing a photograph in terms of context and texture: the quality and depth of the students’ comments were impressive.

According to a study published by Dr. James Catterall, a professor from the University of California (cf. “Arts Education Partnership”) the study of the arts has very positive effects in advancing goals in other classes. Drama, for example, helps students understand social relationships and emotions and improves concentrated thought and comprehension. Music improves math achievement and proficiency, reading and cognitive development, and has even been shown to boost ACT or SAT verbal scores. The visual arts improves content and the organization of writing, improves reading skills and interpretation of text, and reasoning about scientific images. All these facts are just more reasons why it’s so short-sighted and sad when other school systems regard the arts as the first thing to cut in the curriculum when they need to save money.

Last year, our Board of Trustees published a five year strategic plan for JPII, called Vision 2016. Included in that plan were two major capital initiatives: upgrading our athletic fields and facilities and the creation of a the fine arts center. With the generous gift from Mr. Carell, we are just about finished with the athletic facilities—they laid down the sod Friday on the lower stadium and are putting rubber on the track this week. We now turn our attention to the fine arts center. The truth is, our fine arts program has been much more successful than even our founders, who were very pro-arts, dreamed. Not only do we have all students taking art for three years, many of you take a 4th year of art as an elective, and some of you take 5 or 6 classes by the time you graduate. We’re out of space!

I already have architectural drawings for the new center which include almost double the space for our 3D program, a digital computer lab adjacent to our Photography classroom, a huge 2D art room with large windows and natural light and an adjacent critique room (that gets Mr. King out of his glorified closet), a big, wide hallway with a skylight overhead that includes recessed walls to display student art, a multi-purpose room for one act plays and mini-concerts, a much larger choral room with elevated ceilings, plus additional practice rooms to support our choral and band programs, and bathrooms. It’s very exciting. The architect estimates the expansion will cost in the neighborhood of 3,000,000, and to do that, we’re going to need a lead gift of a little more than half of that before we can go out and raise the additional monies to make it happen.

How soon? That will depend on the generosity of someone capable of making such a lead gift. Pray with me that someone may be moved to help us. We’ve accomplished a lot in ten years, and all of us have reason to be proud of our school and its many programs. This would be the next big step for us.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Right Way

We find ourselves at the end of the fall athletic season and the beginning of the winter season. I had the opportunity on Friday night to talk briefly with the football team after the game, because I think despite their won-loss record, they’ve really represented our school with dignity and class, and they competed with pride in their team and school from the beginning to the end.

As you know, we’re celebrating our tenth year as a school this year. High school athletics has changed a great deal in those ten years, and not for the better.

• Those of you who are athletes—in any sport—know that it’s a now year round commitment: In addition to weight-lifting, you’re supposed to be playing club ball in the off season, and in some cases, even play club ball during the high school season. Too many give lip service to the idea of “student-athlete” but then expect you to play on two different teams simultaneously, with a demanding practice schedule and travel tournaments every weekend, and expect you to perform at your best in the classroom. Something's got to give; there's only so much of you that can go around.

• Too many of you are also under pressure to “specialize” in one sport by your club coaches, who are telling you it’s the only way to get a scholarship, but the cost is you don’t have a chance to join other clubs and participate in other extra-curriculars at the school, much less represent your school on other athletic teams. And no matter how much you love a sport, if that’s all you’re doing year round, year in and year out, it gets boring at best and stifling at worst. I heard a comedian once say: “My wife was in labor for 30 hours before the birth of our first baby. I don’t even want to do something that feels GOOD for that long!” But some adults expect you to start playing year round ball when you’re 8 or 9, and find it mystifying when you’re ready to quit and do something else when you’re 16 or 17.

• Schools, too, are to blame. Too many are importing athletes, giving them what can only be described as “pay for play” scholarships, simply for the purpose of winning. When we were interviewing candidates for athletic director last year, I asked each candidate what steps he would recommend to improve our athletic program. One candidate said simply: “Give out more athletic scholarships, lower your academic standards, and hire tutors to help the athletes you bring in. “ I appreciate this coach’s candor—we often try to politely avoid being so blunt—but that’s exactly the formula some of our competitors have adopted. And to what end? So that we can feel good about having the best team money can buy? Is that really going to make us proud?

That's not who we are.

I am as competitive as any person in this school, but if we sell our soul for the purpose of winning we have betrayed our school’s mission and the higher purpose of high school athletics. Instead, we will continue to build our program the right way:

• We will continue to seek students who are committed first to receiving a first tier education in addition to the opportunity to play for their school and seek out families who support that goal. That will always be an important priority. If you’re only interested in coming to JPII for a sport, you won’t make it through the academic program. We are committed to the Renaissance ideal here, where you develop the whole person: your minds, your artistic abilities, your faith and your athletic talents.

• We will continue to hire excellent coaches who are similarly committed to the school’s mission, who care about you and your development as young men and women as their highest priority. Our coaches are quite good—show me better lacrosse coaches, for example, or a better weightlifting coach, or a more credentialed high school football coach, or more successful soccer and cheerleading coaches. I don’t think there are any, and I only mention those few to make the point.

• Yes, we will continue to accept with gratitude gifts from donors such as Mr. Carell, who has now allowed us to have one of the nicest facilities in all of middle Tennessee.

• Coach Zazzaro, your coaches and I will lobby the TSSAA for more control over our schedule, so that we have more flexibility to schedule teams who share our philosophy concerning high school athletics, rather than be forced to play too many games with those who do not. We will do our best to encourage reforms within high school athletics that discourages importing of athletes for pay. We will continue to give financial aid to the best of our ability to ALL families who need it, whether or not their children are athletic, because that’s who we are and what we believe.

• And we will continue to celebrate the successes of the MANY athletic teams who win the right way here. Let us not forget, we are the reigning state champions in lacrosse. We are perennial contenders for the state title in hockey. Our soccer teams, boys and girls, typically go deep into the playoffs each year. Our baseball team has been to the play-offs for two years now. Our swim team dominates Sumner County and has individual athletes who are tops in the state. Our golf team has been to state for consecutive years. Our bowling team has won a state championship. Our women’s basketball program is very competitive.

All of us, whether we’re “in” to athletics or not, should be proud of our players, our coaches and teams. Similarly, all of us, whether we’re “in” to the arts or not, should be proud of the quality of our choral, theater, visual arts and instrumental program. We should be proud of our math and science teams, our Model UN teams, our Youth in Government teams, our Forensic team—any group that represents us against other schools. We are proud of the accomplishments of our students and our classmates where-ever and however they shine.

JPII is an excellent school. We are the Knights. I am proud to be your principal.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

ACE 16 Graduation Speech

My son, Faus, graduated from the Alliance for Catholic Education program at Notre Dame this summer. The program asks college graduates to make a two year commitment to teach in an under-resourced Catholic school somewhere in the country, during which time they study and earn a Master's degree. Faus was stationed in Denver and taught at two different Catholic schools. He was asked to represent his class as the graduation speaker in July.

