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. 

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.