Posted in Autistic Identity, Catholic leadership, leadership

Being Myself: Autistic leadership in a Catholic environment

Sorry for the lack of update.  It’s a busy time of year for work.  Without revealing too much, I am a Catholic school principal and we are reinventing ourselves to be more inclusive and also more authentically Catholic.  We pray more, we love more, you know…the kind of school that, if you went religious, you’d want for your Neurodiverse kid because our goal is to help kids to find their true selves and be able to advocate for themselves wherever they go to school next.  The need is great where we are.  But yes, very busy this time of year.

I just had some news that frustrates me to no end.  The teacher I thought I could depend upon to stick with me this year has been wooed away by the public schools.  They can offer him the little things like pay commensurate with experience and, well, health insurance.  I’ve done the math on what I could make, going public, and it’s more than double than what I make now.  Unfortunately, I am Autistic, and I cannot play the “fitting in” games required in public schools.  I just don’t have the spoons for it.

Regardless, I do not blame him for leaving.  I was working on getting the teachers’ pay raised, then the insurance to follow (after all, when the pay is too low, you can’t afford the deduction and for now we have state aid and Obamacare), but I couldn’t get it in place yet.

But I was thinking about what I learned at my undergraduate institution, a Catholic women’s college, about life in Catholic education, and it holds just as well in K-8 as it does at the university.  In Catholic education, there are many kinds of people, but those who stand out, I’ll call heroes and villains.  Your heroes are different than in the public schools.  The heroes really do want you to succeed, and they cheer your successes and actively pray for you and help you to succeed.  I experienced some “heroes-lite” in public school environments, where they did reach out and try to help here and there, and even a few who went beyond, but they were so few and far between they were clearly the exception.  If anything, these were just the people who didn’t wish you any specific ill-will, but honestly couldn’t be bothered by and large.  The “highs” of the heroes in Catholic school environments cannot be overstated: they make it possible for me to lead, openly, as an Autistic.

It’s a humbling experience for someone like me who wants to do everything herself.  If I ask, so many people fall over themselves (practically) volunteering to help with this or that, especially those things I am not so great at or can do, but I just don’t have enough time to do if I’m going to do something else.

I have plenty of heroes where I am.  They support me, they pray for me, they tell me all the struggles we’re going through right now are part of God’s plan to make a better school: the school we desperately need and God knows this.  And if I do something absolutely weird or even have a melt-down, they tell me it’s okay.  They know what I’m good at, and what I am not so great at, and they find ways to support me so that we can build this new experience together without embarrassing me.  They protect me.

And thank God for these people.

Because, like in any environment, there are villains.  The villains don’t want you to succeed.  This is typical of most places, but unlike the villains of most places, these Catholic school villains actively work against you because they feel their faith justifies this action.  It’s clearly a twisted view of faith, particularly in our hierarchical religion where Father is the CEO.  Father wants us me to do all the things I am doing.  Therefore, it’s his right to make these changes.  We have the full support of our Diocese and even our Bishop, who usually has better things to worry about.

And yet they persist.

They will see this teacher leaving as a victory, a condemnation of me as a school leader.

“See?  This is what happens when you put an Autistic in charge.”

But I can only play the hand I’m dealt.  I’m not mad at him for leaving; he has many young children.  He is, however, a good guy who may be ground up by the mill that can be the public school teaching experience.  But for now, I can’t counter-offer.

And in the end, our school should be closed, but by the grace of God, and under the leadership of an amazing priest, it’s still open, and we have only a few short years to turn it around before, I fear, the money will run out.  We must change or we will perish.  The heroes know this.  The villains would rather see it fold than change, but they don’t simply take their toys and go home; they want to be here to watch it burn.  They want to light the torch.

Being an Autistic leader means that, if you’re out about who you are, you need to have a place, like mine, with many allies, but it also means you speak for all Autistics as a symbol, a token of what is to be an Autistic leader.  For me, the leadership is only possible because I am in a Catholic environment where my Autism is seen as God’s gift and my employees and colleagues just work around me and do what they do best, which complements me really well.  We are our authentic selves, and because we are, I know, in the end, everything will be just fine.

For now, though, it does make for a much more enormous job than I thought it would, mentoring a nearly completely new set of teachers, but my non-teaching staff is amazing, and they have helped me so much that I have to trust that it’ll be okay.  More than that, I’ve so far found a wonderful early career teacher to mentor…to break her from the public school mindset before it has a chance to “set” and mold her into the type of teacher many of us Neurodiverse folk would have wanted for ourselves.  Apparently, I get to find another.

And it will be okay.

It will.

This is part of God’s plan.


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