He is currently a middle school science and social studies teacher at St. Rose of Lima in Denver.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Establishing a Routine

This talk was given to JPII students on August 22, 2011 during school assembly.

There was a senior boy I knew that would walk into school every Monday morning comatose, almost like a walking zombie. He was a smart kid, but if he took a test on Monday, he usually did very poorly. By Wednesday, he was OK and did much better in school, only to walk into school as a zombie the following Monday. Yes, I suspect drinking was an issue. But I think there was something else happening to him: his whole body clock was completely screwed up from the weekend as well.

Sleep is a good thing. Our bodies need it, and in general as a society, we don’t get enough of it. That’s particularly true of you as teenagers. Scientists are unanimous that you need an average of 8.5 to 9 hours/night to function at peak efficiency, which would mean if you woke up at 6 a.m. for school, you’d have to be asleep in bed by 9 or 9:30 p.m. That’s not happening! Nationally, only 15% of teens get the right amount of sleep, and I suspect the number is even smaller here at JPII.

There’s a commercial that Clairol used to run of a beautiful model who would say: “Clairol: It costs more, but I am worth it.” The underlying message: indulge and pamper yourself. But I think there’s probably a difference between pampering oneself and taking care of oneself. The difficulty of adjusting to high school really isn’t the difficulty of the curriculum but finding the right balance, in disciplining oneself to not only keep up with the homework but also balancing the extra-curricular life with the need to sleep, eat and exercise properly. It’s a time management issue, really, and for most of you, your parents are giving you the space to manage your time as you see fit.

Incredibly, we’re beginning our fourth week of school today. By now you have a sense of your classes, which ones are the most demanding, which ones you’ll need to concentrate more on to do well. You know what your coaches expect of you, and you have an idea of which clubs you want to join and what the time commitments are. If you haven’t already, it’s important to find your groove, to establish the right routine so that you can operate most efficiently. Our bodies are like machines in many ways, and work at their best when we have a regular bedtime, wake-up time, time for rest, time for work. That’s partly why this senior boy was such a zombie and why, for example, most of us are cranky on Mondays: we’ve disrupted the natural rhythm of am earlier routine bedtime and wake-up time from the week by staying up much later and waking up much later on the weekends.

Regular sleep, regular exercise, and regular study times- find the routine that works best for you and try and stick to it. And don’t forget to include prayer as part of that routine: God wants us to rely on him, and when we do so, we’ll find he can take a lot of weight off our shoulders.

Have a good week.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Pay it Forward!

This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to JPII students on August 15, 2011

You may remember the movie that came out in 2000 called “Pay it Forward,” starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment. Osment plays a young boy, Trevor McKinney, who decides to do a school project in which he does three good things for three people, and then asks those three people to do three good things for someone else, to pay the generosity forward. The idea behind the movie is that individuals can change the world through kindness that inspires more kindness.

Since that movie, there has been a national movement called “Pay it Forward” that has its own website and invites people to share stories of ordinary people being inspired to help others. A couple of interesting stories: There’s a posting from an employees at McDonalds who worked the drive-through. One day a man came through and paid for the person behind him, who then paid for the person behind him. Apparently this went on for about 35 cars before someone broke the streak. There’s a story of a woman who had a flat tire, who was helped by a passerby. When she offered to pay him $40, he said he’d prefer she do something nice for someone else in his name, so she contributed the $40 to a soup kitchen.
There’s another story about ten college girls who went out for breakfast, and another patron paid their bill, saying they were the future of our country, so that the next time each of the girls went to a restaurant, they each paid for a random person’s dinner there.

This theme of “Pay it Forward” is going to be the theme on Friday night, when we thank Mr. Carell for his magnificent gift to JPII in the opening of the Jim Carell Athletic complex. He’s challenged us to respond to the magnificent gift he’s given us by being generous back, by paying it forward. There will be opportunities for us to purchase bricks and contribute to the completion of the project, including lights, statues and other finishing touches. But beyond the financial piece, I hope that paying it forward will be a theme in your life in your dealings with others. God has blessed us in so many ways as students and teachers of JPII, and the only real way we can repay him is to return that generosity by helping others.

May your generosity, through your Christian service and through your day to day interactions with your peers in the hallways of JPII, always be a mark of this school and this student body.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Building Cathedrals

This is Mr. Weber's talk with parents in JPII's "Back to School Night" on August 11, 2011.

The story is told of two brick-layers, working on a project together in medieval France. One is a miserable cuss, constantly complaining about the monotony of his job: "Brick after brick, same thing, over and over, " he often grumbles. But the other mason is happy, takes pride in what he is doing, and even whistles while he works. This fascinates their foreman, who finally asks the second why he likes his job so much. “Why?” he responds. “Because I am doing something important. I am building a cathedral! “

It's easy for all of us, within the scope of raising or educating children, or within our jobs and the built-in stresses of meeting deadlines, handling complaints, or dealing with difficult people, to lose sight of the big picture, the "why" of what we're doing. It's too easy to become like the first mason.

On the occasion of our tenth anniversary year of Pope John Paul II's opening as a high school, we spent a lot of time this summer--at our leadership meetings, during our Board retreat, in our pre-year faculty meetings--talking about the fundamental beliefs that inspire us at JPII, our "why." We were prompted to do this on the basis of Simon Sinek's book, "Start with the Why," a succinct summary of which is contained in this video:

What is the "why" of JPII? Our summer discussions were lively, inspirational, and full of story telling.

Mrs. Ebelhar told the story of when Golden Tate walked into her choral classroom for the first time as a freshman. Like all JPII students, he had to take three years of a fine arts class, and "singing" seemed like it would be the easiest and least objectionable. But he found out on that first day he'd have to learn to read music, sing in parts, and perform in public concerts. He wanted out--he was a football player, not a chorister! But he stayed, grudgingly, mostly because there weren't any other better alternatives. Fast forward to the end of Golden's junior year. He had completed his three year requirement, but he begged Mrs. Ebelhar to place him in the advanced men's choir as an elective for his senior year, where he would have to wear a tuxedo and perform. Mrs. Ebelhar agreed, of course. So even while Golden was being recruited by every university in the country as one of the nation's best high school football players, he also sang with great pride in the advanced men's choir.

There were many other stories. A coach told the story of a senior boy who was a C student when he came to JPII as a freshman-- in his mind, to play a sport. He's never made less than a B since, inspired to work hard in a culture where it's "cool to be smart," in the words of a recent graduate. An admissions counselor relayed the story of a young man who so shy during the admissions interview he could only mumble short phrases, but four years later, graduated a confident, happy, young man with a scholarship to one of our nation's best universities. As a faculty, we reminded each other, through these "before and after" stories, how privileged we were to watch God's grace work so powerfully in the life of so many of our students.

Each administrator, each Board member, each faculty member, described the "why" of JPII a bit differently this summer. As parents, you may have your own version. But the essence of the "why" in what we're doing is eloquently described by C.S. Lewis in a short passage from Mere Christianity:

Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.

