Back to the Future

So now I return to my former school, and coincidentally, to my exact same position as when I left. I am familiar, but I am changed.

 back to the future

by Sara Janecko Milone.

It’s Monday morning and I’m driving to work on familiar roads. I look around and glance at the houses that line the commute, taking note how they have been updated over the past two years. It’s all so familiar, and yet it has changed.

I am familiar with the school, the position, the ministry. But yet, like the houses that line my commute, I have changed. I am returning to a position at the school in which I taught and ministered for seven years, but have been away for two years to stay home with my young family.

These past two years have afforded me the opportunity to be present at home with my daughters and enjoy the little moments as well as the big milestones. Beyond family life, these two years enabled me to try new things, to stretch myself in my ministry and to explore new ways to respond to God’s call in my life. Spiritual direction, hospital chaplaincy and online class facilitation have inspired new personal and professional growth, and have deepened my relationship with God. I know I will be a better teacher, minister, mother, and human being because of how these experiences have shaped me.

So now I return to my former school, and coincidentally, to my exact same position as when I left. I am familiar, but I am changed. I know the mission, I know my colleagues, I know the routine, and yet the students do not know me. My former students have all graduated. From perspective of the current students, I am a brand new teacher with no baggage, history or reputation. I have the unique opportunity to have a fresh start, to reinvent myself and my teaching. How many times do you have the opportunity for a second chance, a completely fresh start?

The courses may be familiar, but my philosophy of religious education has shifted and evolved. In my first tenure at the school, I had just graduated with my Masters in Divinity. I was intent on convincing the students to view Religion as an equally important and rigorous class as their other academic subjects. After all, people spent years studying theology in higher education.

My experiences during the past two years have prompted me to reflect on the primacy of cultivating relationships with self, others and God in the ministry of religious education. While imparting the content of our faith to my students is certainly important, my main purpose as a religious educator is to form disciples in the faith. This paradigm shift has energized me and inspired creativity with how I want to teach my classes and minister to my students. I’m grateful for the grace of a fresh start: to honor the familiar and embrace the change.

Sara Janecko Milone

Sara Janecko Milone is the Director of Campus Ministry and religion teacher at an all girls high school in Newton, MA.

Why I Left

So I made up my mind. . . that this had to be my last year there.

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by Anonymous

When I was about 10, my family went to a church picnic after mass one summer morning.  While there, the pastor came over to my three teenage brothers and I, and with great exuberance, asked, “Would you like to travel the world, meet amazing people, and serve God?” My older brothers, knowing where this was going, shuffled their feet, stared at their shoes and mumbled into their collars.  But I excitedly answered, “I want to do that!” To which this pastor responded, in a kind but disappointed voice, “I’m sorry, but you can’t do that.”

I think I’ve spent the majority of my life trying to prove this pastor wrong.  I studied hard, got theological degrees, and followed my vocation to teach high school theology and work in campus ministry.  I did this for many years, certain that this was God’s will for my life.  And I was good at it, even receiving the highest award in Catholic education given in the archdiocese in which I live.

However, in the last few years of my job, there was a change of leadership.  The lay person that hired me became a friend and mentor who I trusted implicitly.  Though he still held a leadership role in the school, a member of the religious order that “technically” ran the school (in basic ceremonial roles for the majority of my tenure) was given top billing.  This priest was familiar with my work, as he and I had been interacting for a few years.  But with his new leadership role, he took to micromanaging my job.

Bit by bit, he began to tear down my confidence: second guessing my choices, double checking my details, and generally causing me to go down the rabbit hole of self-doubt.  Like any good manipulator, his tactics worked.  I began to slip and make errors I had never made. I started to doubt my own abilities, never realizing why I was doing what I was doing. I was convinced that I was losing my touch and getting too old for my job.

It just took one moment to see everything with clarity; the moment he spoke to me in that demeaning way he spoke to our teenage students.  He reprimanded me for a comment I made among colleagues; a comment that I had made 3 months prior, at the end of the previous school year.  It was not a comment that I regret making, for I spoke a truth about our Church.  He then felt entitled to follow his reprimand with a personal attack that went right to the heart of everything I believe about myself.  In that moment, I was that 10 year old girl, being told that I couldn’t serve God.

So I made up my mind that day–at the very beginning of a new school year–that this had to be my last year there.  I knew I could never go to another school; I had too much love and devotion for my principal to do that.

