Talking with Kids About Our Nation’s Social & Political Tension This Fall

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Wondering how you’re going to address the rising social and political tensions in our larger American culture with your students? Or perhaps looking for a good theme for your classroom this year? This June, I read The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation of Failure. In this excellent book, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt team up to examine what’s really going on at college campuses around the country and how these waves of thought are impacting all of us, regardless of the level we teach. The best takeaway? Haidt and Lukianoff (4) zone in on the “three great untruths” that are being disseminated, both implicitly and explicitly, by university communities:

The Untruth of Fragility: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.

The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings.

The Untruth of Us Versus Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. 

The first one relates to the idea that our children are inherently fragile, so we should do whatever we can to pad their way through life. You know exactly what I’m talking about, because you’ve seen ‘em all: the snowplow parents, the lawnmower parents, the helicopter parents…I could go on and on. Really, I can’t be too high and mighty, because I’ve certainly caught myself thinking, “That might hurt her feelings, so I won’t say it,” or “They’re too young to handle this.” Of course, we must be respectful of students’ emotions, experiences, and developmental level–I’m all about that. But Lukianoff and Haidt point out that we sometimes treat our young people so gingerly that they will literally never grow out of seeing themselves as pansies. 

Instead of the untruth of fragility, let’s proclaim the truth of resilience. Let’s tell our students, “You are strong.” I’ve coached high school cross-country the past three years, and I’ve seen a lot of kids run in a considerable amount of pain. When they cross that finish line, though, the pain turns into a badge of honor. This is true not just of our students’ sports achievements, but also of their capacity to rise above the meanness and unfairness that often characterizes their social landscape. We’ve all watched kids rise above their situation, whether it be unsupportive parents, a difficult mental health diagnosis, or switching schools and friend groups at the same time. Let’s coach them through these times of trial, because that’s what they need most. TRUTH: God’s grace gives us the strength to conquer anything; let’s treat our students as “more than conquerors” through His blood (Romans 8:37).

The second untruth is about emotional reasoning and says that we should always trust our feelings. Let me tell you, I am a huge fan of Conrad Baars, so if you haven’t read any of his books on psychology, St. Thomas Aquinas, and a holistic view of the human person, you are in for a real treat. In his Feeling and Healing Your Emotions, he speaks eloquently to the importance of naming, owning, and feeling your emotions, backed by a very solid Christian foundation. God gave us our emotions. They are morally neutral, and acknowledging them is key to living a healthy relationship with ourselves, others, and Him. However, Baars does not advocate for always doing whatever your emotions prompt you to do, which is good because otherwise I would literally spend my entire day eating dark chocolate, drinking coffee, and reading murder mysteries. (Dang it, Dr. Baars!) Haidt and Lukianoff agree that our children will be happier and healthier if they learn to engage their intellect, emotions, and will when making decisions. 

What seems like an obvious way to live life is becoming increasingly radical; people today accuse each other of all sorts of feelings that the other person is, apparently, responsible for. They even equate their own violent actions with a legitimate emotional expression that they cannot be expected to control. Scary, isn’t it? Teaching our students to talk with the Lord in prayer about how they feel and what His Word guides them to do is critical. We can’t say enough these days about the Commandments, the Beatitudes, and the Works of Mercy. To counter this untruth of emotional reasoning, we can pray regularly with our students and ask Jesus to be with them when they’re having a bad day (or a good day!), invite Him to help them experience His love amidst all of their emotions, and call on Him to inspire them to make wise, virtuous decisions based on the objective reality that surrounds them. TRUTH: Inviting Jesus into our emotions changes everything.

Lastly, Haidt and Lukianoff face the most vitriolic untruth of them all: the untruth of us vs. them, which holds that life is a battle between good people and evil people. Doesn’t this cut to the heart of everything that’s happened in the United States since Memorial Day Weekend? How often do we find ourselves demonizing our opponents? It’s a much easier way to deal with our disagreements than to have vulnerable conversations about how we’ve been hurt and how we’ve hurt others, so it’s not surprising that much of our national dialogue has descended into this. As educators, we have a huge opportunity to impact the way our students respond to these polarizing times, above all by the way we form them to view everyone as an image of God. I used to work with a youth minister who was incredibly gifted in this area; he had a way of pausing to say “hello” to everyone that seriously made you feel like a million bucks. His eyes would light up and he would pause everything he was doing to honor you. Now, I can’t always give that prolonged “look of love” to everyone I pass in the hallway…after all, we teachers are regularly cramming a bathroom break, coffee refill, and copy job into a slim five-minute window! Yet there are times we can slow down; let’s take advantage of those opportunities to model for our students that they are seen. They are known. They are loved. We can preach a great deal about the fallacy of the “us” vs. “them” mentality; in the end, we have to walk the walk. Kids who know they’re loved, love others…it’s that simple. TRUTH: We are all beloved children of the Father.