There is a great optimism in students at JPII--in who they are and what they can become. We believe if they are immersed in a culture of high expectations, if they are supported by adults who model right behavior and pick them up when they stumble, if they belong to a team, activity or club that they are passionate about with others who share that passion, and if they are invited to grow in their faith through many opportunities for worship and serving others, God will work in their life and help them flourish to become something special.

God’s dreams for us far exceed our own. We see only limits, whereas God sees infinite horizons. No matter where they begin, when teens are immersed in a culture of optimism, expectation, faith and support, they are elevated to look above the walls of their perceived limitations to see beyond what they once believed about themselves, beyond the cynicism of what society believes, even beyond what we who love them may see and hope for them.

That's why you sacrifice to have your kids here. The great joy of being a teacher or a parent at JPII is we get to witness this transformation -a liberation, even- as young men and women grow in confidence borne from achievement and as they begin to think differently about their futures.

Sure, there's going to be times when it's a little uncomfortable. As C.S. Lewis' beautiful analogy reminds us, when God starts "knocking about the house," it can be painful. Kids may be asked to work harder than they want, they may get grades from time to time that disappoint them, they may get irritated with us, much in the same way they get irritated with you as their parents when you set limits. Raising teens is not for the faint of heart! But it's all worth it. It's worth it because of the kind of young men and women they will become.

We, too, as parents and teachers, are building cathedrals! May God give us the wisdom to build well.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Taking Off the Training Wheels

Editor's note: This is Mr. Weber's assembly address to JPII students on the first day of school, August 3, 2011.

Welcome students, to our tenth year as a school! I especially want to welcome the 166 brand new freshman and transfer students. Also, welcome to our good friends from England who are part of our Loughlin Scholars Exchange program and our four new students from Muenster, Germany. We're glad you are with us!

Those of you who’ve been here a while know that we sometimes quote our namesake, Blessed John Paul II, who had a special love and respect for young people. At World Youth Day one year, he challenged people exactly like you with this brief quote.

"Do not be afraid. Do not be satisfied with mediocrity. Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch."

My family lives in Stonecrest neighborhood with a lot of young families. One day this summer as I was on a walk with my wife, I saw a father teaching his son how to ride a two-wheeler—I think they had just taken off the training wheels. This is a big, scary moment in the life of a little boy! I’m guessing the boy was about five. The dad would start by pushing him down the sidewalk as he held the boy up, let him get some speed as he ran with him, then let go. The boy would go about ten feet, the front wheel would begin to wobble, he’d lose his balance, and crash. But the young boy was determined. He’d pick himself up, call his dad over and try again. Ten feet on his own again, wobble, crash. Fifteen feet, wobble, crash. As we looped around the block about twenty minutes later, they were still at it. I estimate he crashed about fifteen times, until finally he was able to go unassisted. He called out—“Look Mommy, I’m doing it!” as Mom and Dad cheered him on with obvious joy and pride.

Fifteen times that little boy failed, but it didn’t deter him.

Something happens to us as we get older. At some point late in elementary school, we begin to shy away from failure. We begin to play it safe. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to look foolish or to be laughed at. Perhaps it’s because we don’t want to stand out and look different. But whatever the reason, we start aiming for the middle, where it’s safer and we draw less attention to ourselves. We start being satisfied with mediocrity.

That can take many forms in high school. Instead of trying out for a team, you can be the critic in the bleachers who makes fun of the players on the field. Instead of being the guy or girl who volunteers an answer in class, you can make fun of the person who seems eager and engaged. Instead of taking the risk to ask someone you like out, you can be the guy who plays World of Warcraft all night long. Instead of being the guy who really strives for good grades, you can be the person who just does the minimum to get by.

Don’t be that guy!

Here’s what I think: God has an unbelievably cool plan for your life that far surpasses the dreams that you might have for yourself. But he’s not going to force you to do something against your will or try to cram that plan down you throat. If he did, he’d take away your free will, and he respects you too much to do that. But if you’re open to God’s grace, if you’re willing to stretch yourself, join some clubs, do some things that are outside of your comfort zone, take some risks, he will work with you to make you something new, something special. Our job is to take those first steps. We have to take off the training wheels. We can’t play it safe.

So here’s an odd message for a headmaster to tell students on the opening day of school. I hope you fail often. That’s right—I hope you fail, and fail often! Because if you do so, that means you’re trying often and that you have the courage to keep getting back up onto that bike and trying again.

We can learn a lot from young children! May you have the courage to challenge yourself this year, to put out into the deep and let down your nets for the catch. If you do so, you'll be surprised at what God has in mind for you. May you all have a magnificent year!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Look Well Into Thyself

Our public schools won't improve if reform initiatives come from on high.

It’s a familiar refrain: “In order to improve our schools, we’re going to implement _______. “

You can fill in the blank any way you’d like. We’re going to implement “new curricular standards.“ We’re going to demand “more accountability” or “tougher graduation standards” to ensure that “No child is left behind. “ Perhaps we’ll start a “reading across the curriculum” initiative, or “reduce class size,” or improve “teacher certification qualifications.”

American education is certainly not lacking in ideas! Nor do I mean to imply that some of these strategies aren’t worth pursuing. But here’s the problem:

Culture eats strategies for breakfast.

If the school culture is not supportive of good teaching and learning, all of the other strategic initiatives are a waste of time.

Several years ago my friend from college signed on to teach at a wealthy private high school in Texas. The school had excellent resources—he even had his own private office, something quite unusual for high school teachers. But it was a horrible experience. “I knew things were amiss,” he told me over the phone some time in October of that year, “when on the first day of school, the students addressed our principal as ‘Bob.’ Then, during my first period class, a young man stood up, stretched loudly, and began walking out the door. ‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘To the bathroom’ the student replied casually. ‘I’ll be back in a few’ and walked out. I went into the hallways to demand he return, but noticed there were no fewer than 20 other students roaming the hallways.“

Suffice it to say, my friend had a miserable year. He had the teaching credentials. He was smart, passionate and committed. The school gave him resources, professional development money, a laptop computer, and classroom materials. But the culture made those things irrelevant almost from the very beginning, and by the end of the year, he said he was nothing more than a glorified babysitter, marking time until the day he could get out of his contract.

One of the endemic problems our schools face is that most reform initiatives come from somewhere other than the school itself: a federal mandate, a new state program, a county Board regulation. Local principals and faculty have too little control over their own fate and resources. I once served as an accreditation consultant for one of the largest public high schools in Alabama, a school of over 2000 students. “How much discretion do you have over your budget?” I asked the principal one afternoon. He laughed ruefully: “Whatever I make in the cafeteria coke machine.” He was being dead serious—in a school with an annual budget of 22 million dollars, he had authority over about $15,000.

