The NCEA Catholic Leadership Summit 2020

The following blog was contributed by Kevin Baxter, chief innovation officer for the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.

When COVID-19 turned everything upside down in the spring, we knew that NCEA was going to need to think differently about how we approached our work moving forward. We were inspired by the courage and creativity we saw in Catholic schools across the United States as they adapted to virtual instruction so effectively. Thus, with prayer and faith in the Holy Spirit, we dove in and transformed our annual Convention, which was scheduled to take place in Baltimore, to a completely virtual event. With more than 7,000 registrations we knew there was interest in and need for high quality professional development in Catholic schools.

For the 2020-2021 school year, we were determined to take our innovative approach to a higher level. Thus, we developed several different professional services that we will offer over the course of the school year. The first of these is our New Leaders Academy, which starts the first week in October with a unique blend of synchronous content delivery, professional collaboration and network building, and one-on-one coaching for new school site leaders. We have a great cohort of participants and exceptional, experienced facilitators and coaches to support this new program at NCEA.

We also recognized that one of our anchor events each year, the Catholic Leadership Summit (CLS), required new thinking and an innovative approach to address the current reality. So, we looked at the event through an adult learner perspective, and with the frame that understood that collaboration and networking were the aspects of CLS that attendees most appreciated in years past. We began by addressing the issues that have consumed much of our nation over the past six months – first, the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has impacted not just our schools but all aspects of our lives. Leadership in crisis is something every superintendent, principal and higher education leader must understand and be prepared for to be effective in their roles. Thus, we wanted to be sure we addressed the challenging reality we are faced with in Catholic schools at this moment.

Second, we have all been impacted by the issues of racial justice in our country and, specifically, how we can do a better job in Catholic schools to address the underlying aspects of equity. We want to address this question directly and have honest and difficult conversations in order to begin the process of healing and moving forward with intentionality so that we can educate the students in our schools with our Catholic faith at the forefront.

With these two themes in mind, we sought to have high level, keynote speakers for each of the four days, each one of which would address a specific domain of the National Standards and Benchmarks for Effective Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools (NSBECS).  We were blessed to have such a positive response and our lineup is extremely impressive on multiple fronts.

Dr. Howard Fuller is a legend in the school choice movement and his advocacy for families, especially those from low income backgrounds, is an inspiration for all. His commitment and dedication to the civil rights movement extends back to the 1960s, so he is a particularly appropriate keynote on Day 1 for Governance and Leadership. Dr. Marie Lynn Miranda is the Charles and Jill Fischer Provost of the University of Notre Dame. As she stated when she was appointed, “As the first American-born member of an immigrant family, I have benefited tremendously from the transformative power of education” so we felt she was a great person to speak on Day 2 for Academic Excellence.

Archbishop Wilton Gregory needs little introduction to Catholic school educators. He is the seventh Archbishop of Washington and a former president of the USCCB. Archbishop Gregory brings a great pastoral approach to the challenges we are faced with today and we are blessed by his keynote on Day 3 for Mission and Catholic Identity. Betsy Bohlen is the chief operating officer for the Archdiocese of Chicago. With an MBA from Harvard and 16 years of experience at McKinsey and Co. she brings both a business approach to her work and a commitment to the Catholic faith. She is ideal in keynoting the last of our four days on Operational Vitality.

Each day will start with a welcome message and some words of hope from four American Cardinals (Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Cardinal Blase Cupich, and Cardinal Joseph Tobin). This will be followed by opening prayer and a brief welcome message. The keynote speaker will then address the group live and set the tone for the day in the domain area of the NSBECS.

Following the keynote during each day of CLS, we will have Focus Sessions. These will group attendees into one of three different groups: one for diocesan level leadership, one for school site leadership and one for higher education and other leadership. Each of these sessions will be led by colleagues in the field to 1) address the theme of the keynote at a high level and 2) create a collaborative space where participants can share successes and challenges they face in their work in the specific domain. It will be part content delivery and sharing but much of the time will be spent in smaller groups to address specific questions from the keynote and the topic.

Finally, each day of CLS will end with Professional Learning Groups (PLGs). These will be comprised of approximately 10-15 participants with roughly equal representation from each of the leadership sectors. The PLGs will be led by trained facilitators who will draw input from the various Focus Session meetings so that the conversation centers on how we all can collaboratively assist Catholic schools in dealing with this unique moment in history. Ideally each participant will leave with some tools and strategies to bring back to their own work in their region of the country.

We recognize that this year presents unique challenges to Catholic schools and leaders at all different levels. Our hope and expectation are that the Catholic Leadership Summit will provide an opportunity to learn and be inspired, and then collaborate and share with colleagues around the country to think through the most positive way forward.

On Being a Math Teacher

The following blog was contributed by Julieta Raymundo-Almayda, middle school math teacher at St. Anthony Catholic School in San Antonio, Texas.

Hi all! My students, parents and colleagues call me Mrs. Almayda or Mrs. A. I am from San Antonio, TX. I’ve been teaching middle school and high school math for over 20 years. My school recently recognized me for my acceptance as a 2020 Khan Academy Ambassador. It is not every day that I get to share my life and teaching experiences with a big audience.