Perhaps you want to write three great truths on the board in September and then reference them often throughout the year. Maybe you can recite them with your students as part of a class prayer or cheer. However you feel led to share them, I hope you’ll find greater peace in knowing that you are helping your students find the joy that comes from living in the truth, which always sets us free.

Interested in reading the whole book? Here’s a link to it on Amazon.

Lukianoff, Greg and Jonathan Haidt. The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation of Failure. Penguin Books, 2019.

When Trying to be the Hero in Your Own Classroom Fails: Kristin Lavransdatter and Allowing God to Be Glorified in the Mess

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Kristin Lavransdatter, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is the saga of a middle class Norwegian woman’s life from childhood until the very end. (There are a few SPOILERS in here, so read on with caution!) Kristin grows up in a devout Catholic family, gets seduced by a handsome trickster named Erlend, and spends most of her adult years dealing with the consequences of their damaged, yet enduring, marriage. Through it all, she moves as if on a spiraling track, first toward God, then away from him. She lets her father down, betrays her betrothed (Erlend’s competition), engages in superstitious practices to save her nephew’s life, stands by her husband through a terrible imprisonment due to a political snafu, and watches some of her children die. Eventually, her husband dies, and she is left alone with her sons, who eventually take over responsibility for the management of the estate. She spends her final months of life as a boarder in a convent; lastly, a plague comes and kills hundreds around her, and she falls prey to it herself. 

What a mess, right? But in some of her final moments on earth, she realizes that God’s relentless love for her has overcome even her own stubbornness and self-centeredness:

“It seemed to her a mystery that she could not comprehend, but she was certain that God had held her firmly in a pact which had been made for her, without her knowing it, from a love that had been poured over her–and in spite of her willfulness, in spite of her melancholy, earthbound heart, some of that love had stayed inside her, had worked on her like sun on the earth, had driven forth a crop that neither the fiercest fire of passion nor its stormiest anger could completely destroy”(Undset 1122). Kristin sinned a great deal, but she also suffered through the consequences of her sin, and she ended her life by performing an act of mercy– courageously burying a poor old woman, another plague victim, whose corpse had been abandoned. She became increasingly aware, in her later years, that her desire for God was nothing compared to His all-consuming desire for her. While she sought Him haphazardly, He sought her wholeheartedly, over and over again.

I think what I loved most about Kristin’s story was that it was truthful, often so truthful it was ugly. People in Kristin’s time didn’t have ibuprofen, cosmetic surgery, or diet soda. They couldn’t put filters on their pictures to make them look prettier. They sometimes died from wounds that we could easily treat today. And they did very hurtful things to each other, too, and these hurtful things turned into grudges and lies and insecurities. In the end, they weren’t the heroes of their own stories. If there was a hero in Kristin’s story, it was the Lord, not her.

As we’re preparing to start this school year, which will certainly be a year unlike any other, let’s keep our eyes fixed on the Lord. When everything else changes, He remains the same. When we try to measure our successes by earthly standards, He nudges us to seek sanctity for ourselves and our students, even though it will be messy. When we want to be the heroes of our own classrooms, He reminds us that He wants to be the hero; we have only to let Him. 

Undset, Sigrid. Kristin Lavransdatter. Translated by Tiina Nunnally, Penguin Classics, 2005.

Ten Tips for First-Year Catholic School Teachers

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My first full year of teaching was a hot, hot mess. I sort of thought I knew what I was doing (rookie mistake), yet I was equally terrified of people finding out that I didn’t know what I was doing. Unable to sleep the night before the first day of school, I read a cookbook, of all things, and finally drifted off…when I woke up, it was just hours before I was face-to-face with the tiny class of eighth graders I’d been assigned to teach. Somehow, I made it to the end of that year, but it was not without lots of grace, mercy, tears, and coffee. Here are a few things that I learned the hard way:

1. Kids have a TON on their minds besides you. Yes, you’re really important, but you have to start the year by assuming that they’re far less interested in you than you are in them.

2. Kids really don’t care about your credentials, nor do their parents. They care about whether you like them or not…and that’s pretty much it. Take time to get to know them, and they won’t care that you’re young and inexperienced.

3. Parents have no idea how hard you work as a first-year teacher, but you also (unless you’re a parent yourself) have no idea what it’s like to entrust your child to a system run by strangers with rules, consequences, and other parents (who are often really judge-y and clique-y!). Work on appreciating them for all they do after that 3 pm bell each afternoon, and you’ll discover that they’re very appreciative of what you do for their child, even if they don’t totally get it.

4. Teaching in a Catholic school is actually team-teaching with Jesus. He is the first teacher in your classroom, not you. And this is awesome, because it is obviously too big of a job and responsibility to do on your own. Talk to Him about your students, your problems, and the things that excite you. If you’re ever stuck in a meeting or situation that’s confusing or frustrating, get up the guts to ask everyone if they’re okay with you pausing to say a quick prayer out loud for help. It can be as simple as, “Jesus, thank you for [student.] I know that he/she is really struggling, and I’m struggling to know how to help him/her. Please give us your light and your peace.” Usually, you’re not the only one in the situation who feels powerless, and praying helps everyone to be honest about that fact.

5. Other teachers want to help you make this transition into teaching. You bring back lots of memories for them of their first year, for better or for worse. Sometimes this will come across the wrong way because they’ll give you too many suggestions or too much feedback; when that happens, remember that it comes from a really well-meaning place, and try to receive the kindness of the sentiment even if you aren’t ready to do what they’re suggesting. On the flip side, trying someone else’s suggestion does not mean that you’re “becoming them” as a teacher or that you’re not good enough to have your own game plan. You’re just trying something, that’s all, and it’s usually something that has worked before. I used to work with an amazing seventh-grade teacher who had the best way of offering suggestions without making me feel like her ideas were better than mine. (As it turns out, they were, but it was okay!)

6. There are going to be a lot of things that are just plain hard about this first year, so make a list of the things that bring you joy, and make those happen as much as you can. This might mean going out to recess when you’re not on duty and just playing soccer with the kids. Or maybe you love doing art projects even though you don’t teach art…that’s fine. Add a quick project into a History lesson. I discovered that I loved giving kids stickers, so that’s what I did.

7. Find things that both you and your students can laugh about. Laughter: an amazing bonder and stress releaser. I found that most middle school and high school kids aren’t that good at drawing but love drawing comic strips, and they make the most hilarious drawings. Even now, year nine of teaching, when I need to bond with a class, I will often incorporate a partner comic strip activity into a lesson and then walk around the room and point out all the silly things they’re sketching. They soak up the positive, humorous attention, and I delight in being able to take a break from monitoring behavior or comprehension.

8. You will definitely do dumb things as a new teacher, and they will probably really hurt. You wouldn’t be in this profession at all if you didn’t have high ideals and care about kids, and this is a super vulnerable role. It’s okay to take these mistakes hard, but be sure to pray about them so that you can get the Lord’s perspective. Let Him remind you that you are enough, just the way you are.

9. Make some good teacher friends. They want to help you learn the ropes and enjoy your job. It is not a waste of time to chitchat with them in the lounge if that fills you up or to stop by their room for a few minutes at the end of the day to vent or unwind. They also get it that you are just barely surviving and don’t have lots of time to talk, so if you have to duck out of a gathering early, know that no one is judging you.

10. If you impress your principal and coworkers this year, kudos to you. I’m going to be honest–I had so many meltdowns that I’m pretty sure no one was impressed by me by the end. Really, the only expectation that most principals have for you as a first-year teacher is that you finish the year. So just keep clocking in and trying…it’s pretty impressive in itself…and it glorifies the Lord.

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Chosen: Praying with St. John’s Gospel to Prepare for the School Year

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Each of us longs to be noticed, to stand out, to be pursued, to be desired. Each of us longs to be chosen. We want others to look at us and say, “You! I choose you for my team. I want you.” I’ve been reflecting on this longing lately, and just like those other internal longings, this is one that never truly goes away, even though it may lie dormant for a time. Created to be utterly satisfied only in heaven, it may be more apt to call it an “ache” than anything.

