Posted in Advocacy, Catholic education, Catholic leadership, School governance, School Leadership, Teaching

That Principle is a Bitch: What I Believe About Education

So we’ve recently had some “scandal” in my school regarding how my priest and I colluded to ruin the school.

Keep in mind, we only had between 60 to 70 students in the last decade or better except for one spike at which we briefly went up to 90 and went right back down.

Also, Catholic schools that close almost always have over 100 students in them at the time.

Also that we have to run the school as the parish hall regardless so fewer students means fewer staff members so the difference between running the school with and without kids is financially negligible.  Because there are few of us.  If I have to hire more people, we get into the danger zone.  So we’re fine now, and actually BETTER on paper than when we had 60 kids.

But somehow Father and I destroyed everything.

One Protestant who pulled all her kids out is getting all her gossip from someone who is making things up in her head about what is happening.  It’s somewhat hilarious to see her calling me a bitch all over the place when we have never once spoken.


Oh, and she spells my job as principle, which is amusing to me.

So, in her honor, and in honor of all my naysayers, I figured I’d write about my beliefs of education, which are also, not surprisingly, the underlying principles of my school.

1. The Universe Was Created By God’s Unseen Hand, and Education is About Revealing His Work and Understanding How it Works and Probing How it Could Work Better

A lot of modern education ignores the possibility of God because we don’t want to offend the non-believers.  That’s fine in a secular school.  I’m a Catholic school, however, and so often Catholic schools today forget that they are Catholic.  We teach with an understanding that God created the universe and He wants us to figure out how He wanted it to run.  This means we study the sciences, like everyone else, and we also explore ethical issues from the lens of what God designed and intended.  If something doesn’t work, for example, like racism, we unpack it.  God never intended racism, so we need to work to eradicate it.  God didn’t intend us to pollute either, and so we need to work to stop it.

2. All Children Deserve an Opportunity to Learn

All teachers say this, but few really mean it.  When I say this, I mean that my job as a teacher or principal is to determine how God wired this child to learn best and what tools He gave us to help this student.  In this, we work together with the parents to figure out what’s not working (or what is working) and create a new plan.  This might mean bringing in yoga balls, or making sure students can walk around if they need to move to think.  This might mean not doing math at the same time as everyone else, but working on it later.  This might mean going to another teacher for instruction since the current teacher’s explanations don’t work for this student.  This may well mean breaking “rules” of education because many of those “rules” aren’t so much rules as “ideas that work for some children.”  If a child isn’t developing academically, we have to figure out why, and can never, ever cop out by talking about “home life” or other made-up reasons teachers use that are actually thinly-veiled racism, sexism, ableism, etc.

3. Privilege the Ones Society Disregards Over the “Chosen Ones”

My parish is bilingual (Spanish-English) in theory.  In practice, there are two groups: Spanish-speaking and English-speaking.  They do not mix, even if the Spanish-speakers don’t actually understand Spanish anymore.  My parish has a history of racism, both overt and covert.  I’ve spent the better part of this year working to change this, and, in so doing, have privileged my Spanish-speakers over my English-speakers.  Most Anglo parishioners have not minded this; they understand that we should have done a better job of working together, and they are thrilled that Latinos represent a growing group of Catholics.  They want the faith to continue in the next generation very, very badly.

And then there are the others.

Part of that “the principle is a bitch” comment had to do with how I spend all of my time working with Latinos and want to move the school toward them.

Of course I do!  They’re statistically where all the children are since the Anglos who have kids stopped coming to church!

But more than that, God has called us to be together.  Okay, the Bishop decided that we’d be the home of this ministry, but I believe God worked through the Bishop to decide that.

And for years, they said “well, we invited them, but they didn’t come.”

You didn’t invite.  You threw papers at them and left them alone.

Latinos don’t work that way.

In Mexico, private schools are for the powerful and wealthy.  Dioceses that have successful relationship with immigrant families know how to work with families to help them to understand that Catholic schools in the U.S. are (well, at least, outside of those weird elite schools the East Coast has) different.  So the people I’m talking about are not only Latino, but many are poor and since we no longer have automobile manufacturing jobs, they are less likely to get out of poverty than people who were here a few generations back.  We have rules in Catholic Social teaching that cover this stuff and I am very well supposed to privilege this group.

But it’s going to take time to build trust in the parish and trust that they belong in the school.

And the work will be worth it.  We need to be a bilingual, bicultural parish, not two parishes in one building.

If that means the wealthy Anglos who benefitted from the manufacturing operations that were once here take a back seat for a while, that’s what it means.

It’s just funny how most of our active parishioners understand that we do have to do this, and this is the right thing to do.  It’s just a small, grumbling group who never much goes to Mass anyway I’m fighting with.

4. Children and Teens need Overt Instruction on How to Play and Work Together

For some reason, schools like to do this thing where they make it very difficult for big and little kids to play together.  Sometimes it’s different recess times, sometimes it’s chasing kids away and encouraging them to play with kids in their own grades.  It’s tied into this notion that age-graded classrooms are a good idea.