My joining Khan Academy is my driving force, my “challenge” to myself to be better and become an expert in NWEA using Khan Academy as I make my learners better. At Khan Academy, the “challenge” has become an inspiration to aspire to go beyond what is expected. With the support and encouragement from Khan Academy, the trust and confidence of my administrators and parents and the cooperation of the learners who have limitless potential, I can push the limits.

I have met many students as well as professionals who have a strong aversion to numbers. As a budding mathematics teacher back in the Philippines, I had that thought at the back of my mind. I heard many say that mathematics is such a difficult subject to learn. As a teacher, I want my students to find math easy, fun and interesting and I resolved to make it so. I observed my students to better understand why they find math difficult and boring. This way, I know what technique or strategy to use for every lesson and for certain groups of learners. It is said “first impressions last”; so, I make it a point to start with very easy lessons to impress upon my students that math is easy to hurdle. It is more of giving the students that “feeling of success.” This may seem insignificant, but in my experience, it makes a difference.

Our learners come from different orientations, different learning experiences and different family backgrounds. We do not simply breeze through lessons and at the end of the day say we have accomplished our lesson plan. That is not what it means to teach, because for me to teach is also to touch lives – the lives of the learners. To do this, I simplify a complicated number lesson. I do my best to make it meaningful and enjoyable for them. I exert every effort to make the lessons relevant to them, especially in this challenging 21st century milieu. I see no harm in combining strategies and techniques, from traditional to non-traditional teaching platforms to approaching with modern technology. I modify and innovate. I believe that we teachers are endowed with the gift of being creative, and we need to hone our craft. I do not stop “educating” myself with the latest trends in education. I see favorable opportunities and I grab them, and in the end I contribute to the betterment of our learners. They are the beneficiaries of my efforts to do better each time in my vocation as a teacher, just as our Lord Jesus Christ was.

I am from a poor family in the Philippines. The challenge was not just to survive, but to finish my studies. It was not easy to focus on this. I did not simply rely on what my parents could do, because they could only do so much. I helped send myself to school. I held on to my dreams, my goals and I never allowed desperation, frustration and failure discourage me. I held on tight to my faith in God. Even after I was a teacher, I faced obstacles. My immediate supervisors did not seem convinced that I could be a good teacher. Do you know how it feels when your administrator is not supportive? I felt like changing my career track, but I never gave up. And that also accounts for my thirst for more knowledge, for opportunities to do better, never to be complacent just because I already achieved something. For me, there is no stopping. I believe, educating oneself and learning is a lifetime process.

This year of 2020, uncertainties and difficulties stare at us. This pandemic poses challenges difficult to surmount, but as teachers in Catholic schools, let us remain unruffled. Let us hang on. We owe it to our students and parents, too, who are looking up to us. Let us be the role models. It is easier said than done, but with prayers and steadfast faith in our Lord, we shall overcome. At this time of pandemic, let us use whatever technology we have to reach out to our learners. Let us keep the faith while staying safe.

St. Anthony Catholic School, I am truly indebted to you. I am heartily grateful to Mrs. Patricia Ramirez, our school principal, Mrs. Rita Rodriguez, our vice-principal, our school board president, Mr. Derrich Rodriguez, my colleagues and the St. Anthony parents for their trust and confidence in me, for giving me the chance to contribute to the growth of the learners, and for giving me room to grow and make myself a better Catholic school teacher.

I also would like to thank my supporters and my fan base, my husband Tony for his untiring support, sacrifices and love and my children Kaela and Bethanie who give me joy and inspiration always.

Most importantly, thank you God for all these opportunities. I will be forever grateful for your grace and mercy. Please continue to protect and help us. We know that we cannot do anything without YOU. We surrender and lift everything to you.

Taking Hope Back to School

The following blog was contributed by Clare Kilbane, Ph.D., a faculty member at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter @ClareRKilbane. This article was originally published on the McGrath Institute blog and is being offered here with permission from the publisher.

Going ‘back to school’ always involves a transition for families and educators, but this year it will be even more challenging. Families returning to traditional, in-person schooling will need extra face masks, hand sanitizer, and cleaning wipes, in addition to the usual school supplies and back-to-school clothing. Families transitioning to new modes of schooling—whether online instruction, homeschooling, or “pandemic pods” (i.e., education co-ops)—will need to develop new routines, practices, and relationships to make learning both effective and sustainable. And educators, regardless of who, where and how they will be teaching, will need both creativity and grit as they flexibly adapt to changing conditions when teaching and connecting with their students. Given all this, something everyone will need and benefit from taking back to school this year is hope

Christian hope is not some vague, circumstantial belief that ‘the future will be better than the past.’ Rather, it is a virtue that combines a desire for something and the expectation that it will be received. More specifically, Christian hope is a desire for divine union with God and the expectation of eternal happiness through it. But we need not wait for this union if we practice hope now. Union with God can be experienced in the present and with increasing fullness, if we continually allow our words, actions, and selves to be conformed to and by divine love. Christians consider hope a virtue because it is an act of will—an intentional choice made to approach the events of our lives with a particular orientation. With hope, we can choose to view the upcoming 2020–2021 school year as an opportunity to grow in holiness—especially through our relationship with the source of our hope, Jesus Christ.