In the #metoo movement, I have nothing dramatic to claim: just a few clerics thinking that they are inherently smarter, infinitely more worthy of authority, perhaps even more deserving of God’s grace and love than me.  In light of the most recent Church scandals, this is what terrifies me the most about the priesthood, and the future of the Church.  Until the church hierarchy can acknowledge that its seminaries helped to form this,  we’ll continue to perpetuate the formation of a group of people who see themselves as other, as better, and who treat women (not to mention anyone other than priests) as less-than.  Though I don’t know any women who have had dramatic experiences of sexual abuse by a priest, I know far too many who have been treated as utterly and completely inferior.  The damage done by the choices of a few priests who have done unspeakable actions has caused grave harm to the Church, but I wonder daily about the lesser harms, like those that happened to me and too many other women.
By the grace of God, a new ministerial job fell into my lap.  I left a job where I had been for the entirety of my adult life; a job that I had poured my heart and soul into as I felt that I was living out my vocation.  Even though I knew that the Lord had opened new doors for me, leaving was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.   I’m still working for the Church, but in a different role (and not for a school).  And I’m still trying to find, heal, and re-inspire that little girl who had always felt like God had a plan for her.

The author worked in Catholic high school for nearly two decades and is now engaged in a parish faith formation ministry. She would like to return to high school education someday.

The Growing Season

Gardening mirrors educating in that both are labors of love.

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Kevin DeCusatis

The month of August is coming to an end, I’ve begun writing numerous lists of what needs to be done before the school year begins next week. As my third year of teaching approaches, there is one particularly daunting task that awaits me: moving my many plants back into their home, my classroom.

I have always felt a connection with plants, and one of my fondest memories of childhood is cutting back the hostas with my mom at the beginning of fall. Anyone that knows me is well acquainted with my love of plants and desire to have as many as can fit in my house and classroom. I consistently post pictures of my garden’s progress on social media, and whenever I get a new houseplant from a Farmers Market, IKEA, or a school event, I take a survey of my classes to see what we should name the plants: Ruth for my golden pothos, Naomi for a hydrangea, Cain & Abel for plants in twin pots.

Plants and gardening are so attractive to me because they give me a sense of immense satisfaction. I can see the progress almost immediately. My seedlings can double in size in a week’s time and their fruit can emerge in a blink of an eye. It’s apparent to me why I gravitate toward gardening so much – it mirrors ministry.

In order for both students and plants to thrive, I need to give them my attention and provide an environment conducive to growth. Integral to this is having a healthy and realistic set of expectations; if I don’t, they’ll eventually spoil. As an educator, I have very high expectations of the quality of work my students will provide me; however, it would be unrealistic to expect this at the beginning of the year. I first need to give them all the tools to succeed, and then I can expect that they will work to their potential. The same happens when I have a plant that has outgrown its pot and I have to use a bigger, wider pot. While it looks so overwhelmed by the new soil and pot, it eventually settles in and begins to grow – robustly and quickly. It is a learned skill to know when to push to the next level: are my students ready for the next level of inquiry? will my plant acclimate to its new home? Along the way, I need to take stock to see what they need – does my plant need extra water this week due to excessive heat? Does my student need extra support crafting an argument for a paper because she is struggling with a new concept?

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Gardening also mirrors educating in that both are labors of love. In my classroom, I spend much time checking in with my students about their lives; students have often commented that my classroom has a good “vibe.” Many even cite things that happen in my class as their favorite moments of their year: our ritual of singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” before every class during Advent; our thank you card writing exercise during Thanksgiving; opening class with a song or video clip of their choice.  The raison d’etre for these activities is for me to get to know my students better and create an atmosphere in which they feel comfortable leaning into who they really are and who they want to become. I approach gardening in a similar way. I “listen” to my plants: if their leaves look droopy, I add water; if they look cramped, I try to a new pot; if they haven’t grown, I try different levels of sun. In order for me to be so skilled at this, I need to take the time to know my plants; this is not automatic knowledge.

veggies

Both students and plants are living and organic. They need to be nurtured to grow; they’re complex with varying needs. I approach my classroom and garden with the same amount of care and attention, knowing that they are both on a path of growth where hopefully they will eventually flower and bring forth their gifts.  I take delight in accompanying them both on their journeys.

Decusatis

Kevin DeCusatis teaches 7th grade and sophomore religion outside of Philadelphia.

THAT IS Being Catholic

What if every member of the school community looked at the goodness of their work as living out the school’s Catholic Identity?

