Student Leadership

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

leadership

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.

Honoring Ourselves: A Different Kind of Discipline

An honor code makes a strong claim about the dignity of our students.

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Kevin Decusatis

When I was a student, even the best-mannered kid lived in fear of receiving an all-too-common reprimand – Justice Under God, or more affectionately known as JUG.  A student would receive JUG’s for a variety of reasons ranging from being out of uniform to being disrespectful to a teacher or another student to arriving late to school or class – basically anything that didn’t jive with the rules.  This form of discipline is prescriptivist and very “letter of the law.”  After living and learning in an environment such as this for four years, my relationship with rules and laws was rife with angst and disdain. Given an option between a good and bad choice, it seemed that I was expected to make the bad one. I emerged from high school with a moral decision making process that first looked at the results of my actions rather than whether the actions themselves were just.

A Change of Heart

My perspective on discipline has since shifted in a very healthy and life giving way as a result of two experiences.  The first is taking a course with Hosffman Ospino in which we learned about Don Bosco and his philosophy on discipline.  While he would not advocate a free pass for anyone, Don Bosco worked tirelessly to institute a system of discipline in which bad, incorrect, or harmful choices were met with love and conversation in place of vengeance and lex talionis.  If you were late to school or stole something from the bread line or cheated off of a classmate or disrespected a peer/teacher, it was not assumed that you were acting in spite or defiance; rather it was assumed that there was something more insidious happening in your life and you needed to process it.  This course has been monumental in how I approach discipline because it demonstrated to me that discipline can be founded in love and not fear.

The second experience that cemented my philosophy on discipline is my work at a school with an Honor Code.  I currently teach at an all girl school academy where there are no detentions, no demerits, no infractions, and no JUG’s.  Instead, we have an Honor Code.  Our Honor Code, which emerged mid-century, is a product of dialogue between students and faculty members.  The Honor Code presumes an intense level of trust between the student and adult.  I cannot tell you the number of times I have given a student a test to take in the library by herself or when I’ve left my classroom to make copies while assessments are out.  It’s an unspoken bond that our students will live by their Honor so we can afford them such luxuries.  In fact, whenever asked what is their favorite thing about school, it is guaranteed that more than a handful will rattle off the Honor Code, or some iteration of it.

The Honor Code Where I Teach

The Honor code strives to create an open environment in which we gift responsible freedom to our students so that they can implement and live out Christian values in their lives.  It aims to develop the whole person and roots itself in integrity and respect for all.  It prioritizes accountability for one’s actions (staff and students like), and it requires that you develop the skill of self-discipline.  As a result, each member of the community cultivates a self-awareness, especially in regard to how their actions affect the community.

While I am a personal advocate for an Honor Code, there are some shortcomings.  In my estimation, I would say that the Honor Code is effective about 85% of the time.  For the most part, our students treat teachers with the utmost respect, greet each other with kind words, and actively love each other and the members of the community.  At the same time, though, kids still make racially charged remarks and commit microaggressions against our few students of color; bullying is rampant in the middle school; the use of alcohol, tobaccos products, and other drugs is still a concern.  However, I think anyone would be hard pressed to find a place where none of these issues existed when you are dealing with 12 to 18 year old humans.  While the Honor Code holds our students to a high standard, it also recognizes that they are still teenagers, and with being teenagers comes some stupid choices.

Theology Supporting an Honor Code

An Honor Code system of discipline makes a strong anthropological claim about the dignity of our students.  It assumes their inherent goodness and reaffirms that they are made imago dei.  It also assumes that they are capable of conversion – when a student breaks the honor code, there is a dialogue between student and adult; we remind her of her goodness and push her to act in accordance with it.

In place of rooting discipline in fear, anger, and negativity, we root it in trust and relationship. We wish to accompany our students as they grow and learn.  Wedding discipline to fear and “justice under God” makes some anthropological statements about me and my actions: I am bad, I am ugly, I am unworthy. In my opinion, a discipline system rooted in fear can lend itself to a self-fulfilling prophecy.  “I’m having a really bad day and I really don’t like this kid so instead of working through my beef with him, I am going to hit him and curse at him.” In this “JUG” mentality, there is a calculated risk – do something bad, you know the consequence.

An honor code is much scarier: you will be pushed to live by your honor and forced to humanize others.  You are called to act justly, regardless of how others are going to; there is no control for others’ behavior.  Using an honor code humbles the student – as she is not in control – and also introduces shame and guilt.  I feel ashamed that I broke the honor code because I disappointed a teacher, a coach, an administrator, and what’s worse – I broke their trust; I feel ashamed because I acted in a way that was contrary to my inherent goodness and the goodness of others; I feel ashamed because I could have acted more maturely and more justly, but instead my relationships suffered.  To me, the Honor Code closely mirrors the sacrament of reconciliation.  With the Honor Code we are confronted by our previous actions and are cajoled into repairing the brokenness we’ve caused.