It helps to remember that we are the latest in a 2,000+ year succession of Christians who have endured suffering and prevailed through hope. I am reminded, in particular, of Blessed Basil Moreau, C.S.C., the founder of the Congregation of Holy Cross. Moreau put the motto “Ave crux, spes unica”—”Hail the cross, our only hope”—at the center of his community, founded in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In so doing, he ensured that the sisters, brothers, and priests of Holy Cross who founded schools around the world would form generations of students to approach their lives with hope, even to this day. 

If faith illuminates one’s experience of reality with an awareness of its design and purpose (e.g., a call to intimate and loving relationship with God), then hope is the lens that enables us to see beyond the Cross—to experience the invisible reality of God’s love. When carrying hope along with the Cross, trust in God transforms suffering to joy. As St. Paul wrote, “I pray that God, the source of hope will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).” 

One way to take hope back to school is to meditate on the following questions each morning. 

  • What particular struggles am I experiencing today?
    Ask God to assist you in meeting these struggles with hope.

  • As I engage people, relationships, and events today, how can I more fully awaken the joy that comes from hope?
    Ask God to open your heart to a greater, deeper trust in him.

  • How can I be a model of hope for others (my children, my students, my colleagues)?
    Ask God for the gift of perseverance as you carry your cross, and for the grace to see beyond your struggles—to find in the Cross of Christ a sign of hope. 

Hopefully, by returning often to these meditation questions, your experiences of the 2020–2021 school year—whatever those may be—can be transformative, not only educationally but also spiritually.

Assessment in Any Learning Environment: What teachers and administrators need to know about remote testing

The following blog was contributed by Dr. Gene Kerns, Chief Academic Officer at Renaissance Learning, Inc.

Back-to-School 2020 involves new challenges. Catholic educators must make distance learning work, full or part time. But will formative assessments be accurate and reliable when administered remotely?

The answer is “yes.” With the right planning and processes, you can use tools such as Renaissance Star Assessments to gather formative data remotely. However, remote testing involves unique considerations to ensure your assessment data provides reliable insights to guide student learning.

1. Define your purpose for testing.

Testing runs more smoothly when everyone understands how results will be used. Students apply their best effort, parents recognize that results are used to tailor instruction, and educators are prepared to analyze and act on the data.

Defining your purpose prevents over-testing. Only test when you’ll use the data: to identify struggling students, guide instruction and intervention, ensure all students are learning, or all these purposes.

2. Consider your timing.

Determining when and how often to test relates to your purpose for assessing and ensures the data accurately portrays student achievement. Schedule the initial test early enough in the year to get data to inform instructional decisions—but only after you’ve had time to get to know your students.

Regarding time of day, consider when students will be able to do their best. Avoid testing as the first or last thing in a day so students are less likely to rush.

One of the benefits of Star is each assessment takes about 20 minutes. If your test is longer, consider how to manage breaks to get students’ best efforts.

3. Provide clear testing instructions.

How you set up remote testing depends on available resources. Having a teacher administer the test to small groups of students using video conferencing provides a good experience. Another option is to have a parent or other adult family member in the same location as the student serve as proctor.

No matter who supervises testing, make sure they understand the test’s purpose and their responsibilities. Our Teacher Guide for administering Star Assessments remotely outlines how to ensure a smooth experience and reliable results.

Test security and cheating are often educators’ biggest concern. One of the best ways to prevent cheating is also the simplest: clearly explain the test’s purpose. When teachers and parents reward effort instead of results, they’re showing students that trying their best is what matters.

4. Communicate clearly with parents and students.

Sharing your remote testing plans is also important. Consider using a variety of communication channels, keeping messages targeted and tailored to the audience:

This school year presents unique challenges, but with a well-defined plan, you can gather the data you need to move every student forward.

For additional remote testing best practices, watch our on-demand webinar and review our remote testing resources.


About the Author

A third-generation educator, Dr. Gene M. Kerns was born with a passion for learning. Over the past two decades, he’s served as a public school teacher, adjunct faculty member, professional development trainer, district supervisor of academic services, and academic advisor at one of the nation’s top edtech companies. Dr. Kerns earned a doctor of education in educational leadership from the University of Delaware as well as a master of science in secondary curriculum and instruction and a bachelor of arts in English education from Longwood University in Virginia.

“Be Nimble”: Words for Schools to Live By in the Time of Remote Learning

The following blog was contributed by Jan Coonrod, chemistry teacher at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California and this year’s winner of the Presidential Award for Math and Science Teaching for California in the area of science.

Many of us are feeling no small amount of trepidation about opening up our school year with online learning. As a chemistry teacher, the thought of taking my amazingly successful and popular student-centered, inquiry- and activity-based course, and flattening it to the dimensions of a screen and a dimly lit image of myself is soul-scarring. In times like these, it’s good to remember that the only thing a problem needs is a creative solution, and teachers are nothing if not creative. I offer some basics here about how our school is approaching remote learning in the hopes it might prove useful to others or a jumping off place for ideas.

Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, California decided early to go to entirely remote learning—it made the most logistical sense. We started in July with trainings and PD focused on our new reality. In response to the economic pressures of our times our school decided to freeze our salaries and make that money available as emergency financial aid to families. There were no objections. We also created a Student Emergency Fund for donors to support struggling families for the upcoming year.

