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.

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

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.

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.