August marks the beginning of a new school year, and it's also a time we think about first principles. Here's my take on the foundational principles of a Catholic high, excerpted from our faculty handbook at St. Michael Catholic High School:
Students are “children of God” and “temples of the Holy Spirit,” which should fill us with optimism in who they are and what they are capable of achieving. Our culture is extraordinarily pessimistic about youth, telling them they're incapable of virtue ("safe sex"), incapable of scholarship (inflated grades) or handling the idea that some are more athletically talented (so everyone gets a trophy). And the worst part about this messaging is they begin to believe these things about themselves. We must be the opposite, challenging students to yearn for more. Our aim is to form great hearts and minds so that students will do great things for others! As such, we should ask our students to “stretch,” even while providing the practical and emotional support to do so.
Our faith is the lens through which all else is focused. The “Catholic” emphasis of the school is much more than religion classes. Rather, faith is the unifying principle that brings synthesis to the fragments of a busy teenager’s life, giving it purpose, direction and meaning. We will have weekly Mass on Wednesdays, an explicit witness to our school’s self-identity. But if we build the culture here correctly, the Catholic ethos of the school will be so implicit, so natural, that in many ways it will often be un-noticed by our faculty and staff, almost like the oxygen we breath each day. Even so, where appropriate, we should be willing to make explicit what may often be felt implicitly.
Parents are the primary educators. Our job, as teachers, is to assist parents in their primary role. To do so, we must communicate well with each other, both in formal and informal settings, and in both directions. We should work very hard to develop a sense of “we” with parents and learn their first names—not simply “Johnny’s father.” We should trust parents, and ask them to trust us. In an increasingly divided, distrustful society, this takes work on both sides!
We believe in a “Renaissance vision” of the human person and believe that teenagers thrive when they are asked to develop all facets of their personality—spiritual, academic, athletic, and artistic. Accordingly, we are a “both-and” school, committed to building a culture that discourages students from becoming “specialists”: scholars, but not musicians, musicians, but not athletes, etc. High school should be a time when many doors are opened for students and they are invited to walk through those doors and experience new things. The time for choosing a profession and shutting doors is later. We want scholar-athletes! Scholar-musicians! Warrior poets! Scholar saints! We must flexible with each other as teachers, coaches and music directors to minimize their conflicting commitments so as to promote this vision!
Order is essential for a school, and rules and lines of authority are essential. However, our normal day to day interactions with students and with each other should be human ones, governed by relationships. For sure, where those relationships are not respected, rules and authority should be invoked to insist on order. But these are exceptions, not the principal way we interrelate with each other.
“Order” does not equal “uniformity.” Within the broad outlines of our policies and procedures, teenagers need breathing room, and we should allow room when we can. The saying attributed to Augustine is appropriate: “In essential matters, unity. In non-essential matters, liberty. In all things, charity.” We want to build a school where students are treated as individuals, not as part of a template, and where they can find their unique “voice”, even while they also learn to accept their responsibilities and obligations as part of a community.