This is all bunk, of course.

Just because you have a birthday does not mean you are, developmentally on par with all the kids your exact same chronological age.

Sometimes you’re more mature, sometimes less, and sometimes you’re more mature in some ways (think Autistics that are little professors and can have whole conversations with the teacher) and not others (these little professors who can’t talk to their peers).

Instead, it’s better to let kids and tweens play together.  The older children mentor the younger children in this way and the child who is on par with kids of his or her own age is not singled out since it’s now easier to find appropriate playmates.

It’s not automatic, though.

A hundred years or better ago, sure, it was automatic.  Families were larger, so inevitably people had brothers and sisters around.  Adults would socialize on Sundays or Saturdays, and leave the kids to go out and play together so they’d do all those elaborate playground games or play baseball together.

A lot of that went by the wayside as age-graded classrooms and staggered recesses worked hand-in-hand with small families to create a new world where kids grow up quite quickly and have no idea how to play with each other.

In our one-room schoolhouse, big kids play with littles.  The littles ask big kids for help when they need it, and the big kids don’t complain (they complain if we ask sometimes, but not the kids).  One student has started to use the internet to research games to play and gym class has become a one-room schoolhouse of the late 1800’s with capture-the-flag type games suddenly making a resurgence.

We had to create the atmosphere for this and overtly teach some skills, but we have seen great progress in this area and the kids seem so much happier than children I’ve seen at other schools who stand around a lot at recess.  My student who used to read all recess will happily join these gym games since they are much more fun than unstructured time, and then she can read (or not) at recess if she wants to, so she gets both activity and time to be by herself if she wants it.

5. People Need Choices and to Play to their Strengths

By default, we do what we are best at, and increasingly workplaces expect us to do this, too.

I’m good at brainstorming solutions and seeing patterns in places neurotypicals do not.

I’m horrible at phone calls unless I can prepare for them, and will drop the ball if I have too many detail-like steps involved.

So, I have staff members who are better at detail-work (my aide is phenomenal at detail workand can make phone calls without stress helping me out.

I also have a student who is developmentally and chronologically “an island” in that he is nearly ready for high school, but the highest developmental age of my one-room is currently fifth-grade (approximately).  That’s true fifth-grade, by the way, not “overly mature” fifth-grade, what you’ll see in public schools, where they’re already “dating” each other.  My kids are still very little.

At any rate, this student prefers to stay in the office with us, except at gym and when the school walks to the library, then he goes with them, and because he is closer developmentally to an adult than a fifth-grader, I let him.  He’s been quite helpful, since he can let people in if we step out of the office a moment, or help with office tasks when he’s done with his work.  In exchange, he gets some quieter workspace which helps him.  I teach him when he needs help, but he’s gotten strong enough that he can actually teach himself most things, except math, and asks questions when he needs it.  This placement has improved the speed with which he grasps mathematical concepts compared to last year, and he’s tackling complex grammar he wouldn’t have touched before.

He doesn’t like math or grammar, but he can do better at it.

I’ve found that, by giving him the space that works for him, he’s quite willing to do, even unpleasant tasks, and does them as well as he can (and asks for help when he needs it).  He will be an excellent employee someday, and he’ll be able to know what kind of space works for him so that he can pursue jobs with similar atmospheres.  But my goal was not to teach him job skills or even math.  My goal was to teach him to understand the love of Jesus (even if he fights it, teen that he is) and also to know that he is worthy of that love, and also that he can trust adults around him to listen to his stated needs, and to try to understand his unstated needs.

I find if I focus on love-of-Christ and love-of-student, the rest slides into place: job-readiness, test score improvement, and even the seemingly-so-important socialization part comes into play.

But if I had infantilized him and sent him to the classroom, he would have drifted into himself and not developed so far.  If I tried to do everything, even the things I’m bad at, we’d be in worse shape than we are now.

See, if we work on our strengths, first, those things we are weaker at, we can either find help to do, or we can find the peace inside ourselves to be able to handle things that are hard.  School can be chaos; the more we treat each person in the building like a name with individual hopes, fears, and dreams, the better we are.

That is what I believe in, and honestly, those who are inside the space of the school, are happy.  Those on the outside looking in, simply do not understand what we’re doing, and I will bet anything that their children would be happier inside this place than anywhere else because they would know love, love of Christ, love of neighbor, and love of self.

That’s really what I try to teach here, and if they’d prefer to go back to the façade we had before, I’d rather close than let that happen.  They can find teachers who belittle their feelings, and colleagues who give them meaningless tasks anywhere.  Here, we value each other for who we are.

I pray someday that they see the value in their own children that I see in them, even though they no longer attend this school.  I pray that their students find teachers like me and my one-room teacher, who truly love who they really are, and try to help them to become the people God intended for them to be.

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