Friday, August 01, 2014

Opening Year Faculty Meeting

These are my remarks to teachers and staff of JPII at our first faculty meeting of the year, the week before the first day of school. 


I love the first couple of weeks of school!  Kids are happy, enthusiastic, glad to be back with their friends, eager to tackle new challenges, optimistic about their classes and excited about their futures.

We who are older, often jaded by the years, are part of a privileged profession in that as teachers we get to experience all this with our students.

And hopefully, experiencing their joy re-enkindles in us the beautiful sense of wonder and mystery that marks teenagers’ lives as the world slowly opens up to them.

Whatever the challenges of last year, whatever the ups and downs, whatever the frustrations and joys, it’s a new year, a new sunrise, a chance to commit ourselves again to helping our students become “strong in mind, body, character and spirit for lives of learning and service, according to the gospel” (JPII mission statement). 

As is appropriate at this time of year, we begin the year with “first principles.” As teachers in a Catholic school, we are heirs to a great tradition in this country, started by the sisters, mostly, and now handed down to us. What are the unshakeable beliefs that mark this tradition?

First, that our students are children of God—worthy of being educated, loved, listened to, cared for and believed in. 

We talk a lot about our optimism in kids at JPII—about what kids are capable of achieving if they’re immersed in a culture honors high standards, with supportive teachers and opportunities to get back on their feet with they stumble. This isn’t polly-annish idealism, but is borne out of a fundamental belief of God’s presence in our students’ lives and the power of grace to create them into “new creations,” not “conformed by this world”, but “transformed by the renewal of their minds” that they may find God’s will for them, “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:12)

There is tremendous cynicism about youth today. Too many people launch too easily into tirades about “kids these days”. But you know what? If there is any basis for the cynicism, it’s our generation’s fault, not the teenagers’. It’s not 18 year olds who are responsible for high rates of marital infidelity, lack of commitment, corporate greed, political scandal, or sexual deviancy. 

IN fact, I believe that kids are naturally idealistic. But our society tells kids it’s impossible to lead a moral life, that it’s impossible to abstain from sex for example, and people who try to do so are either prudes or (worse) naïve, so practice sex safely. Television stations like MTV aren't created or produced by 18 year olds, but by 40-somethings—and there is something very sick about corrupting the natural idealism of youth in order to sell products for profit. 

So let this place be a shelter from such cynicism—in fact, let this place become an antidote to it! When kids enter our classrooms each day, may they see and FEEL the hope and FAITH we have in them--especially, our most troubled students! They are likely our most troublesome students because they have been least well cared for, and as a result, the ones who are least convinced that they are worthy of being loved or believed in. So much of their acting out is a test of US, to see if we can confirm in our reactions what he despairs about himself: that he is not worthy of love, that he feels little hope for his future. We cannot give in to despair for these kids! We must be, rather, people of the resurrection in their lives.

I once knew a teacher who by November had it up to here with a particular sophomore boy. To be blunt, this boy was really acting like a horses’ rear end, and to make matters worse, I think she taught him for two classes each day! But I remember her saying, deeply frustrated, almost in tears, “As much as I want to, I will NOT give in, I will NOT write him off. I will NOT become cynical about him. He WILL be better behaved eventually, and we WILL get along, but on my terms.” I remember being very edified by her toughness and attitude. I asked her, several months later, how things were going with him, and she said something like “Well, there is the occasional bad day, but we’re getting along pretty well now. He’s actually becoming a pleasant person, most of the time”. What made the difference? The teacher did--despite the boys' actions, she refused not to love him.

There’s a story about two shoe salesmen who were sent to the tribes of Africa to see if their company could begin opening up new revenue streams. The first shoe salesman emailed back: “No opportunity here—natives don’t wear shoes.” The second salesman wrote “Huge opportunity for us to expand our business—no one here owns any shoes yet.” Some times it’s a matter of perspective, and  we have to tackle our most troublesome kids as an opportunity to make the most difference. 

The real truth that we must never forget as Catholic educators is: LOVE is redemptive. If we bring Christ’s love to our students each day, even our most annoying, troubled student, Christ’s love can redeem them—and redeem us in the process. 

“Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)

2. Education is a moral endeavor, undertaken by a community of adults—

Schools have a tendency to measure success in terms of test scores, college scholarships, graduation rates, A.P. test performances. We do that too—97 AP Scholars, 10 National AP Scholars. Amazing results this year. Those are good things, and we’re right to be proud of them. 

But let these stats not obscure the true measure of our success—the Ockham’s razor by which our school should be judged a success or a failure is simply this: do we help children become the people God wants them to be? Our ultimate aim: cooperate with God’s grace to help them become these people. In so doing, we know they will be happy. 

This isn’t just a responsibility of the theology department, but of the entire community of adults: teachers, coaches, office staff, and parents. 

As Aristotle taught, people do not naturally or spontaneously grow up to be morally excellent or practically wise. They become so, if at all, only as the result of a lifelong personal and communal effort. 

So yes, it takes a village.

3. Parents are the primary educators. 

Now we have to be careful: I’ve heard this line used by teachers in this room as an excuse to get out of work: A kid hasn’t done his homework in 4 days. “Oh well, the parents are the primary educators…if they’re not going to do their job, how do they expect me to do mine”…. And then, you see, the teacher absolves himself from that kids’ failure. “Not my fault”.

In Catholic educational philosophy, parents ARE the primary educators, and we ASSIST parents in that role. In other words, we’re a team, and I think that means three very practical things for us:

  • First, we trust parents to make the right decisions for their kids 
  • Second, we try and foster good communication with parents—in both directions. On Back to School Night, you should give your school email address and voice mail number at school to every parent. Maybe even have a business card, and invite them to call you whenever they have concerns. You should similarly CALL THEM, not just for concerns, but for praise. Open lines of communication. Especially in the case of a kid doing poorly, we should do much more than take the contractual, minimalist position “Well, I informed you through the report cards and you never contacted me”. That’s simply unacceptable. 
  • Third, I think being on a team (and I think every married person in this room understands this) means forgiving and moving on. Parents aren’t going to always respond as they should. We have to forgive them for that, insist on a professional working relationship, not let it affect us the next time we should communicate with that person. We must remember that when we’re talking to parents about their child, we are treading in an area where parents are MOST vulnerable, and often, they don’t respond as they should. Let us tell the truth with love, forgive if responded to inappropriately, and always remember to put the needs of the child first.

4. We make no compromises, no excuses.

I think this is one of the great legacies of the sisters.

They had very little money, but they had grit and determination. These were well educated women, but they VERY poorly paid, no “benefits”, and they worked, by today’s standards, in deplorable working conditions. But as a group, they were most responsible from moving Catholic families out of the immigrant ghettos in this country and into the middle class suburbs.

I worked with a nun in my first few years as a principal in my previous school. She taught Chemistry to juniors and seniors and Introductory Physical Science to freshman for 42 years before she retired. But before teaching high school, she began as an elementary school teacher at the age of 19, without her degree, which she had to complete over 5 consecutive summers. Her first teaching assignment at age 19? 51 students in one classroom-- 25 first graders and 26 second graders—teaching simultaneously. And people have wondered why the sisters were “mean” ?

But those kids were WELL educated. The sisters didn’t complain about their working conditions, their salaries, how under-appreciated they were. No compromises, no excuses!

This is our legacy. The mission of this school comes before all else—before any of our needs, before any convenience—more important than winning games, test scores, college acceptance rates. We will try everything for a student to be successful, and we will NOT give in to the temptation to quickly write kids off because they’re not doing well.

All students in our classroom will learn. And if they aren’t learning, we will intervene,  first as teachers, then as the school itself. The mission of the school is first.

Sometimes teachers might wonder why we hang onto kids so long before asking them to withdraw. This is the reason. We are not rightful heirs to the legacy of the sisters unless we embrace this challenge directly.

In summary then, as Catholic school teachers, we believe that: 

All students are children of God; 
Education is a moral endeavor undertaken by the whole community; 
We are team-mates with parents; 
The mission comes first, no excuses, no compromises.

Have a great year!

No comments: