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.

Teaching Toolkit

take an intentional look at your toolkit for teaching religion

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Barbara Anne Radtke

I have a basic toolkit for household maintenance.  Every once in a while, I take everything out, clean up the tools and discard old packaging of items I needed to complete a project.  I am just making sure that my toolkit is in tiptop shape the next time I need to do a repair or launch into a new project.

Teachers usually have a toolkit, too.  It’s packed with go-to resources, reliable pedagogical strategies, approaches to curricular plans, new things we’d like to try. If you are a newly hired religion teacher preparing to teach for the first time or if you are an experienced teacher who wants to reflect on your classroom practices, maybe it’s a good time to take an intentional look at your toolkit for teaching religion.

Boston College’s Summer at STM has a convenient, one–week evening experience for credit or audit, designed for those who teach adolescents religion in Catholic secondary schools.  Guided by Dr. Cynthia Cameron, an experienced secondary educator, those engaged in teaching religion in high school have an opportunity to explore the craft of teaching theology together.

For more details, see the profile for The Craft of Teaching Theology: A Pedagogical Toolkit for the High School Teacher

They Say It Takes a Village

Theology and ministry seem to be the perfect areas for some village building.

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Lauren E. Bjork

It is a common axiom of parenting that “it takes a village to raise a child.” I have heard and read this often, as a parent of young children. Now, you may be saying, ‘Sure, this may be true, but I thought this was a blog post on teaching and theology.’ And, here is where I would like to propose the idea that students and teachers need the village too.

Teachers need each other. Having worked in multiple schools, in a variety of different capacities, I can say without a doubt that teachers thrive in community, where they are not individual islands, but rather interconnected adults working effectively towards the same goals. Students need to see the example of adults living, loving, and working together in a way that does not demand that they do everything the same way, or are unwilling to challenge one another. Rather, I think our children today need to see adults respectfully debating, disagreeing, and challenging one another to be the very best version of themselves, in a way that, especially for teachers, allows for the teacher to be of service to the student. Students and teachers both benefit from the experience of living community. Committing ourselves to living and working in solidarity and love is hard, yes, but worth it.

Theology lends itself as a perfect setting for the village of teachers to come alive and thrive in education. If we are truly practicing what we teach, then the village is a natural living out of the building of the kingdom of God.  The kingdom of God on earth is not a place of perfection or even a place where we all agree, but rather it is a place where we commit to one another, rely on each other, and get busy in the work of living out faithfulness and justice.

In thinking about the village in education, I am beginning to be convinced more and more that perhaps, this is exactly what our schools need. Could the village of adults working together in service and love help combat bullying among our students? Could the message of Jesus to love one another really come alive to students if they see it embodied in their teachers? Or, perhaps the village could stand as examples of positive self-talk and body image? Even further, could the village help combat violence in our schools and greater communities? Remembering the reality that we belong to one another might be part of the necessary discussion on school violence, a nightmare that students and teachers are facing far too often. Ultimately, I think that the community built among adults is essential when trying to foster community among students. And, for theology teachers and campus ministers, this is truly the message that we teach: to develop relationships with God, with ourselves, and with others that are rooted in great love.

Of course, this applies to all educators. And yet, I do not think this is the common experience of many teachers today. Theology and ministry seem to be the perfect areas for some intentional village building, because, it is a subject and setting that in its nature calls for the development of both formation and education, ministry and academic understanding. We need to be living examples of what we teach, that is, the Body of Christ. Relying on each other is NOT a sign of weakness, but rather a response to our call to belong to one another in humility and solidarity.

How do you do “village building” in your school?

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.

Every Week is Catholic Schools Week

the vocational call of Catholic school teachers

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by Lindsey Hughes

Since I have been able to call myself a teacher, I have been a Catholic school teacher.

And, since I have been able to call myself a teacher, I have been criticized for the type of teacher that I have chosen to be.

Whether it is a family member who chides me for working in a Catholic school, when I could be teaching history (as I intended as an undergrad) in public school “and making so much more money”, or a well-meaning friend who comes to the conclusion that I am “lucky” to teach the “easy” kids, there seems to an underlying belief that teaching in a Catholic school is some lukewarm version of the righteous struggle that the “rest” of the teachers in the world are undertaking. I would like to dispute this mild interpretation of what we, as Catholic school  educators, do on a regular basis.

Additionally, I would like to validate my belief (and likely, that of countless other educators) that the choice to work in a Catholic school is one of vocation. Author and minister Frederick Buechner, in discussing vocation, states that, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It has become increasingly clear to me that Catholic schools (and those who teach in them) are meeting the “deep hungers” of our communities, often in ways that are not evident at first glance.

So, to anyone that may need a reminder, I want to definitively state that all teaching is a radical action. As a teacher, you are rejecting the general belief of so many in society that our youth are lost or misguided. You provide a place of hospitality and safety – really, of normalcy – that is not found in some of our students’ homes, neighborhoods, and families. Lest you forget that what you are doing is making a difference – I beg you to believe differently. It does. You do.

To illustrate my point further, let me provide you with two instances from my own experience. In the first, two juniors in my theology class were staying after school to work on an essay about C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. I went to check on the step team’s practice (since I have recently become their moderator) and came back to these two boys looking at their iPads and phones. When I asked why they were not working on their essays, they told me they were looking at information from a recent fatal shooting in Boston. They proceeded to tell me how the young man who had lost his life had previously saved the life of an individual who fell on train tracks four years ago. Then, between themselves, they talked about others who had lost their lives recently to gang violence. As they talked back and forth about which gang these people were a part of, where they were from, and if they had seen them in their neighborhoods, it became increasingly clear – my students’ lives outside of our school are much different than what they experience in our small, Catholic school setting. So then, when we question why they hang around after school or constantly want to practice their three point shots for hours in the gym, we may want to consider what they may be avoiding, and treasure the fact that our schools have created a refuge from what they experience in so many other places.

In the other instance, a student for whom I was writing a college recommendation let me read some of his written reflections he had composed in his free time. Though I was aware that this student overcomes significant challenges just to get to school every day and have his work done for his challenging course load, this glimpse into his non-school life was quite eye-opening. He chronicled his days, explaining that after school he often goes to work until late in the evening, and once his shift is completed, makes the often-intimidating trek home to complete homework and study. What struck me most were the descriptions of the individuals he encounters on his commute home from work. Knowing who to avoid and what to say to these individuals in order to communicate his neutrality, it broke my heart to read how complicated it was for him to simply go home. It also gives me great insight into why when I taught him last year he often asked for extensions on assignments, and was late to school more than any of us would suggest. I feel so lucky to have been deemed trustworthy enough for him to share these challenging details with. I feel even luckier to have been able to brag to colleges about how great he is.

It doesn’t have to be as extreme as gang violence, it could be family issues, rigorous after school responsibilities, or the countless other struggles our students endure – regardless, I hope you can remember that the communities of acceptance, love, and yes, even safety, that we create in Catholic schools are making a difference. I believe that lives have been transformed because my exceptional colleagues and I have made a vocational choice.

If you, too, have made a similar choice, what difference does your school make in its community?  What lives have been transformed in the learning community in which you teach?”

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Lindsey Hughes currently teaches sophomore and junior theology at Saint Joseph Preparatory High School in Brighton, MA. Outside of the classroom she coaches girls’ soccer and co-ed track and field.