The effect of so little control is that it discourages local initiative and the “can-do-it-whatever-it-takes” spirit that is a fundamental ingredient in building a culture that supports learning. A successful school culture is optimistic and inspirational. It inspires teachers to be creative in designing interesting classes and in finding new ways to reach out to students who are falling behind. It builds hope in students and encourages them to take risks and to stretch beyond themselves. It energizes school leaders to find innovative ways to support classroom teaching and to build relationships with families to support and sustain high standards.

There’s no single solution, no magic cure, no silver bullet that is going to make our schools better. But we’re headed in the wrong direction, I believe, when we look to improve our schools by imposing layers upon layers of federal or state mandates upon them. Let’s find ways instead to empower local school leadership to be entrepreneurial in creating the environments necessary to inspire good teaching and learning. And then get out of their way!

Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look there. " (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Chamber Choir's Last Performance, 2011

The Chamber Choir of JPII gave a riveting performance of "Omnia Sol" at the Commencement exercises for the class of 2011 on the stage of the Grand 'Ole Opry.

It was the last time many of the students in the chamber choir performed as students of JPII, ending a stellar four year career under the direction of Mrs. JJ Ebelhar.

The song was particularly appropriate for the occasion. Here's a brief excerpt:

Somewhere far from nowhere, I grew both strong and tall…
Longing to become, but knowing not the path at all!
But the footprints of the winter melted to fields of spring;
One last embrace before I cross the threshold: To life we sing!

I am proud to be associated with a school that fosters such excellence in the fine arts.

Bravo, students!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Baccalaureate Homily, Class of 2011

Editor's Note:
At the baccalaureate mass for our graduating students, our school chaplain, Deacon Brian Edwards, gave such a moving homily that I asked him if I could post this on my blog, and he agreed.

There is nothing more important to the life and mission of our school
than that each and every one of you find the truth of Jesus Christ.
As Jesus said in today’s gospel,
“I am the way and the truth and the life.”
I hope that you’ve experienced Jesus wandering the halls of JP2.
I hope that he’s taught you in our classrooms,
and sat beside you in the dining hall.
I hope that he’s played next to you on our sports fields,
I hope that you’ve experienced Jesus in the sacrifice of the Mass.

I hope that you’ve seen him and experienced him,
Because that’s what it’s all about!
That’s what really matters!

You are about to graduate from high school,
and this is a time for celebration.
You should be proud of your accomplishments.
BUT you also stand at a major crossroads in your life.
You have many decisions to make,
about colleges, careers, and relationships.
Every decision brings you closer to God’s ultimate plan for you,
Or distances you from God and weakens you as a person.

It may seem odd for me to tell you this very personal story
on the eve of your graduation,
but I think it’s worth telling.

My brother graduated from Fr. Ryan in 1986
with a bright future ahead of him.
He went to college.
He was smart,
but he didn’t make good personal decisions.
He got involved in dangerous and risky activities--
And he became an alcoholic and an addict.
In 1986 when he was graduating from high school
he saw only the possibilities in his life.
But by the sum total of his decisions,
his risky behaviors,
his bad relationships,
His living life on the edge,
He developed a severe addiction that he never broke.
Instead his addiction broke him.
He went into treatment multiple times over many years,
but several years ago his cocaine addiction destroyed his life,
and he died a tragic and sudden death.
My little brother--
my baby brother.

He was at a crossroads in his life when he graduated high school,
but he took the wrong road.
I cannot adequately share with you the pain it caused my mother,
the pain it caused me and the rest of our family
to see a life full of such promise cut short so tragically.

As I say this to you, I can almost hear you thinking,
“What does this have to do with us?
…that’ll never happen to me!”
I truly hope it doesn’t,
but he would have said the same thing as he sat at his Baccalaureate Mass
on the eve of his high school graduation.

Every decision you make matters.
Every decision brings you closer to
or distances you more from
God’s ultimate plan for you.

The lure of materialism, greed and selfishness and lust are hard to resist.
And it’s especially hard when you go off to college.
College parties, alcohol, and so many other temptations are everywhere.

Work hard to preserve your dignity, your heart, your body and your soul!
God designed us for a particular purpose.
He’s created us for a specific destiny
--to be with him.
In the gospel today, Jesus said,
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”
and “I am going to prepare a place for you.”

You are graduating from JP2 having learned much about the Catholic faith.
At a time when many people get their theology from shows like
“Ghost Whisperer”
or from other worldly influences like the gospel according to Hollywood
--or made-up theologies you can buy by the car-load in the self-help
or New Age section of the local bookstore,
at JP2 you have learned authentic Christian doctrine that actually means something.

Live the Christian faith!
Breathe it!
and share it!

Along with many Catholics,
JP2 also has a number of Christian students from other churches.
This is truly one of our strengths
--that we find Christ in each other,
that we learn from each other,
and that we grow together more deeply in our faith.

This faith is entrusted to you as you graduate from JP2.
Be strong in faith!
Avoid temptations!
Make good decisions!
Represent the mission and values of Pope John Paul II High School!
Pray faithfully!
Stay close to the Church and to the sacraments!
Find a Church on your college campuses!

help your sons and daughters find a Church.
Along with your prayers
and your love,
there is no greater gift you can give them.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Earn This

This is Mr. Weber's last address of the 2010-2011 school year.

On Friday, during a ceremony to bless our new weight room and thank Mr. Jim Carell for his generosity in helping us purchase the new equipment, Mr. Carell announced he was going to build us concession stands and bathrooms, turf our field, and furnish us with a new track. This is an extraordinary gift, the largest our school has ever received since its founding, when Mr. Carell’s brother Monroe and his wife Ann gave the diocese five million dollars as the lead gift in a 23 million dollar project to build this high school.

What can we say or do in response to such extraordinary generosity?

Jesus once said, “To he who is given much, much is expected” (Luke 12:48). I don’t think Jesus meant that because we’ve been given a turf field and a track, he expects us to win more games or track meets. I think he meant that those who have been treated generously must live their lives so that these gifts are not wasted, so that we become people who lead others to do what is good, to do what is right, and to do what is holy.

Seniors, this is the last high school assembly you will attend here as students of Pope John Paul II High School, and aside from a few introductory remarks at Awards Night and Graduation, the last time I will ever have the opportunity to speak to you. You may remember, way back in your freshman year when I spoke to you the first time, as a visitor, just after I had been announced as the new headmaster, but still months away from beginning here. I talked to you then about my favorite movie of all time, Saving Private Ryan. Recall the plot line. It was during World War II, and a mother had four sons who were sent into battle. Three sons were killed during the Normandy landing, and the fourth son, Private James Francis Ryan, a paratrooper (played in the movie by Matt Damon), was lost somewhere in Nazi-occupied France when a drop went badly.

When the Chief of Staff of the Army, General George Marshall, learns of the terrible fate of the mother who had lost three sons, he sends Captain John Miller (played by Tom Hanks) and a unit of his men on a rescue mission deep behind enemy lines to rescue her fourth son.Thus the title, “Saving Private Ryan.” Over the course of the mission, many of the unit’s soldiers die valiantly, and those who remain question why so many should die for the sake of just one man. At the end of the movie, the Tom Hanks character, Captain Miller, is also mortally wounded. But before he dies, he brings Private Ryan close to him, and whispers on behalf of the many who have died rescuing him, “Earn this!”

Earn this, seniors. No, we've not been in WWII. But for four years, your parents have gone through great sacrifice to send you to what I still believe to be, as I said to you then, one of the very best high schools in the country. Earn this. Your teachers and coaches are at the very top of their profession and they sacrifice a lot to teach here, but they are committed to the mission of this place, and committed to you. Earn this, on behalf of the donors like the Carells who have made this place possible, but also the many, many people who have given what they can to keep JPII affordable to those who otherwise would not be able to attend.

“To those given much, much is expected.”

It has been a great privilege to have you as students here. Now, as we sing from time to time at mass, go make a difference! The world needs smart, virtuous, faithful leaders. Go make a difference in this world, and may God bless you!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Junior Ring Ceremony, 2011

Note: These are Mr. Weber's remarks to the junior class, on the occasion of the junior ring ceremony at JPII on April 27, 2011.

12 days.

Twelve days of classes until Senior Walk, May 13, the last day of class for seniors, the last time they will walk the hallways as students of JPII. Though our rightful attention will be on them--and there will be hugs and photographs and tears--something else is happening that is less noticed. From that moment on, this class, the junior class of Pope John Paul II High School, the class of 2012, will take on the mantel as leaders of the JPII student body.

Junior ring ceremonies are not principally about getting jewelry. They are really rites of passage ceremonies, a formal calling out of the junior class to become the kind of leaders that good schools must have. No matter how talented the teachers, no matter how wise the administrators or the Dean of Students, no matter how well written the school policies, schools are only good in so far as the students of that school help build a culture that supports those teachers, the administration and the policies of the school. And whether or not a student body is willing to build such a culture depends on the senior class. IF the seniors buy in, the rest of the school follows. If not, it’s going to be an unpleasant year for everybody.

I am not talking about some sort of slavish obedience. We want students who are willing to politely question, express their disagreements, even push the envelope a bit. That’s why I am using the word “culture.” When there is a culture of mutual respect, pleasantness, trust, then we can have our disagreements from time to time and that’s OK, because both sides appreciate and respect the perspective of the other side. A good culture is built through hundreds of small decisions of people trying to do the right thing, many of which are unnoticed and seem insignificant. A year or so ago, Liberty Mutual ran a very effective advertising campaign that showed one person doing something nice for another person, who then helped someone else, who then helped someone else. Generosity of spirit spreads quickly, even when the recipient of the generosity doesn’t understand its original source. I liken it to a still lake that suddenly begins to have waves. We don’t know what caused the waves because we can’t see it, but somewhere in that lake, someone made a splash. Goodness, kindness, and selflessness have ripple effects in a school that spread in multiple directions, across grade levels, in the classrooms, on ball teams, in the hallways.

That’s why I am excited about you juniors, about to become seniors. We came into this school together—I, the new headmaster here, you, new high school students--and I've had the opportunity to watch you grow as a class. Though you’ve always been the smallest class in the school, you are an impressive group—excellent students, yes, but even more importantly, good people and good leaders. After listening to all the arguments pro and con about moving back to the mixed grade level houses for next year, I decided that it was the right thing to do—and you want to know the major reason why? Because I figured that if I can put this class with younger students in houses and advisory groups, you can have a profoundly positive effect on them. If we keep you locked into the grade level houses we have now, we don’t give you enough exposure to the underclassmen and rob you of the chance to be their leaders.

I hope you will accept this responsibility with pride in your class and pride in your school. The rings you will receive are a symbol of your willingness to do so. But whether or not you’ve purchased rings, all students will be receiving a Bible as a gift from the school, a symbol of our prayers for you as you head into your senior year. In addition, each of these bibles has a personal inscription written by one of your teachers to lend their prayers and support for you as you face decisions about colleges, majors, roommates and all that you will have to decide next year.

Your parents, your teachers, and JPII are proud of the young men and young women you are becoming. Accept now the responsibility of building a culture that is supportive of your classmates and the mission of JPII. Commit yourself to the proposition JPII will be a better school because of you, because of what you want JPII to become and your willingness to lead the student body toward this aim.

In the gym of our school, across one of the walls behind the bleachers, is a quote from Scripture, Psalm 86: “Teach me your ways, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth.” As your life accelerates into senior year, ask God to teach you and guide you, so that you may walk in his truth. If you do so, God will bless you and give you a profound peace and joy, even in the extreme busy-ness of your last year of high school. Strive to stay close to the Lord, and he will stay close to you.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

What More?

This is Mr. Weber's Easter message to the students of JPII.

The greatest sermon I’ve ever heard was when I was 15 years old, and I remember it like it was yesterday. There was a guest priest who spoke at our Church the week before Easter, and he told us about the story of his best friend growing up.

He and his friend met in kindergarten, attended the same elementary school all the way through, then went to the same high school. They spent so much time together they were practically brothers, often spending the night at the other one’s house. He loved going to his friends’ house because he was from a large, Italian Catholic family, and his mother was an excellent cook who was always giving him food. As fate would have it, they were both drafted into the Vietnam War together and ended up in the same unit. The priest said that one night, they were on guard duty in a foxhole out on the front lines—just the two of them. It was a crystal clear night, starry, with no sound whatsoever, and he remembers his friend had pulled out a candy bar to eat, when suddenly, someone threw a live grenade into the foxhole, seemingly from no-where. They both hesitated, stunned. Then his friend, reacting more quickly, gave him a quick smile, handed him the candy bar, and threw himself on the grenade. His friend was blown apart and died instantly, but he was saved.

The priest said he was devastated for the loss of his best friend, and after the funeral, he spent a lot of time with the boys’ mother, mourning with her. He felt guilty that his friend had done what he had not done—why, he asked himself, had he not thought more quickly? Guilt turned to self-pity over the next several weeks. “Why him?” he asked the boys’ mother, over and over. “Why didn’t I do what he did?” “Do you think it was just instinct on his part?” “Do you think he did it out of love or was it just an automatic reaction?” “Do you think he really loved me?” The Italian mother, who herself had been grieving the loss of her son, could bear this no more. “You're asking me if he loved you? JESUS CHRIST, MAN, WHAT MORE COULD HE HAVE DONE FOR YOU?”

And the priest, as he told us this story, stopped, backed away from the lectern and said softly: “Jesus Christ—man, what more could he have done for you?” I was electrified, as if I had just heard the gospel for the very first time in my life. What more could Jesus have done for us?

As you know, this is the beginning of Holy Week, when we celebrate the passion and resurrection of Jesus. One of the real problems for us is that the story is too familiar. More than anything else, the passion and resurrection of Jesus is a love story—as John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” No matter what we’ve done, not matter what our sins, God loves us, and if we ask him, he will forgive us. He reminds us this Easter, that no matter how hard the cross we bear, that our final destiny is not the cross but the resurrection—that God’s love prevails, in the end.