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by Julie Dienno-Demarest

We are called to evangelize through witness (living out our faith) and sharing (explicitly spreading the Good News).  So often our instinct is to examine what else we can do. We focus on the call to conversion and re-evangelizing our colleagues through Faculty Faith Formation. We also have a tremendous opportunity to engage in the “new evangelization” to colleagues who have become distant from the faith by simply naming the ways in which we are already living God’s love in our life, work, and ministry.

Yet there are familiar ways by which evangelization happens: by the way we live God’s love in our daily life; by the love, example, and support people give each other…in the care we show to those most in need; and in the ways we go about our work. (Go and Make Disciples, 35)

Too often, the Catholic Identity of our schools is (mis)understood too narrowly by those who work with us. Our non-Catholic faculty and staff tend to see Catholic Identity as coming from the concrete experiences of morning prayer, retreats, liturgies, and catechesis from the Campus Ministry and the Theology Departments.  While those encounters are certainly essential, too many adults in the building compartmentalize our Catholicity as existing solely within these sources.

In reality, as professional religious educators, we know that this is simply not the case.  In reality, so many of our colleagues have been drawn to our schools because we live out this Catholic Identity in our way of being with one another and our students.  Put another way, our colleagues have an implicit knowledge of our schools’ Catholicity; we need to do a better job of explicitly naming what we implicitly know as true.

A caring school community is being Catholic (Acts 2:42).  Placing a student’s well-being ahead of academic expectations is being Catholic (Jn 15:12).  Coaches who prioritize sportsmanship and the well-being of their athletes above winning is being Catholic (Prov 24:17-18; Phil 2:3).  Teaching with mutual respect is being Catholic (CCC 1930).

What would happen if we respectfully invited our colleagues to recognize that their natural way of being in and contributions to our schools is being Catholic?  How might affirming that all goodness comes from God (James 1:17, CCC 843) foster a shared sense of accomplishing Catholic Identity?  Imagine if every faculty meeting began with a few minutes of specifically affirming the goodness and excellence that we see in the work of our colleagues and explicitly connecting those actions with the Catholicity of the school.

It is the responsibility of every member of the faculty and staff to support the vision and mission of the school.  Supporting the school’s vision and mission isn’t asking faculty and staff to be all things to all people, but it does require that we support one another as one body (1 Cor 12:20).  For example, what if our invitation to support Campus Ministry was rephrased as: “Would you rather assist student retreats by being personally present or by enthusiastically substituting for those colleagues who will be personally present”?

What if every member of the school community looked at the goodness of their work as living out the school’s Catholic Identity?

Julie Dienno-Demarest is a professional religious educator living in Houston, TX. She has previously served as a high school teacher and campus minister and was a contributing author and editor for a high school textbook series.

Sometimes It Just Sucks

Sometimes teaching RE does suck. but Teilhard de Chardin prayed “Trust in the slow work of God.”

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Dale Clarke

“Can we have a lesson in the chapel?” This comes from Martin as I walk into my Year 9 Religious Education classroom (“Ninth Grade” – please excuse my Australian terminology). Martin has his schoolbag on one shoulder and a chip on the other. After five periods of English, Math, History and so on, he’s not in the mood for class. I do my best to fend off Martin’s question with some humour.

“A lesson in the chapel? I think maybe you just want to lie on the pews again.”

Marc tries a different tact.

“Can we take special intentions for prayer?”

“Yes, we’ll have three special intentions.” Yesterday’s prayer to start the lesson had descended into a filibustering to block any beginning of formal lesson time. I am onto them.

Marc’s not happy: “Only three? What – doesn’t God care about our prayers?”

“Yes, I’m sure he does – more than me anyway.” My response comes with a fading dose of jest. I can feel the boys’ resistance to my lesson starting to wear down my defence. My sarcasm is setting in.

Ernie walks in and doesn’t beat around the bush: “I hate RE.”

The above scenario involves only a little bit of creative embellishment, but represents the deflating battlefield that teaching Religion can sometimes be.

 

At the start of the year, I had great difficulty with my Year 9 class. There were a handful of students who seemed to be disruptive, and it was affecting many other class members, to the point where the culture in the classroom was not one conducive to class discussion, or productive work, or, well, teacher happiness! The silver lining of this situation, I thought, was that I would have something worthwhile and inspiring to write about for my blog entry, once I was able to turn the boys around. At this point you might be scrolling down to find the answer for how I turned this difficult class around. Well, keep scrolling – maybe there’s something useful in the comments!