We learned from online teaching in the spring not to bite off too much, so we now teach four days a week—Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Our classes are 80 minutes long. Wednesdays are reserved for office hours with students, department meetings, and some co-curricular activities for students. We found teachers desperately needed this Wednesday time to adapt and create new lessons. Plus, students needed a day away from the screen and time to catch up on work or to speak to teachers. Also, our day now starts at 9 AM and extends a bit later in recognition of the fact that teenagers just don’t do that well in the mornings. To start the new year with new students and new classes, the first two weeks are slower paced, taking real time to connect with the kids and allowing them to get used to the technology and expectations.

Since the keystone to my honors chemistry course is hands-on learning, I arranged to use some of the money normally earmarked for chemicals and equipment to create an at-home chemistry kit for my students. One of the more ingenious things in this kit is a digital meat thermometer which we will use as a temperature probe for a lab that generates evaporation curves for various liquids. With some online sourcing, I found a digital pocket scale that reads to the nearest hundredth of a gram and weighs up to 500 grams. It’s amazing and less than ten dollars! With help from campus maintenance we set up a contactless distribution system for the 200-odd kits right out of the chapel. While the kit is simple and extremely safe, I’m hoping that the interactive nature will stimulate some enthusiasm. I plan on creating “lab groups” of four or five students so that students can work on some of their activities in breakout rooms with a consistent set of individuals and feel more of a sense of community. Finally, the words of our principal, Dr. Chris Smart, ring especially true right now—our best approach to this whole situation is to “be nimble.”

A Catholic Approach to Face Masks…Unmasked!

The following blog was contributed by Clare Kilbane, Ph.D., a faculty member at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame. Follow her on Twitter @ClareRKilbane

The scientific evidence is clear that wearing face masks reduces the transmission of COVID-19. However, there continues to be a lot of social controversy about wearing them. Although face masks are small things, they raise big questions. One question we benefit from considering is if, in a Catholic context, wearing face masks is humanizing or dehumanizing? The answer is both! In the coming months, Catholic school educators will help their students if they demonstrate how to approach mask-wearing with creativity and offset feelings of dehumanization. If they embrace the pandemic health precautions as a “teachable moment,” these leaders will allow their students to gain a powerful lesson about solidarity and also develop virtue.

Wearing face masks as humanizing

In theological terms, an action is humanizing when it allows us to more fully develop the potential of becoming who God has created us to be. If we accept that human beings are created to be in loving relationships with God and one another and if we recognize that virtue aids this, then wearing masks is an exercise that is very humanizing. Rather than wearing a mask to simply adhere to school rules, Catholic school students can be encouraged to wear a mask to practice solidarity and develop the virtues of kindness, charity, and temperance.

Wearing a face mask is kind and also an act of charity to others

It helps a student to hear that while very few people like to wear masks, doing so is more tolerable when we acknowledge it as an act of care for others. Wearing a mask, much like other personal sacrifices (e.g., sharing one’s belongings or using good table manners) is a personal choice to respect other people and honor their dignity. When students wear a mask, they should feel good about performing an act of charity. And when students see their classmates wearing masks to protect them, they can be reminded that they are valued. Further, all students can be reminded that even though every community member will appreciate the good choices they make about health practices, those who are most vulnerable will benefit the most. For some students, especially those who live with elders or are close to people with preexisting health conditions, it is critically important to reduce their risk of contracting and transmitting the virus. Other students, those who suffer from anxiety, will benefit from a greater sense of well-being when everyone is wearing masks and exercising extra caution.

Wearing a face mask develops temperance

Scientific research to date indicates that masks must be worn consistently and correctly by all community members for the most effective protection. This means that self-restraint or temperance must be developed both individually (i.e., by each student) and collectively (i.e., uniformly across a community). When a student’s temperance waivers (as is predictable, because it will develop only gradually), it may help him or her to be made aware of and contemplate a unique aspect of the virtue, namely its “transferability” or value in all aspects of a person’s life. The teacher might explain how a student who develops self-restraint will benefit from it in all situations, such as when studying, (e.g., it helps fend off distraction), learning a musical instrument (e.g., it promotes regular practice), participating in a sport (e.g., it leads to better sportsmanship), or building the habit of prayer (e.g., it enables greater growth). Developing temperance is like building muscle strength—the more we practice the virtue, the stronger it becomes.

Wearing a face mask promotes solidarity

School-aged children are, quite naturally (due to their developmental stages), focused primarily on their own needs, rather than those of others. To succeed in life and flourish, a student benefits from knowing the truth—that they have been created by God for relationship and all of creation, including human communities, is necessarily interdependent.  The news headlines offer ample, irrefutable evidence that all members of the human family are inextricably linked, as Catholic social doctrine teaches. As long as some members of the community suffer, we all suffer.  And if some in our community are unprotected, we all are unprotected. Many current events, including the Covid-19 pandemic, illuminate our universal needs and humanity’s common destiny. Solidarity is about recognizing others as our brothers and sisters and working together for the common good. When embracing this truth in the midst of difficult times, school community members will find that joy is derived through solidarity and an active union with others. 