The Honor Code is so appealing to me because it presumes our human nature – it asks us to to live the spirit of the law to the best of our abilities, knowing that at times we will stumble.  But the key thing here is that while God gave us freedom and humans subsequently have fallen and endured the consequences, God will always proffer the grace to try to learn from our past mistakes and grow from them.  It is this cycle of free will established in Genesis that gives me hope when disciplining my students.  The Honor Code presupposes that students will falter – no one is perfect.  But the Honor Code also presumes that the student will grow from her mistakes and thrive.  Each student, then, is not the sum of her actions, but rather how she grows from them.

Decusatis

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

Making Our Schools Safe from Gun Violence

A Catholic high school educator reflects on reversing the pattern of gun violence in our schools.

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Lauren E Bjork

I remember very clearly where I was and what I was doing when the first school shooting, that I had ever heard of, took place. It was 1999, and I was in middle school. I found myself horrified by the way that half-way across the country tragedy had found its way to high school students in Columbine, CO. It seemed unimaginable. How could this happen? It was such impossible violence in a place that ‘should’ be safe that it just could not be.

In 2012, in the days that followed the horrific shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, the world mourned the loss of 27 members of the Sandy Hook Elementary community. Fr. James Martin, S.J. wrote an article for America magazine shortly after the Sandy Hook tragedy in which he identified that gun violence in our schools is, ultimately,  a pro-life issue. Our country continues to experience devastating gun violence in schools.  We have come to a place where a response of action is necessary in the wake of such offenses to the value of human life.

While individuals may disagree on how to solve the problem of violence in schools, one thing we can agree on is that children should be able to go to school in a safe environment, free from fear that violence may come knocking on the classroom door. We have become a culture where our children are desensitized to violence and hatred. Our children deserve better. Our children deserve to be able to go to school and not have to worry about active shooters, bomb threats, and lock downs.

So, how do we as Catholic educators respond to this crisis of life and love in our communities?

I’d like to propose some ideas for practical ways in which this issue might be addressed. First, what do we in U.S. schools need to do to promote safety in the classroom? I think our country needs to think about a twofold approach to a solution:

  1. Immediate: We need to keep our children safe at school. We need to prevent children from accessing firearms. We need to overcome our differences of politics and opinion, so that we can truly put the needs of our children’s safety first.
  2. Long term: We need to know our students and communities. We need to build relationship in a real way where students are much more than a name on a roster but rather a beloved child of God. We need to educate our communities and foster love and respect. We need capable, well-trained adults in our schools who can serve the needs of all students.

As part of the “Violence Prevention Initiative” at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, researchers  suggest that a combination of these approaches could lead to the solution, that is limiting access to guns and  developing real and lasting community among students and adults.

Outside of the school setting, there is work to be done as well. I find myself tired of the discussion on gun violence in schools without the thought of practical suggestions. So, what might this look like?

  • Political action: Our students and school community members should feel empowered to speak out. We must encourage and support those who wish to make their voices heard by those in decision making capacities. We have seen young people do this best in the solidarity that was evident in schools across the nation on March 14th, when students honored the 17 people who died in the Parkland, Florida shooting during the National Student Walk Out.
  • Gun Control: Enforcement of firearms laws and, potentially, the incorporation of new laws that serve to keep communities and children safe is key. Upon researching the aspect of the enforcement of current gun laws, it seems that nationally there is significant work to do in upholding laws that already exist.
  • Education: There is a need in our communities for an increase in education about responsible gun ownership and the responsibilities that a person takes on when exercising his or her right to bear arms.

Our Catholic faith ought to propel action, promoting positive change in the world. Those actions often require sacrifice. What does this look like? Perhaps this sacrifice involves increasing firearm legislation and enforcement. Perhaps this sacrifice looks like individuals and communities increasing the finances allocated for additional staff, such as counselors and social workers, to be added so that school communities can grow into places where students are known and are loved. Perhaps great sacrifice looks like giving up violent games, movies, and TV shows that our children are watching at an increasingly early age. Could we do these things in the name of creating a culture that is committed to the well-being of others, putting the needs of others before our own desires?

If we want to be a community of love and service to one another, then we need to start living out that kind of love. If we look to the example of Jesus on the cross, we know that real love, radical love nearly always requires great sacrifice.

Lauren Bjork teaches theology to grades 7 and 8 at Xaverian Brothers High School in Westwood, MA. She also serves as a Director of Religious Education at her local parish in the Diocese of Worcester.