As of “press time”, my Year 9 class is still a struggle. There are certainly breakthroughs. One of my more challenging students, Xavier – “I’m not doing this, it’s stupid” – is often the one who asks the most insightful or provocative questions (often out of turn): “Wasn’t Jesus a Jew? Wouldn’t they have thought of themselves as Jews then?” Yes, Xavier! Great question. Probably. What do you think? These discussions, prompted by genuine questions from the mouths of my students, are what I am for in teaching Religion. As a Jesuit educator, I strive to be a guide, an informed companion, rather than merely an instructor.

But as many Religion or Theology teachers discover, sometimes it just sucks. It’s hard. One of my attempts to spark involvement in my uninterested class was to take a nature walk – move in groups of three towards the school’s gardens, with two questions to discuss on the way. When you get there, be ready to share your ideas with the class. I had even allocated the small groups, so as to avoid troublesome combinations.

As I carried up the rear of the walking groups, I noticed two boys had taken a detour ­– Xavier and Martin, two of the very boys I had tried to separate. “We just wanted to go over to the statue to pray.” Where’s that eye-rolling emoji when you need it?

So amid classroom discussions falling flat, students disengaging, and occasional displays of dissent towards Catholic education, what works for me?

  • With my lovely Year 9s, role play or creating skits has worked well, particularly when it is to begin a lesson on scripture. I provide a scene, sometimes with a modern twist like “it’s set on George St, Sydney,” and they go to work preparing and then performing the scene in groups of four or five.
  • Bringing in the issues of the day – recently there was a crisis within the Australian Cricket Team and allegations of ball tampering. Think “Deflategate”, but imagine everyone in the country was a Tom Brady fan, and that the guilt was admitted in a series of teary press conferences. This fed into a fruitful discussion of Christian ethics, the Beatitudes, and sin.
  • Choosing to love. Maybe the hardest one. Sometimes it takes a while to warm to a class. But by deliberately taking small steps like welcoming each student to class as they arrive and saying goodbye as they leave, both parties are humanised.  They see me as a person, and I remember that they are lovable students often with a lot of baggage that they are bringing to school each day.

Perhaps most significantly, as Lauren Bjork pointed out in an earlier post on this blog, what works is to lean on our colleagues. It’s helpful to hear “Oh, I teach that group, yeah they are a difficult group”, and it’s even more helpful to hear what is working well for that teacher. What works in one context won’t work in another (as I discovered when I went from teaching all-boys in Sydney to teaching all-girls in Los Angeles!), so it makes sense to tap into the minds of those sharing our workspace.

So I didn’t find the answer for how to turn it around. It is my hope to have provided a sense of solidarity if you too have had the energy sucked from you from time to time by an “I hate RE” or an “RE sucks” sentiment. Sometimes teaching RE does suck, but Teilhard de Chardin prayed “Trust in the slow work of God.” And I believe that is always happening – for students, and teachers too as we learn, grow, and hone our craft.

 

*Names of students have been changed to protect anonymity. Then in a moment of frustration after a lesson, they were changed back to real names. Then they were altered again.


Dale Clarke teaches Religious Education (9th, 10th, 11th grade) and English (10th and 12th grade) at Saint Ignatius College, an all-boys high school in Sydney, Australia. 

Student Leadership

How do we make room for dissonance and dissent within a school . . .

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Student Leadership: Meaning What We Say

Anonymous

If you look at the mission statement of almost every Catholic school, you’ll see that somewhere the word leadership is mentioned. Most schools aim to inspire leadership among their students, or they say they do. This year I’ve been prompted time and again to reflect upon what we mean when we say we want our students to be leaders. It’s not enough to put it in the mission statement. It’s not enough to tell the students they are leaders. It’s not enough to teach them the skills that lend themselves to leadership. It’s not enough if we’re not willing to listen and respect them when they try to lead.

This year, more than other years I’ve taught, has been marked by a number of students with strong moral convictions hoping to make our school a better place. I love that about them. I have the privilege of working with our student government officers. They have been at the forefront of the attempts to make change at our school. However, many of their attempts to voice their opinions and make real change have been met with indifference and resistance from the administrative body at our school. From trying to start a support group for LGBTQ students, to participating in the student walkouts across the nation, to organizing a fundraiser for cancer research, the students were denied an opportunity to lead. I think it’s fair to say that students hear their fair share of the word “no” throughout their time in school and many times the reasons behind that “no” are solid. However, in a number of cases this year it wasn’t just that students were told no, it’s that they were denied any sort of real meaningful dialogue about issues that meant a lot to them.