Wearing face masks as dehumanizing

Many sociologists predict that the Covid-19 pandemic will result in a significant, permanent decline in genial interactions among people in public spaces.  Although this is possible, it need not be so. Physical distancing undeniably impacts our social interactions, but only unravels the social fabric if we allow it. It will help us if we adjust our understanding of what pro-social behaviors are. For example, when a person is in public and avoids others to protect someone else this need not be interpreted as rude or unfriendly. We must learn to adjust and recognize it will take extra effort for everyone to remain close at a distance. Remembering to smile with one’s eyes and wave in greeting when moving to create a safe distance is important. Thoughtfully modifying one’s actions makes it possible to balance social connection and also the community’s physical health.

If one accepts, as Catholics do, that a person’s body is essential to his or her identity as an ensouled creature, it explains why wearing a face mask feels so unnatural. The stifling feeling we experience when our breathing is obstructed, the frustration that arises when we attempt to communicate using muffled speech, and the alienation we feel when we cannot easily read the facial expressions of our loved ones and friends, are all evidence that our physical experiences are an integrated part of our identity. The very same practices that allow us to exercise our care for others radically subvert our accustomed sense of humanness.

In difficult times, it is easy to feel powerless and focus only on the feelings associated with our physical, material experience. Yet Christians must challenge themselves to acknowledge the whole of reality. We are more than our bodies and feelings—we are created in God’s image and have the potential for love. Therefore, wearing a mask is only as dehumanizing as we allow it to be. By engaging creativity, a divine gift we share with the Creator, Catholic school teachers and leaders can adjust and adapt to the new conditions of practice and assist their students to grow in the ability to love as God does.

Here are some creative suggestions, or “workarounds,” that may off-set the dehumanizing feelings students often experience when wearing a face mask and help allow them to grow in their connections to and care for one another:

Supplement and augment support for “seeing” and connecting with classmates

The appearance of a person’s body (especially his or her facial expressions) is an important aspect of identity. It is often the first and most powerful mode for communication and a foundation for developing a relationship. A comforting smile can make a student feel welcome in a new place and initiate friendship. If a teacher can supplement ways for his or her students to “see” one another and get to know one anothers’ appearances, it will increase a sense of connection and develop a more cohesive classroom community. Mask-wearing need not preclude students from learning to visually distinguish between their classmates while wearing masks nor should it keep the students from getting to know what their classmates’ uncovered faces look like. Photographs taken without masks of the students, teachers, aides and other school personnel should be brought into a prominent display in the school building. They might even be displayed with the message, “My name is X and I care about my friends.” Where there are many new students and relationships, this will be especially helpful. Young learners might find it easiest to wear laminated photos on a lanyard, while older students might display them on their desk on a “name tent.” Their teacher could place his or her photo on a poster, coffee mug or t-shirt.

The students should also be encouraged to look beyond the masks in their classroom and learn to “see” one another as God does—as unique, beautiful, and irreplaceable people who are both body and soul.  The students would enjoy being coached to notice the other physical traits associated with their classmates, such as their posture, body language and eye color. Going even further, the teacher might emphasize that truly “seeing” others requires a concerted effort to explore their distinct character as it made evident in thoughts, values, talents, struggles and more. Students might be encouraged to pray for one another—bringing the intentions and needs of their classmates’  struggles to God. After so much isolation, opportunities for the students to get to know one another more fully, relate socially, and care for each other spiritually must be an acknowledged priority. 

Create alternative channels for the expression of emotion

Although we express ourselves with our entire bodies, everyone in the classroom will find it harder to communicate emotions with the obstruction of facial expressions due to masks. New ways of sharing feelings must be developed.  Our voices, though muffled, can be recognized as an even more important way of communicating ourselves, our sorrows and our joys. Students should be encouraged to speak directly and regularly with their teachers about their well-being. Although this important personal communication is best shared one-on-one and in an intimate, relational conversation, classroom settings do not often make this possible. To ensure it happens, a routine will need to be established. For example, young children may find it helpful to draw a face that communicates how they are feeling during the school day and display it on their desk. Older children will benefit from opportunities to give their teachers a quick emotional “status check” using methods such as hand signaling, journaling, or online polling. Procedures for how the students will express and get help with especially difficult emotions when they arise should always be in place. Given the unprecedented nature of the challenges many students may experience during the pandemic, creating a safe space where feelings are recognized and validated is of particular importance.

Expand methods for creating connection and welcome

Although children are more flexible and find it easier to adapt than adults, it should be expected that mask-wearing may negatively affect how comfortable students are welcoming others and being friendly. Whether greeting classmates from a safe social distance in a school hallway or crossing paths with staff on the playground, most students will feel encumbered as they engage with others. They will need to be encouraged that this is an important aspect of community and one they must intentionally work to preserve. The school community as a whole will benefit from the launch of an initiative to be even more welcoming and build a sense of connection and unity. For example, a plan might be developed to reward friendliness or a special, non-contact greeting (e.g., an eye wink or a special clap/snap pattern) could be developed for everyone to share. Such efforts allow the community to regain control over the impositions of the pandemic, reducing anxiety and increasing well-being.

As Catholics, we believe that our all-good and all-loving God does not cause pandemics or crises to happen, but draws good from them. Because God can write straight with crooked lines, there is nothing beyond the reach of his transforming love. Further, we believe God recognizes our dignity by allowing us to participate in bringing about this good. If Catholic leaders and teachers approach wearing face masks with creativity, they will find that their students and schools emerge from the crisis stronger for it.