The death and resurrection of Christ is the single-most important event in human history. I encourage you to attend your church’s services this week to remember and celebrate what God has done for us.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Two Governors

I’ve personally attended only two lectures by governors in my life. The second time was this week, when Governor Haslam of Tennessee came to JPII as part of our “Distinguished Lecturer” series. The first time was in 1984, as a senior at Notre Dame, when I attended a lecture by Governor Cuomo of New York. Coincidentally, both talks were about the same topic: How should one’s Christian faith inform one’s political leadership? They gave strikingly different answers to that question.

Cuomo’s speech centered on abortion and was hailed in the press as an example of enlightened tolerance. As a Catholic, he said he fully respected the authority of the bishops that abortion was wrong. He would uphold that view, he said, for his wife and children. But as governor of a state that was predominantly pro-abortion, he did not believe it was proper to impose his religious belief upon his constituency. In a pluralistic society, one cannot govern by one’s faith, lest others’ freedoms be infringed upon in the name of his religious belief. This “personally opposed but cannot impose” position became the foundational position of a generation of politicians since that time.

Haslam, a Presbyterian, reasoned differently, drawing on the ideas of Pope John Paul II. Freedom, as the pope understood it, must be linked to the truth, or else it ends up being a pretense for tyranny, as the stronger person asserts his “freedom” over the rights of the weaker party. The pope was an unapologetic defender of the truth, known for directly challenging the assumptions of socialism and the excesses of capitalism with great vigor.

Did that make him boorish and judgmental, as we often regard people who claim to know “truth”? No, said Haslam. In fact, he was recognized as a model of Christian civility, admired by even those who disagreed with him. That was possible because John Paul II understood his Christian faith as a “gift, not a club.” Instead of using the truth of one’s faith to club people over the head, as we are often tempted to do, we should speak the truth while manifesting the gifts of our faith, namely, temperance, forgiveness, patience and kindness, to name a few. Haslam said that Christian politicians should never waiver from the convictions of their faith but must live out that faith in a manner that is charitable and befitting of their Christian vocation.

It is ironic that between the two governors, one Catholic, the other Presbyterian, the Presbyterian makes the more “Catholic” argument. Democracy in the Catholic tradition is a means and not the end, as Cuomo assumes. The end is the “common good,” whereby human dignity is protected and thrives. All laws must serve that common good. Exalting the notion of individual freedom to the extent that we cannot “impose” a value system on someone, even when that person uses his freedom to trample on the freedom of others, is self-contradicting. Further, it strips us of the ability to make any laws premised on a moral assumption. If we believe rape is wrong, can we not “impose” laws which punish rapists? Thieves? Murderers? Or should we merely be "personally opposed" to these things?

Thomas More, in Robert Bolt’s famous play “Man for All Seasons, ” confronts the same issue that both governors addressed. Though he is opposed in conscience to the divorce and remarriage of King Henry VIII, should he assent to the divorce out of loyalty to the king and in the interest of the peace and unity of England? More is unequivocal:

“I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”

The vetting of candidates during an election cycle serves an important public purpose: Candidates should make known their moral positions, and where they are evasive, we should pin them down. In my view, once elected, we should then expect them to govern according to the convictions of their conscience and their faith. If we don't approve of what that turns out to mean, we vote them out of office in the next election cycle.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Catholic School Salaries and Pay Scales

In an earlier post, I discussed creative ways to pay Catholic school teachers to secure their services or keep them in the fold, recognizing that often what we can afford to pay is not what area private schools or public schools can offer. Those ways included giving signing bonuses for new teachers, offering low cost rent options using property owned by the Church but no longer used, and offering merit bonuses. I continue to believe each of these is an effective outreach and have used each in my ministry as a Catholic school principal.

Since writing that article, I am now principal of a new school in a new diocese. Unlike my previous diocese, this one does not have a “diocesan pay scale” from which I must pay teachers. Nor does my school’s Board of Trustees dictate a pay scale for our school. Instead, the Board approves a line item in the budget for “salaries” and I have complete freedom within that budget to pay teachers as I see fit, depending on their value to the school and the “market forces” at work for their particular position.

I have found this lack of a prescribed template extremely liberating, and truth be told, in the best interest of the school I serve. In my previous school, I often lost out on the battle for a fine teacher candidate, simply because the salaries I could pay that person paled in comparison to what others were offering. I didn’t go down within a fight, however! I would often “scaffold” his or her salary offer by including a laundry list of non-teaching stipends (coaching, extra-curricular clubs, etc) as a means of approximating market rates. I won some and I lost some. But the truth is, I was waging battle beginning with the self-inflicted wound of a pay scale that worked for some disciplines but not for others.

Let me be specific. Catholic schools have always had the greatest difficulty securing and retaining good science teachers, especially in the physical sciences (Chemistry and Physics). The reasons are simple: What a young graduate in the physical sciences can make in the corporate/business world dwarfs what Catholic school pay scales usually dictate for first year teachers. Depending on the source, the average beginning salary for a person with a B.S. in Physics in the corporate world is between 45K and 60K whereas most Catholic school pay scales currently begin in the high 20’s or low to mid 30’s. And that gap widens as that person gains experience as a scientist! By contrast, when we have an open position in English or History, we are overwhelmed with highly qualified candidates, some with PhD’s, most who are willing to work within the salary scales common to our schools.

Let me guess what some of you may be thinking: Is it just to pay some of our teachers more than others? Are we saying that the cracker-jack English teacher is less deserving of higher wages than teachers in our science department? I’d say “No, the cracker-jack English teacher is not less deserving.” But let me quickly add: If a school has a true maestro teaching English, they’d be wise to compensate that person generously, because they are a rare and great gift to the school! And in a school unconstrained by a pay scale, such maestros can be rapidly rewarded by higher than average increases in salary in successive years of teaching. But I believe it is foolhardy to insist that the beginning teaching salaries for English and Physics teachers should be the same. Once they’re in the fold, without a pay scale to hamstring them, principals can make rational judgments about relative worth and adjust salaries accordingly down the road.

In the world we live in, those with science degrees get paid more than those with degrees in Arts and Letters. As an Arts and Letters guy myself, I was painfully aware of that reality when I decided to major in theology, and reminded of it every time someone asked me “What are you going to do with a theology major, become a priest?”

Insisting on a common pay scale artificially inflates what we need to pay some incoming teachers, or (more commonly) artificially deflates what we should offer others. Abolish pay scales. They don’t help us.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The key to academic achievement

Because I am a high school principal, I am often asked by parents of younger children what kids need to "know" in order to be successful in high school. "What can we work with our kids on now," they ask, "which will make the biggest difference later?"

I often respond "Read to your child, and instill a love of reading in them." There's little doubt that kids who develop good reading skills early in life end up more successful later on. But lately, I've also been talking to parents about an exceptionally important character trait we must help our children develop, too.

In a famous study at Stanford University in 1972, Dr. Walter Michel created a simple test of the ability of four year old children to control impulses and delay gratification. Children were taken one at a time into a room with a one-way mirror. They were shown a marshmallow. The experimenter told them he had to leave and that they could have the marshmallow right then, but if they waited for the experimenter to return from an errand, they could have two marshmallows. One marshmallow was left on a table in front of them. Two out of every three children couldn't wait, and grabbed the available marshmallow before the experimenter returned, some within seconds of person leaving. Approximately one-third waited up to fifteen minutes for the experimenter to return. Here's a simulation of the experiment done more recently, as each kid tries to resist temptation, with some amusing footage:

Funny stuff! But the real bombshell came in the follow up study years later, when interviewers measured how the kids in the original study were doing as students. Those who delayed gratification for the full fifteen minutes scored on average 210 points higher on the SAT tests than those who gave in quickly--an astonishing difference given the length of time between testings. And these same children were judged better able to handle stress and cope with frustration during adolescence. In short, they were happier young adults, with more opportunity in front of them.

As someone who has worked with teenagers the last 26 years, I don't find the conclusions of this study startling. There are marked positives in academic outcomes from students who are able to defer what is more pleasurable and complete the work in front of them. These are the students who begin writing papers earlier than the night before, who do their homework before they watch TV, who fight through boredom in school, who are willing to keep trying new approaches to solve problems and who come to tutorials when they don't understand a concept.

At the same time, the very strong correlation of delaying gratification with academic success as shown by the study--the sheer magnitude in importance of that one variable--is disturbing when one realizes how poorly we live by that principle as a society. The explosive growth of the fast food industry in the last twenty five years, the fact that the average American carries a debt of $8,562 on their credit cards (including undergraduates, without a full time job, who have an average balance of $2,200, not counting their college loans--yikes!), the emphasis on the "instant" (instant food, microwave ovens, video-on-demand, etc.) all suggest we don't delay gratification as adults, much less mentor our children in that skill!

Still, parents can make a big difference. Help them save their money. If you can still find one, the old piggy banks which require breaking the bank to access the money are useful. Force them to do their chores before lounging around the house or leaving the house to play with friends. Make sure homework is done before TV. Talk to them honestly about not being able to afford a new car, or an expensive vacation, so they see that you, too, are not able to do some of what you'd like to do. Help them understand in life, there are no "easy" buttons.

The evidence is in: teaching our children to delay gratification is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Early Spring Potpourri

This is Mr. Weber's talk to students on a variety of subjects on March 14, 2011

First and foremost, congratulations to our theater program for another wonderful musical, Bye Bye Birdie. It was a lot of fun to watch and I found myself laughing out loud through out the play. Macy, I thought you were astoundingly good in your first lead role. Andrew, you were terrific, as usual; you are a real natural on stage. Foster, Maria, Samantha, Andrew, Margaret, Taylor—I really risk getting myself in trouble by beginning to name stand-outs—so let me just say I thought the whole cast was excellent and the combined effect of all these outstanding performances was a very entertaining show. Congratulations, too, to the set and costume designers, both of which were outstanding, and to those students who played in the orchestra. Bravos all around!

Two weeks ago, Mr. Weaver and I visited St. Edmund’s in England and St. Mauritz in Muenster Germany. St. Edmund’s is the school we do the Loughlin exchange with that many of you are familiar with. St. Mauritz is the school we have begun a new exchange with this year, and the school that about 15 of you will be visiting this summer. We’ll have about 22 students from that school visiting us the week before and the week of Easter, so I ask that you make them feel welcome. We met them and their families at the school one night; Martin Schultz, our CYE representative, asked me to talk with them and even to quiz them on American politics. I was pretty impressed of their knowledge about us. Their English is quite good—they begin studying English very early on. They had not heard of Tennessee or Nashville, but they had heard of Taylor Swift!

I am very excited about these expanded opportunities for you to travel and hope that you will take advantage of them. Today was going to be the final deadline for the Honduras mission trip with Ms. Donovan in July, but I am asking that we extend it for two more days until Wednesday, as we do not have enough people currently to make it a “go.” It would be a shame to cancel the trip, so I ask you to talk about this with your parents. There are rare moments in our life when we have the opportunity to do something truly life changing, and if you recall Ms. Donovan’s presentation at assembly a few weeks back, I think this is such an opportunity. Think about it again and talk to your parents! Heck, you can even use this trip to get a jump start on your service hours next year!

We received some pretty exciting news last week. Governor Haslam will be coming to JPII to speak on March 29 at 7 p.m. here in this auditorium. You and your families will be invited. He will be our second lecturer in the "John Paul II Distinguished Lecturer" series. Last year, our inaugural speaker was George Weigel, who wrote the definitive biography on JPII called "Witness to Hope." It is a great honor for a school to have a sitting governor come to a school, and we anticipate a crowd, so we will need for people, including you if you'd like to come, to reserve a ticket by going on line to do so. More information on that will be forthcoming shortly.

As you know, Spring Break is next week, a time for all of us to rest and relax a bit. We’re not very good at relaxing, are we? We fill very minute with activity. But I hope you’ll truly slow yourself down some, get lots of sleep, and enjoy your friends. I pray each spring break for your safety; you may recall last year I talked about the 18 year old Notre Dame recruit from Cincinnati who was drinking and fell from a fifth floor of the hotel to his death. Those of you going to the beaches, please be careful. Girls, be wary of predators and keep your wits about you. There is a clever marketing slogan out there—“What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”— as if location makes a difference in what's right or wrong or how we feel about ourselves once we’ve done something we regret. Don’t be fooled by clever marketing. In my past life in Montgomery, which is only 170 miles from the coast, I knew many young ladies that came back from Spring Break, devastated by what they had done under the influence of alcohol.

Last and not least, in the interest of good faculty-student relationships this week, I ask that you make a special effort to stay in uniform. Socks, ties, etc. Believe me when I say that monitoring the way you dress is the least favorite of the faculty’s duties, but do their jobs they must.

May you all have a good week and an excellent spring break.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Broadening Visions

Pat Weaver, our director of Admissions and Development, and were in England this week, visiting St. Edmund's, the school with which we participate in the Loughlin Exchange program. It's a magnificent, old English school which began originally in Douays, France in 1563 when it was illegal to practice the Catholic faith in England. The English hierarchy, fearing that Catholicism would forever vanish in England if they did not continue to train priests, set up a monastery called "English College"in Douai, with the hope these new priests would re-evangelize England once the anti-Catholic bans were lifted. Long before those bans relaxed, however, these priests began filtering back into England to say Mass and minister to Catholics there, at great risk to their lives, since it was regarded as treason. Over 133 priests and lay faculty from English College were martyred during the span of 1563-1680, and 21 of those have been canonized saints. When the French revolution occured in 1793 and the Catholic bans in England were finally relaxed, they moved the school back to England, where it was renamed "St. Edmund's College" and has been there ever since. A school publication says quite credibly that St. Edmund's might be the institution most responsible for the fact that Catholicism did not extinguish in England altogether, something for which the school is rightfully proud.