“We say we care about community here, but we don’t. I’ve been awarded for my leadership skills and it’s a lie….They only want me to be a leader when my opinion matches theirs.” These were the remarks of a student just days away from graduating. It broke my heart to see her so disappointed and disillusioned when I’d watched her work so hard for causes she really believed in all year. She had been elected by her peers and had been given awards for her leadership by administration, but was not being treated like one. It made me think about the leadership awards and societies that we nominate students for. Are we nominating people who show true leadership amongst their peers, or people who are polite and follow the rules?

As an educator who comes to work for the students, but whose livelihood depends on the school, I’ve felt like I was between a rock and a hard place this year. What is a teacher’s role when there is a conflict between students and administration? When students come in sad and discouraged, how can I support them in a meaningful way? In a number of instances, students contemplated breaking a rule that was set in order to demonstrate how much a particular issue meant to them. It seems counterintuitive to encourage them to practice civil disobedience against the very people who employ me, but it feels disingenuous to tell them to let it go. I suppose some people might say that if it’s a private school, students don’t have to be there and could choose to leave if they are unhappy, however that could certainly not be called community.

How do we make room for dissonance and dissent within a school that promotes one unified student body?  How do I teach students to meet a response of “no” with respectful resolve to try again? In many ways this is an issue that extends beyond our schools and into society.  As an educator I feel called to listen and to help, but feel like my hands are tied by an administrative body that does not practice what it preaches. I’m not sure that I’ve found a way to navigate this issue yet, but it seems to me like we all need to get more serious about promoting leadership within our school communities or stop using the word if we aren’t prepared to support it.

The author teaches in a high school in Massachusetts.

Bullying

Bullying is a topic that has been weighing heavily on my heart.

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by Erin DaCosta

Bullying is a topic that has been weighing heavily on my heart.  The thought of one of my students being hurt, either physically or emotionally, is heartbreaking.  I want my students to feel safe each and every day.

What happens if you know bullying is occurring, but you never witness it firsthand?  What happens if you overhear an incident, but no student is willing to discuss what happened?  What happens if the fear of being a “snitch” is so heightened that a student is not willing to disclose what is happening to them?

These are the questions I’ve been struggling with.  Students have come to me this year to discuss issues of bullying they have witnessed in their community.  They are worried about their peers, and they want to help.  Yet they sometimes do not want to share what happened.  Students are willing to say, “It’s bullying,” but they are not willing to share more specific details.  Students have also shared their own experiences of bullying, but often refuse to name other students as the perpetrators, out of fear of being a “snitch” and ultimately becoming more outcast as a result.

Students have come to me in tears, sharing details of their days.  They have written in their journals about incidents of bullying.  I have overheard conversations that seem alarming.  All of these incidents are reported to the Guidance Department, and guidance does their best to resolve these issues, but students are not willing to talk authentically about what is going on their community.  They are fearful, and confused.  And more often than not, the bullied find themselves on the other side of the fence days, weeks, or months later, and they are so relieved to be out of the spotlight that they don’t dare stand up for the bully’s latest victim.

I want to help these students.  I truly do. But more often than not, I feel as if I have failed them.  Educators can offer a listening ear, and pass these issues on to appropriate authorities.  But is this enough?

Every time a student shares an incident of bullying with me, my mind inevitably flashes to Episode 13 of the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why.  This series follows high school student, Hannah Baker’s, suicide, and each episode highlights one of thirteen cassette tapes she recorded before taking her life.  Each of the cassettes are addressed to one person who played a role in her death, and in each she explains why their actions (or lack thereof) contributed to her decision to end her own life.

In episode thirteen, we learn that Hannah Baker’s thirteenth tape is for her guidance counselor, Mr. Porter.  Over the course of the episode, Hannah shares that Mr. Porter’s lack of action left her feeling hopeless.  In her eyes, he didn’t do enough.  This episode haunts me.  Am I Mr. Porter to my students?  Do I do enough to help them feel supported and loved, particularly in instances of bullying?

How do we, as educators, show that we care so deeply about students, particularly when they are being bullied?  How do we show them that we are so much more than Mr. Porter?  How do we build a community of trust, where students can name their bullies without fear of retaliation?

Sadly, I have no answers, only the fear that what we’re currently doing is not enough.

Erin DaCosta teaches theology to sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Mount Alvernia High School in Newton, MA.  Previously, she served as a campus minister in a co-ed environment.