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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When Our Students Suffer: How to Keep the Faith

A Meditation on Pope Benedict’s Address to Catholic Educators at The Catholic University of America

Address delivered on April 17, 2008

I can’t count the number of times that I have worried about a student. Maybe it was the high school freshman who worked so hard to hide the cut marks on his wrist, the student who slept during every study hall and any class she could get away with because she was dealing with untreated mental illness and an unsupportive family, or the sweet, insecure kids who dilly-dallied on their way to lunch because they didn’t feel welcome at any table. Gosh, they steal our hearts, don’t they? 

I’m pregnant now and expecting my first biological child, but I feel like I’ve been a spiritual mom to many, many kids over my past eight years in the classroom. My own mom, a teacher at heart although on never professionally, has often reminded me that the greatest suffering is Mary’s suffering: standing at the foot of the cross and watching her beloved Son die. Our Lady must have felt so powerless. Absolutely powerless.

“How have you made it this far?” I’ve asked some of my more well-seasoned colleagues, pros who have been teachers for decades. It’s hard for all of us to put words around what keeps us going when we’re powerless in the face of the suffering of the one we love, even if we’re not related by blood. Pope Benedict, in his address to Catholic Educators at the Catholic University of America in 2008, said it’s all about entrusting ourselves to God. And of course, in entrusting our own hearts to God, we can give Him everyone on our hearts, including our students and their families.

I love how Pope Benedict put it:

“Yet we all know, and observe with concern, the difficulty or reluctance many people have today in entrusting themselves to God. It is a complex phenomenon and one which I ponder continually. While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will. Subsequently we observe, with distress, the notion of freedom being distorted. Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in – a participation in being itself”(9).

Yes. We are all scared to entrust ourselves to a God we can’t see or hear. Sometimes it’s almost impossible for us to believe that He is a good God when we see the most vulnerable get hurt, and yet Mary believed He was good always, even when she held her dead son in her arms. Meditating on the Pietà or praying the Stations of the Cross or Divine Mercy Chaplet offer us pathways into this deep, mysterious faith, a faith that is now gloriously radiant in the Queen of our Resurrected Lord, our Regina Caeli.  

As educators, it’s tempting to use our freedom to opt out rather than opt in, to hold our students and their families at an emotional arm’s length because there is so much to suffer when you teach and share life with twenty to 120 students. But no, we must freely choose to share their struggles with them. We’re not the Savior (and never will be, thank heavens!), but we know the Savior, and we can invite Him into whatever our spiritual children experience.

Pope Benedict closed his address by saying, “To all of you I say: bear witness to hope. Nourish your witness with prayer. Account for the hope that characterizes your lives (cf. 1 Pet 3:15) by living the truth which you propose to your students. Help them to know and love the One you have encountered, whose truth and goodness you have experienced with joy”(20). Yes, we must pray each morning so that we go to school nourished and ready to witness. We must let Jesus encounter us again and again, especially in the questions and the aches that accompany all parenting, spiritual and physical. And we must account for the hope that characterizes our lives; namely, that He has risen, He is alive, and He walks with us and our students every step of the way.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. “Meeting with Catholic Educators: Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI.” Apostolic Journey to the United States of America and Visit to the United Nations Organization Headquarters, 17 April 2018, The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC. Address.

*In-text citations refer to paragraph numbers added by this author for ease of location.
You may find the full address here: http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2008/april/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080417_cath-univ-washington.html

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