JPII and St. Edmund's have been in an exchange school relationship since 2005, when my predecessor, Hans Broekman, began the program to honor the headmaster of St. Edmund's, Mark Loughlin, who was tragically killed in an auto accident in 2004. Since that time we've had 6 exchange visits, with happy results on both sides of "the pond" as they say here in England. It's been a fabulous thing for the students and both of our schools.

Bouyed by the success of the Loughlin program, we are now introducing a German exchange option, with a similar three week exchange with students from St. Mauritz Catholic School in Muenster, Germany. Pat and I met with the administrative team of that school on Wednesday and Thursday and all the parents and students who are coming over this spring around the Easter time (see picture, above). They're excited about the exchange, just as we are. One thing that truly stood out when we talked to these students and parents: their ability to speak English is generally very good. Communication, we do not believe, will be a problem.

These efforts are part of our strategic plan, Vision 2016 (read about it here), in which we make it a priority to expand our international travel program. We are convinced, I am convinced, that visiting foreign countries or (even better) living with families in these countries is a powerful way to broaden our students' perspectives and appreciate the distinctiveness of our own culture.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Too hard?

IS JPII too hard?

This is a question that was asked of me recently—and to some extent, like the definition of “beauty,” the answer is in the eye of the beholder. “Hard” is a subjective term that varies by individual. But let’s try to break this down some and look at objective data to address the question.

Too hard for whom? Students in our honors program? Students in our standard program? Seniors? Juniors? Sophomores? Freshman?

One way to investigate the question is to measure the expectations we place on you for homework. In early January I asked you to participate in a homework survey in which you estimated how much homework you did. We received 203 responses, with a good cross section from each grade level. My thanks to all of you who took the time to do the survey.

Let’s look at the results together (See chart by clicking here.)

On average, the typical JPII student did just over 120 minutes/night of homework. Freshman did the least, about 100 minutes, whereas juniors did the most, just over 144 minutes/night. It will probably be no surprise to you that girls at JPII worked longer per night than boys, an average of 130 minutes to 112 minutes. We wanted to measure the differences in expectation between students in the honors/AP programs and those in the standard programs, and although the honors program students worked a bit longer, the differences are not as pronounced as you might have guessed: Seniors in AP work 16 minutes longer than seniors in non-AP, juniors work 23 minutes longer, sophomores 25 minutes, and freshman 11 minutes longer. If you’re mostly all A’s, you work harder than your classmates, but that’s not terribly surprising: Senior A students work 13 minutes longer than the average honors kid and 29 minutes longer than the average standard program, junior A students work 165 minutes/night, 12 minutes longer than other honors students and 35 minutes longer than other junior standard core students, whereas A sophomores work 11 minutes longer than other honors and 36 minutes longer than standard track sophomores. Freshman A students actually work less hard than honors students generally and only 5 minutes more than students in the standard program.

My general sense in reading through each of these surveys is that you took it seriously and your answers reflect your honest estimates of you time. If there is any bias, it’s probably that you slightly over-estimated your time on task, as it would be common to take some breaks in a 3-hour study period, and on some days, coming home from a basketball game, for example, your regular study time is disrupted. In discussing this data with Mrs. Phillips, our Dean of Studies, we believe these numbers are about where they should be for a school that is serious about preparing students for college. Yes, there are days when you must do much more than what these averages show, and yes, some of you work much longer on average than your classmates, but AS an average, they’re about right. Going back to our fundamental question, “Is JPII too hard?” the homework survey seems to suggest “no.”

Another way to get objective data on this issue is to look at grading. Are JPII teachers too demanding in what they expect for an A or a B? What does the data show from the first semester? The average grade for guy at JPII was 84.5 and the average grade for a woman was 86. What’s interesting is those averages held across the grade levels—there was not much difference between a freshman and a senior in terms of grades. That means the average grade for both was just above 85, or a solid B. If we go by letter grades, the approximate ratio of A's to B's to C's to F's in the first semester was 10:10:5:1 , for a 3.1 average grade. In other words, there were about the same number of A's as there were B's, half as many C's and a tenth as many F's. Since those were first semester F’s and we only record yearly averages on transcripts, we expect the small number of F's to diminish even further between now and then. For a school which accepts a broad range of students, both the numerical average of 85 and the letter grade average of 3.1 suggest we're about where we should be in terms of difficulty.

Still, I am aware that these are averages and some of you work much harder than the averages suggest. Let’s take a moment to talk about that.

First, are you trying to do too much? Maybe the homework amount is OK, but when you’re trying to wedge it in between sports, extra-curriculars, service, work, friendships, it may just be that there’s not enough time in the day to do all those things well. When I look at what some of you are doing, I get tired just thinking about it. One sign of maturity is to learn how to say “no” or “enough.” What can you cut out?

Second, are you using your teachers in a pro-active way? Instead of going home and beating your brains in and wasting an hour doing so, why not go see the teacher after school? Some of you talk as if tutorials are punishment, but properly understood, they’re gifts of our teachers to help you. Unless you’re part of a required tutorial, you don’t have to stay the whole time—just go by and see your teacher about a certain problem or type problem you’re struggling with. EVERY teacher on this faculty will be delighted to help you. Just as an observation as I watch the hallways after school: not enough of you are using your teachers as a resource!

Third, are you using good study skills? I am a firm believer in working "smarter, not harder" whenever we can. There have been all kinds of studies on this, so here's a quick summary:

• Do the hard stuff first, the homework you least like to do.
• Study in a quiet place, without TV, cell phones, music or anything else likely to cause you to lose attention on what you’re doing.
• Review your notes each day for about 10-15 minutes. But of course that begs the question: Are you keeping good notes? When a teacher gives you notes for a chapter, he or she is practically telling you what is going to be on the next test. Something doesn't make sense? Ask the teacher the next day! Teachers love those kind of questions!
• When you read, take notes as you read. Both of my degrees are in liberal arts, which meant I had to read a lot of non-fiction books for class. Like many of you, I sometimes had a hard time concentrating on what I was reading, until I began to force myself to write down the main point of a page before I moved to the next page. That does 4 good things: keeps your mind from wandering, forces you to understand what you're reading, helps you remember it, and gives you something easy to study later.

Last comment: Let’s always remember that a teacher’s job is to always make you stretch a little further than you think you can stretch. It’s like a track coach with high jumpers: every time he or she clears the bar, the coach’s job is to move the bar a little higher and start training to get to that next level. In the end, they want you to jump as high as you’re able, or in high school terms, have as many opportunities as possible.

So is JPII “hard?” I hope so, to some extent. Nothing comes cheaply and easily and your futures are too important to waste away giving out A’s like they were candy. But is it too hard? No, the objective evidence suggests that's not the case.

Work hard. Study hard. And then let God worry about the rest. May God bless all of you this week.