Category Archives: Lead

The Personnel Review: An Annual Practice

The following blog was contributed by Cathy Stephen, assistant superintendent of Operational Vitality, Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

As Operational Vitality covers finance, function, facilities and funding, making sure that the right personnel is in place is critical to a sustainable and balanced budget. The rule of thumb for school budgeting matches the classic 80/20 rule. Salary and benefits run 80% of the expenses, and tuition and fee collections counter this with 80% of the income. Taking an annual look at the costs and people currently in place helps to determine how to move forward with a strategy for hiring the right people, training current staff to improvement and forecasting the annual budget. Principals must look at enrollment trends and ensure that they have the most qualified, positive people in the positions as there are few, and we need the most excellent people filling them. An annual personnel review is a practice that assists any principal in their budget knowledge and cost controls.

In a world where rising costs are shutting down business, we know that our Catholic schools need to reduce costs while increasing enrollment. We need to have an appropriate amount of staff for instruction and supervision of students. Although the standard timing for a personnel review is January – February, considering this before the end of the fall semester helps our schools move forward in the right direction in the most challenging year we have faced.

Conducting an annual personnel review takes time and attention to detail. Principals need thought-partners (perhaps from the Schools Office) who can assist in tough decision-making when it comes to rethinking the standard 40 hours of work for full-time staff, as well as what positions need to be reduced or cut altogether. Sometimes a thought-partner can challenge the status quo and thinking of a principal, allowing for new ideas and a shake-up of traditional positions. Some of our Catholic schools have no choice if they want to remain open.

Start with building a case for each current staff member. Notate number of years serving there, what their specialty is and what dollar figure they represent in expense to the budget. Ask the questions that help to move them toward offering a new contract for next year. Do we have enough Catholics? Catechist certified teachers? State certified teachers? Is our staff diversified to match the community and student body? What other value-adds do staff members bring to the community? Have they asked for a change in assignment? Do they need one? Can a paraprofessional or ancillary teacher position move from 40 hours to 30 hours for full-time benefits? Begin to match the strongest members of the team to the jobs you know you’ll have next year. Do the math on the salary and benefits of these valued employees. Does this keep you within the 80%? Do open positions require you to hire first year, lower salaried teachers? 

The tough decisions made from this line of thinking actually strengthen the team overall. Some teachers need the change of grade level or assignment to spark their passion again. Newly schooled candidates bring a different set of skills to our schools. A balance of veteran, master teachers and the blessing of a new generation of apprentice teachers can be a marketing message that with traditional values comes a new way of teaching and learning. The budget, too, is all the better for it.

Happy Thanksgiving…Remember to Count Your Blessings!

The following blog was contributed by Kathy Mears, interim president/CEO at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.

Each November, on the Saturday following Thanksgiving, we begin our Advent and Christmas preparations. While putting out the Advent wreath and putting up the Christmas tree, we watch White Christmas. I enjoy it more than others in my family, but they put up with me.

One of my absolute favorite songs from the movie is “Count Your Blessings.” November is traditionally the month where we give thanks for God’s many blessings, so the song works during Thanksgiving weekend. This year, it would seem like it might be harder to find gratitude. 2020 has kicked us and some days, it is difficult for us to remember the abundance of blessings that God has provided. Yet, the multitude of blessings we enjoy is right in front of us.

The first on my list of blessings is the dedication and commitment of our teachers and school leaders. The love that they show to our children is never ending. They model what it means to be lifelong learners. They show us day after day that they are heroes and saints in the making. We are so grateful for our teachers and school leaders. During this pandemic they have been fantastic, and I am grateful that these particular people have answered God’s call to serve in this wonderful vocation of Catholic education at this moment in time.

Our families are on my gratitude list, too. They have handled the shift from in person teaching and learning, to online teaching and learning, to sometimes online and sometimes in person, to person to person, to online and back again. Their flexibility and willingness to “roll” with us is so very much appreciated. They trust us with their children, and I am very happy that they do.

I am blessed by our students. Their energy, enthusiasm and joy are gifts and thankfully, these gifts are visible to use in the classroom and online. This is a very difficult time for them, yet from all reports, they are trying and showing maturity that not all adults display when met with confusing moments in their lives. Our students continue to learn, to serve and to bring smiles to our faces and for that I am thankful.

Our pastors also bring hope to our work and I thank God for them. Learning to connect to people via Zoom or other platforms is challenging and they meet that challenge in a variety of ways. They are patient and kind. We are indebted to them for their work.