Hurry Up and Wait

Being an expectant church in the time of instant gratification

hurry up and wait

By Julie Penndorf

Today’s world is a very different place for teens than it was for their parents and for many of their teachers (including me).  Our young people are expected to manage increasingly intense school work loads, while excelling in athletics and activities, and upholding an active social media life in addition to their real life. Their social existence hinges on the now; sometimes it seems it has to be even faster than that, or they run the risk of social suicide. And these are the kids who have supportive families and plenty of means.  So many students have to add difficult home lives, health problems or other issues to their already heavy burden.  In the last few years, I’ve dealt with multiple students with severe mental health issues that I did not see to this extent early in my teaching career.  Everything is now, now, now, and it is affecting them in ways that no generation before can give them any guidance because no one before has ever come of age in a time like today.

And yet, I juxtapose this current experience of our young people with our church, – a church which advocates waiting for so much of church life.  Experiences of waiting by far outweigh the experiences of gratification.  Though the liturgical calendar may say differently, most of us experience 6 weeks of Lent and just one day of Easter.  Something innate in our humanity calls us to dive deeply into the waiting – so much more so than the experience of joy.  Perhaps it is out of necessity, that good things come to those who wait, but I think it speaks more of our need to spend time in preparation, preparing our heads and hearts to be ready for the joys.   Joys are great, they are a beautiful blessing, but they can be incredibly draining.  The hype, the excitement, and all the stress around Christmas celebrations jump to mind here.  Most people are just barely hanging on through the month of December, and when Christmas finally comes, young and old alike tend to collapse from exhaustion at the end of it.  I’m grateful for a church that forces us into Advent beforehand, to slow down, to wait, and focus on what is important.

But where do our young people fit in this church of waiting? How do we teach them to wait when everything else in their lives teaches them to hurry forward?  They are moving from/searching for/lusting after one moment of ‘joy’ to another – though those ‘joys’ are false and fleeting (instagram likes, twitter retweets,  etc).  So how do we find a place for this generation in a church that wants us to hurry up and wait, a church that likely won’t give them a place on snapchat to uphold their streaks?

My problem with this question that I’m posing is that I don’t really have an answer. I too, struggle with waiting, and am constantly in prayer for patience (for my students, my own kids, my spouse).  I try to teach my own students the same tricks that work for me to slow down.  But why should we bother to immerse ourselves in the waiting?  Why am I asking my students to slow down and wait instead of asking the church to hurry up?  This goes to the very heart of our faith, that no matter how much we want to hurry things along, we are waiting, waiting for an experience of God, waiting for death to bring us new life, waiting for the second coming.  Waiting has always been, and until the end of time, will always be, central to the Christian experience, because faith cannot be forced, it cannot be hurried. Even though the challenges to waiting faced by our young people are new, the need to allow the space for waiting is not.  “Wait for the Lord, be strong, take heart.” – Psalm 27:14

Julie Penndorf is the Director of Campus Ministry and a Christian Ethics teacher at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, MD, where she has worked for the past 17 years.

Stressed

by Erin DaCosta

Every Friday, I invite my students to start class by spending ten minutes journaling.  I provide a prompt, and the rest is up to them.  The prompt is rarely related to class topics.  Rather, they are questions that invite them to reflect more deeply on their daily lives.  Several weeks ago, I gave my students the prompt, “What is on your heart and mind?  Share with me.”  The results broke my heart.  One entry in particular has stayed with me, and I want to share it with you today.

One student wrote:  “Many times I have to choose between spending time with my family and homework.  What is the point of all of this?  What is all of this stress for?  We live in a cycle of work, work, work, work, work, work…I feel like there is a problem in America’s schooling system.”

This student’s journal entry put into words what I have been witnessing in my students over the past few years:  they are incredibly, dangerously stressed and overworked.  They feel burdened by homework, quizzes, tests, and projects.  They are drowning in a world that bombards them with Snaps, likes, favorites, notifications, and more.  They are overcommitted, overinvolved, and overstimulated.

Do I add to this burden?  Do I, as their teacher, offer meaningful assignments that will aid their growth and development?  Does their homework supplement their in-class learning?  Should I do away with homework altogether?  How can I help them stop, breathe, and engage with the world around them?

These are the questions I grapple with on a daily basis.  I want to ensure that my students learn, that we cover enough curriculum, and that I offer structure and consistency.  Yet, I do not want my students to suffer.  And what I am seeing now is that they are struggling, immensely.  No student should have to choose between eating dinner with their family and doing homework.  No student should exist in a constant state of stress and anxiety.

My student closed her journal entry with a haiku, and I leave you with her words,

My generation
We need less stress, more support
Can we find a way?

I close by asking you this:  what stress do you see in your students?  How can we, as ministers and educators, appropriately respond?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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.