Finding Hope When You’re Feeling “Teacher Tired”

The following blog was contributed by John Reyes, Ed.D., executive director for operational vitality at the National Catholic Educational Association in Arlington, VA.

I once saw a Tweet a few years back from a university professor who, after a day’s worth of demo lessons several years removed from the classroom, talked about being “teacher tired” – and that phrase hit hard.

You must know that feeling – emptying your pockets full of Expo markers, falling asleep grading on the couch then subsequently waking up late into the night thinking it’s the next day, driving to school on your day off – and like me, you probably FEEL the phrase “teacher tired” just as much as you can read it. It hits hard in that crunch of time before grades are due; it hits hard when vacation just seems a *bit* too far off; and it hits hard when our communities are reeling from and attempting to navigate turmoil, trauma, loss and uncertainty on an unprecedented scale.

The antidote now, as it has been, is equal parts confronting the brutal facts and remaining optimistic about what lies ahead – an idea Jim Collins calls “the Stockdale Paradox” in his book Good to Great.

There are plenty of voices proclaiming the brutal facts – personally, there is nothing more I can offer to speak to this that your own lived reality, the incessant e-mail blasts, the tweets of despair and the talking heads on TV aren’t already doing. Without question, it is exhausting; but the narratives we are told pale in comparison to the depth of seriousness of the actual crises facing Catholic schools, their students and their families.

Here’s the thing, though – the history of Catholic schools is rife with tribulation, strife and challenge, but never without resilience and love in equal measure. In a piece published for Catholic Schools Week six years ago, Cardinal Timothy Dolan spoke candidly to the hardships of Catholic schools, but remained steadfast in proclaiming that it was “grit, pride, love, and determination” in the face of those hardships that embodied the resilience and love of Catholic school communities.

When you look at the legacy of Catholic schools and their propensity to innovate in serving marginalized populations, their attentiveness to values-based education, their ability to foster increased student outcomes with tighter budgets, and their dedication to ministering to the whole child and the family, the only conclusion I can surmise is that Catholic schools were tailor-made and fashioned for a time like this.

In Chapter 3 of the first letter of Peter, we are compelled to “always be prepared to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope.” For me, it is the selfless, courageous, run-to-the-danger level of response Catholic schools have and continue to execute. It is embodied in the willingness to innovate and be Christ to kids and families no matter the mode of instruction. It is embodied in the hunger and thirst of educators to know better and do better – to create stability in the midst of uncertainty.

At NCEA, we envision our work to be of advocating for hope, creating communities of hope, and building capacity to manifest that hope for kids and families in Catholic schools. Despite our circumstances pulling each of us to isolation, we are embracing this moment as an opportunity to default to collaboration. It is a radical sense of belonging to each other as Catholic school educators, as followers of Christ, and as men and women imbued with a distinction of dignity and value by our Creator that can and ought to be a driving force in what is probably the worst case of “teacher tired” ever.

Are Catholic Schools Small Businesses?

The following blog was contributed by Philip Dujardin, a theology teacher at Matignon High School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Our daughters’ Catholic school was in a crisis. At one particular intense meeting, a priest assigned to hearing parent concerns made mention of a philosophy that is gaining popularity among Catholic leaders: Every school must financially support itself. Those that cannot will be forced to close. In short, our Catholic schools are now considered businesses, separate entities who will demonstrate their worth by their financial sustainability.

This sounds like a practical idea. People are willing to spend money on a service or product worth offering. Contributors demonstrate confidence by investing in businesses that will make a difference in people’s lives. Parishes and dioceses, freed from the obligation to support often struggling schools, would finally be able to focus their efforts on serving parishioners’ sacramental needs, church building maintenance, and other ministries that will sustain the Church into the future. Perhaps the school building itself could be rented to a local organization, perhaps even a charter school, that will provide consistent funds for the parish to make ends meet.

Despite good intentions, the idea that schools should operate as independently financially viable businesses threatens the existence of Catholic education itself. Our schools are not businesses, they are ministries. The shared mission of our schools is now more important than ever: Enrich the lives of young families by educating through the lens of our Catholic values. Unlike the alternative, students and teachers can mention the name of God as the source of all gifts. In our schools, students learn the love of Christ, providing them with purpose and dignity, and helping them to realize the worth of their brothers and sisters. As a theology teacher, I have seen lives transformed by the opportunities we provide for students to know God for themselves.

Local Catholic schools bring families serious about practicing their faith together. They are bastions of hope for raising our children within an atmosphere of love of God and neighbor. When we close the doors to these institutions, these families are scattered, leaving the embers of hope to lose their flame, not having one another to keep each other warm and bright in the enveloping darkness.

We cannot expect our schools, especially those that serve the poor, to operate independently of parish or diocesan support. Thanks to priests, brothers, and sisters who have given and continue to give of themselves prayerfully and sacrificially in following a vocation to serve, our schools have thrived. Now, faced with the reality of continuous school closings, our leaders, lay teachers and parents are challenged to respond to the question of where to go from here. However, this issue is not confined to those already involved with our schools. All the faithful, bishops to parishioners, must make the continued presence of Catholic education the priority of the present time. Are we willing to carry the torch of religious orders that founded our schools, to willingly pray and sacrifice for the shared mission.

