In the past few weeks, I’ve had a few school leaders share their disappointment in their school communities. They have felt attacked and abused. Having given so much effort into building community, they are perplexed at the vitriol which has emerged. Then a school leader shared with me that he was being let go from his school in an abrupt manner and another leader shared her disappointment that she was abruptly told not to apply to her dream job. For all, the common theme was being treated in an un-Christian manner in a Catholic school environment.
It brought me back to the most difficult year in my professional life. Ten years ago, my wife and I decided to return to Seattle after our sojourn to Louisiana. We made this decision amid an active campaign to get rid of me mostly conducted through the online comments pages of the local newspaper. At that time, the paper allowed anonymous comments and a few members of the community took advantage of this opportunity to attack me in often very un-Christian words. I certainly made mistakes and was by no means a perfect principal. But no one deserves to be attacked and smeared while doing their best work for the Church.
When we announced we were moving back to Seattle, I began to apply for administrative jobs in Seattle Catholic schools. But those hiring committees read those comments and believed me to be a toxic, unpopular leader. They wouldn’t hire me for any position, convinced that I was running away from a dumpster fire that I had lit. Members of my Catholic school community were not only destroying my present, they were also short circuiting my future. So we moved to Seattle (with two kids in diapers) without jobs and I was unemployed until October when I secured an interim principal position.
I questioned my place in Catholic schools and wondered whether it was time to change careers. But I kept coming back to my great experiences in Catholic schools growing up and the great schools I had been part of like Bishop Lynch, Creighton Prep, and Bishop Blanchet. I knew I had something to offer and was falling victim to the horrible actions of a few. Unfortunately, un-Christian behavior can be a major component of Catholic school environments.
When faced with un-Christian behavior in your school, I recommend first looking at your school norms. Norms, after all, are what is accepted as normal. If it’s normal for parents to gossip about teachers on social media, someone needs to challenge that norm. If it’s normal for parents or board members to denigrate teachers or coaches in public forums, someone needs to challenge that norm. If you’re the school leader, you are the obvious one to challenge those norms and establish new ones.
As school leaders we shouldn’t be afraid, however, to be vulnerable and admit how ad hominem attacks can take a toll. Teachers can especially benefit by hearing how un-Christian attacks impact your life since many teachers deal with these attacks frequently. Imagine if vulnerability were our leadership paradigm—rather than power or being right. Then perhaps people would stop attacking people in power and treat others like humans. Or at the very least we could establish new norms.
If you need some inspiration, watch this 2014 Brené Brown talk. “Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count” talks about how to respond when critics attack. If you’re not in the arena struggling for truth, she says, your feedback shouldn’t matter.
Ultimately as school leaders we are called to love our enemies. “For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them?” (Luke 6:32). We often talk about creating communities centered on Gospel values. Is love of enemies one of those values? Imagine what our schools would look like if that were true.
In this week’s newsletter, I discuss the reality that most of us face at one point in our Catholic school careers—we can often be treated in a very un-Christian manner. I’ve also collected some great articles and here are the Top 5:
- In the American Catholic news section, the first article is an in-depth look at All Hallows High School in the Bronx. It’s inspiring, well-written, and worth your time.
- Take a look at the Catholic schools opening & closing section to read about the brand new Catholic school opening in Henderson, Nevada as well as the stark contrast in Flint, Michigan whose St. Pius X Catholic School is closing. In one place, the sheer number of Catholics is staggering compared to the dwindling numbers in the school and parish in Flint.
- At the end of the “Leadership” section, this 22-minute video from Brené Brown “Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count” is a great reflection on responding to criticism. It was shared by educational blogger Tom Barrett from Australia. Not caring what people think shuts us off to human connection, according to Brown, but allowing us to be defined by what others say cuts us off from vulnerability.
- In the Miscellaneous section, the New Yorker article on Richard Rohr (“How Richard Rohr is Reordering the Universe”) is a fascinating piece which reveals his appeal and explains his theology in very clear terms.
- In the same section, the next two articles highlight the phenomenon affecting private, small, and often Catholic universities. Concordia University in Portland just announced it is closing, the Chronicle of Higher Ed gives a guideline on school closings. Small Catholic liberal arts colleges are closing at the rate of one every 10 months and there are lessons that K-12 schools can learn.
Have a great week! It’s going to be two weeks until the next issue.
This week’s Catholic School Matters podcast highlights two great guests. The superintendent of the Partnership Schools in New York City, Kathleen Porter-Magee, joins the podcast to first, discuss her new articles(s) on “Catholic On the Inside.” We discuss how we shape school culture. Her articles have been the most read for the past three weeks of Catholic School Matters. These are great articles and deserve your attention!
- Manhattan Institute report “Catholic on the Inside: Putting Values Back at the Center of Education Reform”
- “An Alienated America Needs Community-Building Schools—Something Catholic Schools Have Been Doing for Decades” in the 74.
- America magazine article, “In an Age of Extreme Individualism, Catholic Schools Are More Important Than Ever.”
She describes her argument that if schools imitate the exterior symbols of Catholic schools (such as uniforms), they lose sight of what’s really important in Catholic schools. Catholic schools are overperforming on state tests and she believes it’s because they are focused on more than simply test scores.
Then, my next guest is celebrating her 25th year as principal of Christ the King Catholic School in Little Rock. Kathy House is a living legend. First, House discusses her long-time collaboration (19 years!) with one pastor—the Bishop-Elect of Shreveport, Monsignor Malone. Monsignor Malone is scheduled to be ordained on January 28, 2020.