As Catholic Christians, we have the incredible privilege of living the “already but not yet” of the end times. In a certain sense, we are already with the Father in heaven whenever we unite with Jesus, who is there now. But we’re not fully with the Father yet, hence the ache. In the same way, we are already chosen by God, but we cannot yet feel that chosenness with the certainty that the saints in heaven do. 

In St. John’s Gospel, after washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus tells them many things, including this beautiful verse, Jn 15:16: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.” Wow. He chose us. He wanted us, even in our mess, confusion, and frustration. He wanted us. This choice was so intentional, so absolute, that hours after articulating it, Jesus literally died on the cross for us, the ones for whom he said, “I thirst”(Jn 19:28). Lest we be tempted to think that Jesus chose us but didn’t really mean it, he proved it by offering up his very body and blood.

This makes every Friday a precious day for us to share with our students, a day when we celebrate our chosenness by standing at the foot of the cross and saying “thank you.” A couple Lents ago, I tried reading one station of the cross each Friday as our opening class prayer, and it was powerful. Sixteen and seventeen-year-olds want to be reassured that they’ve been chosen just as much as I do. It was for these crazily lovable teens that the Lord appointed me to go and bear fruit that will remain, the verse says. Your students, too, are the fruit of your labor in the classroom–those quiet mornings when your head keeps drooping over your desk while you try to plow through a stack of papers before they come in; those loud Friday afternoons when you have to take a deep breath and remind yourself that this, too, shall pass at the blessed 3:15 bell.

Your personal relationship with Jesus is fertile ground on which they can grow as his chosen ones, and you can teach them how to remain in him through daily prayer, taking them to Adoration when you can, and looking at them the way he does. And let’s acknowledge it: There really is nothing more stunning than walking into the back of the school chapel at the end of the day and seeing one of “your kids” kneeling up in front. 

The best part? Whatever we ask the Father in Jesus’s name, he will give us! As we prepare to begin another academic year, let’s bring our class lists before him and give each student back to him. He’s chosen us, and he’s chosen each one of them. That’s a love that we can remain in with our students, now and forever.

15 Songs to Help You Stay Strong as a Teacher during Coronavirus

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Whatever your district, bishop, or principal has decided about how you’re going back to school (or not back to school) this fall, it’s going to be different. Remember back when we thought this was just a temporary fix and everything would smooth over during June, July and August? Ahhh, those blissful days of our ignorance!

Worship music can help you to stay strong when you’d rather just curl up on your couch and binge-eat sugary cereal (introverts, unite) or run outside and talk to everyone in sight because you miss your students so much (extraverts, unite.) These songs remind me of why I do what I do…because after all, we love Jesus, and we want everyone to know Him, especially our students and our families, even when circumstances get tough.

15. Need to refocus on your mission?

Check out Ryan Stevenson’s The Gospel–”The Gospel makes a way,” he sings, and it does, even when we can’t feel it or see what’s coming next.

14. Is this one of those days when you want chocolate, wine, and hard liquor at the same time, but you already did that last night, so you’re not sure what’s next?

(AKA Parent Teacher Conferences Night 2.)

You do have to be willing to be pepped up, but if so, the cheery and retro feel of Like You Love Me by Tauren Wells just might do the trick!

13. Anxious about how to cover up your insecurities as a teacher in all this uncertainty?

Jason Gray’s “Remind Me Who I Am” is so reassuring. It will gently lead you right into prayer.

12. Want to feel cool? (I mean, you already are, but adding little rap won’t hurt your ratings.)

A true classic, Toby Mac’s Speak Life will remind you of the radical, life-giving power of each of your words.

11. Plagued by fears about last year or next month? Trying to be more mindful (in the right kind of Catholic way)? 

The simple message of Jeremy Camp’s Keep Me in the Moment will resonate with your desire to take all of this one moment at a time.

10. Morning person? Because you will hate this if you’re not:

Good Morning by Mandisa is the kind of song you can blast in your classroom to get you pumped for the day. You know who you are.

9. NOT a morning person? Need a boost to get out of bed for Day 1 of Inservices?

Not only is the piano accompaniment on Mat Kearney’s Air I Breathe gorgeously invigorating, but the poetic lyrics will help you reclaim the Lord in all His goodness and power.

8. Discouraged by how long it takes to make literally ONE bulletin board in August?

The lyric video of The Afters, Broken Hallelujah, is seriously stunning. 

7. Getting too full of yourself? Or down on yourself?

“Nobody but Jesus” by Casting Crowns will pick you right back up again. It’s all about setting ourselves aside and letting Jesus take the stage, which is perfect as we prepare to take the stage in our classroom or on our Zoom screen this fall. Plus the girl riding the motorized scooter is just cool.

6. Worried about your school, city, or country? 

You’ve probably heard You’re the God of This City by Chris Tomlin before, in which case you know it’s perfect for such a time as this. If not, you’re in for a treat.

5. Want to feel empowered by the Holy Spirit and Sara Bareilles at the same time?

Because who wouldn’t, honestly. Her music video for Brave is amazing. My hero is the old guy in the red shirt and white pants…someday I hope to be as much of a rockstar as he is.

4. Piles of emails, forms, masks, and dirty tupperwares littering your desk already?

Give it all to Jesus with David Dunn, whose Have Everything reminds me of the zeal of my early teen years AND makes me want to get up and dance. (By myself, that is, because I am a bad dancer and now have adjustable blinds on my door for situations like this.)

3. Wish someone noticed all your hard work? It’s easier during the pandemic to feel overlooked.

 Over and Over by Riley Clemmons is a great find. The Lord chooses us over and over again, and this is our hope. Riley’s voice is so rich! 

2. Trying to be grateful but not doing that well at it?

Micah Tyler always makes me smile, and his Amen is no exception. He will draw you into praise and celebration, even when you’re surrounded by sanitizer (or “hamitizer,” as my three-year-old niece calls it, which evokes images of hamsters rubbing their paws together in a very antibacterial fashion.)

1. Just need to have a good cry?

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve played I Know by Big Daddy Weave while worrying about a student or parent issue. SOAK THIS IN. It is an incredible call to faith and opportunity to give God everyone who is on your heart and everything that breaks your heart.

Why I’m a Catholic School Teacher: Making Home Happen

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Well guys, I went to Catholic school, so there’s that. My third grade teacher was amazing, and I know this because this was supposed to be a bummer of a grade for me: I was the quiet girl who had to sit next to the “bad kid” the whole year (he was actually pretty nice but really impulsive.) Even so, I have the BEST memories of third grade, especially of my teacher reading to us in the afternoon–chapter after chapter of The BFG or James and the Giant Peach. I would sit at my desk, utterly content, just listening and relaxing. And in the midst of my small but crazy third-grade life, I felt like I was in the safest of safe havens.

Home. Isn’t that what all of us want to experience? Yes, our greatest yearning for heaven is, at its heart, a longing for home, that place so intimate and familiar that we can practically close our eyes and be there. And I would argue that the Catholic school is, at its heart, a little taste of the conventional home that so many of our students lack today. It is a place where they can become the happiest and holiest versions of themselves, both on earth and someday in heaven. After all, heaven is the goal of Catholic schools, and nothing less. Every student of a Catholic school is simultaneously at home and “on the way home”, as is every teacher.

Home became real for me as a brand new high school teacher one day when one of my students, a roughTennessee mountain boy who always had mischief in his eyes, started trying to learn. Before, he had flirted or avoided or slacked, but this time he was actually making an effort. I thought back to when I was preparing to administer a practice ACT to him and his classmates a few weeks earlier, and I knew exactly what was going to happen: Jim, we’ll call him, would “Christmas tree” the entire test and be finished in a mere half hour, then spend the rest of the time sleeping or annoying his peers. I recalled that he’d mentioned turkey farming as a hobby (not a shocker in east Tennessee), and so in an effort to placate him, I printed off profiles of different kinds of turkeys for him to read through after he finished his holiday-themed “test” the next day. True to form, Jimmy exerted almost zero effort, but he did read the packet I nonchalantly dropped on his desk afterwards. And he loved it. This led to many conversations about his life outside of school, which eventually led to openness to learn in school. At the end of the year, I received the most sincere “thank you” I’d ever imagined could come out of the lips of a hardened seventeen-year-old. Somehow Jimmy found a home in my classroom, and all I wanted to do was to open this home to more and more teens.

What about you? In Revelations 2:4, the Lord warns us against forgetting our first love. I’ve found that I often get discouraged when I forget the “whys” for what I do. So why are you a Catholic school teacher? What was your “first love” about this vocation/profession? Leave a comment below, then take time today to grab a coffee or iced tea and journal for a few minutes. Save the entry for more trying days ahead.