In Catholic social doctrine we have a word for tending to the needs of the most vulnerable, the preferential option for the poor. In our economy and among our ministries, our Catholic schools are the most vulnerable and deserving of our attention. For families on the economic margins, having an accessible Catholic education is a necessity to gaining access to opportunities normally reserved for those in well-to-do neighborhoods. A quality education brings us closer to an equitable society. A Catholic education brings us closer to God.

Why not call to mind our duty to our young people and their families by praying for Catholic schools at every Mass, every week? Is it possible to hold more collections for our Catholic schools? Can we nurture more partnerships between struggling inner city schools and their counterparts and parishes in surrounding areas? Can priests and bishops who support Catholic schools encourage their fellow priests and bishops to do all they can to keep Catholic schools open?

Jesus’ Great Commission states clearly that our primary work is to evangelize. This past year, the students in my sophomore theology class, in the spirit of the Great Commission, set out to share the Gospel with students younger than themselves. Students wrote stories from the perspective of Biblical characters who were changed by encountering Jesus. We then traveled to local elementary schools, reading the stories in small groups, presenting stories as a one-man show or rapping to the entire class. We encountered a receptiveness to the Gospel that is rare in the public domain. We could sense the openness that the students had toward the message, to us as visitors and to their teachers. Sadly, one of the schools we visited, the one serving a low income community, was forced to close this Spring. Nine other schools in our diocese alone also were closed or consolidated. I wonder what will happen to those students and their families. I wonder what will happen to our Church and our ability to transform society.

Sowing the Seeds of Academic Excellence

The following blog was contributed by Tina Moore, vice principal and middle school religion teacher at Blessed Sacrament Catholic School in Charleston, SC. She has taught in Catholic schools for 20 years, with 16 at BSCS. Tina’s passions are God, family and walking with young people in their journey to Christ.

Listen, understand with your heart, and produce good fruit. This is the message of Jesus from the parable of the The Sower (Matthew 13). The Sower scattered seeds, symbolizing The Word of God, in four places: on a path, on rocky ground, among thorns and in fertile soil. This parable could be useful in considering the environments in our Catholic schools. In his homily, my priest shared that the seeds that fall on the path and are snatched by birds  are the times when we refuse to listen for understanding; the rocky ground likened to hearing with our heads but not allowing it to take root in our hearts; and the thorns a symbol of hearing the message and believing but not transforming into action. 

The rich soil, however, is a setting where authentic sharing of ideas is an intentional part of the culture—and precisely the kind of environment learners, both student and adult, need as our new school year approaches.  Fertile soil lies in forming a school culture to build relationship, community with others (adult and young person) in order to build up the person, our Church, and the world. A proven way to create an environment of collegiality in our Catholic schools is through adult collaboration: adults in the school being open to one another through professional learning communities, with their students and families being at the heart of all they do, working side by side to see the mission accomplished.

In seeking academic excellence at your school, research shows that we produce good fruit when the adults establish and share a vision for the school. In between all of the planning of schedules, safety precautions, and parent communication, we must know with clarity and strength of what we envision academic excellence will look like, sound like, and feel like. Professional development aimed toward growing that vision through teacher collaboration pushes your school forward in the midst of uncertainty. Teaching tends to be isolative in nature; combatting that isolation with regular opportunities for adult learning springboards your school toward collegiality.

As Jesus sums up the explanation of the parable in Matthew 13:23, “But the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold.” Fostering a culture in which faculty and staff are geared toward bettering their craft while enhancing their students’ lives is fertile soil. To that end, in today’s environment, seek ways for your faculty and students to connect and build. Being a flexible, adaptable community will get us through the year we have ahead of us. Ask yourself, “How can I build a culture of collaboration and collegiality? What does the Sower want me to sow in my encounters with others today?”

We Are Made for Each Other

Two friends from St. Athanasius, before COVID-19.

The following blog was contributed by Christian Dallavis, Assistant Superintendent for Partnership Schools in New York, NY. Reprinted with permission.

“Are we going back?”

“What will it look like?”

School leaders are hearing these questions every day at the start of July 2020, and they are anxious to answer them.

Soon, every school in America will find a way to make logistical accommodations to operate this fall. Some schools, dioceses, and districts have already published their plans. All of these plans tell families how schools will go back to school during this unusual year.

Few explain why these measures will be taken.

In my experience, people are not likely to embrace a new how without understanding why.

Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl understood this dynamic when the stakes were the highest. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he explained that any attempt to restore hope among those living in fear must understand Nietzsche’s words: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the Holocaust, but school-aged children in the south Bronx and elsewhere have experienced death in their homes to a degree that is not yet appreciated in the rest of the nation.

Take the “conversation” around masks, for example. Some Catholic school principals report that parents are threatening to withdraw their children if masks are required this fall. There is no unity in our community around why masks are important; the mask is just a how without a why. If you are a Catholic school leader who plans to require that kids wear masks, how do you respond? What belief informs your decision to do this?

Beliefs and Goals

First we must distinguish between beliefs and goals. Recognize, for example, that adopting protocols in order to comply with guidance from the  governor, mayor, CDC, diocese, or even Dr. Fauci himself does not constitute a belief. Compliance is a goal, not a belief. Similarly, “protecting the health and safety” of the community is a goal (more noble than compliance!), but still, not a belief, and not compelling to the parent who does not see the value of a mask.

Our root beliefs are the statements of conviction that inform our decisions, inspire our actions, and determine our goals. What do you believe that drives you to require masks? We may wear masks to comply with guidance and protect health—but what is it that we collectively believe that will compel all of us to wear them faithfully?

Too often our shared beliefs go unspoken. In reality, naming our root beliefs—shouting them from the rooftops, in fact—can be the most powerful way to unify our communities around the logistical norms that are aligned with those beliefs.

Catholic school leaders, you have an opportunity right now to anchor these critical decisions in your root beliefs. By putting your beliefs and mission in the headlines of your back to school plans for Fall 2020, you can lead with creed, build culture, and advance your mission. The logistics of your plan, and your community, will follow.

It might look something like this:

The Process

Starting right away, begin a series of regular updates to your community about back to school.

Connect with families every two weeks, on the same day, at the same time, via the same mode, like clockwork. Broadcast your message to current families and  also send a special message to new families—especially incoming kindergartners. If you haven’t communicated with them yet, you should not be surprised to find them shopping for another school. They do not yet know what you stand for, and in the absence of communication during a pandemic, they are getting anxious about sending you their babies.

The Message

You should be clear about the beliefs that are at the heart of the school community and which will be used to make decisions about your back-to-school plan. Tell them, for example, that your school is organized around a set of root beliefs that are at the core of our faith and our mission. They might include:

In this school community, we believe that we are made for each other.

We believe that we are better together, because we are a family; indeed, we are many parts of one Body of Christ.

We believe that we grow in our relationship with God by learning about God’s creation: the world, the people in it, and ourselves. We are always learning, and we believe that we learn better together.

These beliefs drive us to our shared purpose, which is our mission: to fan into a flame the gifts that God gave each of your children. We prepare your children to flourish, so they will be leaders in this life and saints in the next.

The Plan

Even if you don’t have a complete plan yet, share the beliefs that will inform your plan, what you are planning right now, and then prepare folks for your plan to change, as it will almost certainly change. If you do have a plan, be explicit about how each element is informed by a belief. You might say:

We learn better together. As of July 15, our plan is to return to school in the building, as we always do. The first day of class will be August 27. Our mission to ensure that your child flourishes compels us to take all necessary precautions to minimize the spread of COVID-19 within our community. Given the current public health conditions, these precautions may include wearing masks, distancing desks, having lunch in the classroom, or putting acrylic shields in some spaces. We will publish our plans related to these precautions via these regular updates. Please watch your email. Because we learn better together,  and we are confident that we can provide an excellent education in the faith while safeguarding each member of our community.

We are made for each other. This belief, and the latest scientific understanding of how the virus travels and infects individuals, will guide our decisions about which precautions to adopt. While children may not generally be sickened by the virus, they can carry and transmit it without symptoms. A student may carry it to school and transmit it to a classmate, who can bring it home and infect family members. While neither of these students may ever experience the illness, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members who live with our students who are susceptible to the disease may become seriously ill.

Our children and our community cannot flourish if the virus does. Our goal is to protect every member of our community by minimizing virus transmission from student to student at school. We will adopt precautions that are known to reduce the potential for virus transmission in our school community.

We are planning for a range of possible ways to educate your child this fall in order to ensure your children’s educational experience is as uninterrupted, rigorous, and rich as possible. If your children are unable to return to school in August, we will offer remote learning to ensure they continue to receive a Catholic education of the highest quality.

While we pray for a year of in-person instruction at school for all, if the public health situation in our community requires that we make use of a backup plan to protect your children and our team, we will not hesitate to do so, just as we did not hesitate to close the building in March.

We believe that we are made for each other. We love each one of you and each one of your children, and we are confident that we can provide an excellent education in the faith in each of these scenarios while safeguarding each member of our community. Just as Christ calls us to stop everything to protect one lost lamb from harm, we will do what it takes to take care of each other and we will be stronger for it.

We are always learning. In humility, we recognize that the public health situation may change rapidly between now and the start of school, just as it has since we last gathered in person in March. We also recognize that scientists are learning more about the virus and its spread, and the precautions we take will reflect both our learning and the current public health situation. Starting today, we will communicate with you every two weeks—more frequently if necessary—to ensure you are aware of our most current plans and any changes we make. We are always learning about the virus, its transmission, and our community’s vulnerability—and we will adjust our plans as needed to ensure each child flourishes.

In this time of deep uncertainty and fear, Catholic school leaders, you have an opportunity to unite your school communities around these beliefs we all share but do not say out loud often enough. When it is time to go back to school, every school in your neighborhood will have a logistical plan that explains how they will go back to school. Getting these logistics right is the work of crisis management. In the face of a fast-moving public health, economic, and social crisis outside your control, however, our communities need you to be transformational leaders.

What will it take to transform this moment of anxiety and division into one of strength and unity? It will not be a one-page pdf (or a 50-page slide deck) that explains that you will wear masks and social distance and disinfect sufficiently. Instead, it will be how you articulate why you do these things in your communities, how those beliefs are lived out in your actions, and, come August and September, how everyone in your community takes care of each other to ensure that every child flourishes.