I am grateful for the generosity of many. Catholic schools depend on the generosity of others and although many have fewer financial resources than they did last year, people are still giving of their time, talent and treasure to our schools. We need them and so many are supporting us in every way that they are able.

Finally, I am so very thankful for our NCEA family. Our team has had many surprises and twists and turns this year, but they greet each day with a smile and a desire to serve you. They care about you! Everyone says, “our” schools, “our” teachers, “our principals.” They worry when they hear about a loss in a school community and they join in prayer for you each day. They laugh or cry each day because they care so deeply for our shared vocation. They are truly servant leaders.

My gratitude list is much longer than this, but I will end this blog with words from the song:

If you’re worried,
And you can’t sleep,
Just count your blessings instead of sheep,
And you’ll fall asleep,
Counting your blessings.

I hope you sleep well, counting your blessings. Happy Thanksgiving!

Non-Traditional Instruction of our Lord

The following blog was contributed by Adam P. Zoeller, a member of the theology department at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, Kentucky.

What is your educational philosophy? Has your educational philosophy changed since you began teaching? Embarking ever so slowly on my 20th year as a theology teacher, sacred scripture continues to be my primary source of inspiration for what I consider to be sound pedagogy. In light of the lessons of the faith of the patriarchs, the challenging words of wisdom literature, and the unconventional teachings of Jesus Christ, my philosophy of education is rooted in scripture. 

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8). The disruption of the unseen coronavirus on school systems, administrators, teachers, students and parents is seen throughout the country. I find myself soul searching asking the question, where did this come from and where is it going? Teachers have been required to teach in-person, teach remotely or teach in a hybrid model. Flexibility and patience have been essential to navigate through these uncertain times. However, using sacred scripture as my inspiration in light of the pandemic, the opportunity for my craft to evolve is evident and necessary. The Call of Simon the Fisherman from the Gospel of Luke reflects my educational philosophy that has brought comfort and stability throughout teaching this school year. While the crowd was pressing in on Jesus and listening to the word of God, he was standing by the Lake of Gennesaret. He saw two boats there alongside the lake; the fishermen had disembarked and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, he asked him to put out a short distance from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat. After he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Simon said in reply, “Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command I will lower the nets.” When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. (Luke 5:1-6). The primary lesson of this story is Jesus Christ calling His Apostles and specifically the faith of Saint Peter to respond to discipleship. However, the application of this story to the classroom teacher is focused on not what to do (curriculum), but how to do it (pedagogy). For example, my educational approach during the pandemic has been rebranded to focus on “how to think” and not “what to think.” While navigating on a new online platform and teaching in a hybrid model, I have transitioned to student-centered, project-based learning. My “pedagogical net” has been cast out to enhance the 21st century skills of my students by not focusing on the content for the sake of content, but instead requiring the students in my class to research, apply, analyze, or evaluate the information. 

Perhaps the challenge of teaching amidst the pandemic is to recognize that it is time to rethink the old ways of teaching and move towards a new approach. Which side of the boat are you standing on? Which side of the boat are you looking out? The challenge is not only to cast the nets in a new direction, but to “lower these nets” deep into the theological content in our classroom in order to “tear” our students from the secular world in order to bring them closer to Christ, and be true fishers of men (and women).

About the Author

Adam P. Zoeller is a member of the theology department at Saint Xavier High School in Louisville, KY.  He earned his B.A. in religious studies and B.A. in clinical psychology from Spalding University (Louisville, KY) and his M.Ed. in educational leadership from the University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, OH).  He holds a Master’s Catechist Certification from the Archdiocese of Louisville.

Adam has presented the following workshops for the National Catholic Educational Association:

  • Practice & the Game: Using Sports Language to Teach the USCCB Curriculum Framework (NCEA Webinar 2017)
  • Media Literacy & Scriptural Exegesis: Essential Skills for 21st Century Religious Educators, (NCEA Convention and Expo 2017)
  • From heart to missionary zeal: Using language and lessons from athletics to aid adolescent catechesis in the New Evangelization, (NCEA Convention and Expo 2018).
  • Framing Brain-Based Learning in High School Theology (NCEA Webinar 2019)

Adam has written the following reflections for NCEA Talk:

  • Paschal Mystery: Storytelling and Media Literacy (September 2016)
  • Personal Litany of the Saints (April 2017)
  • