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.

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.

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.

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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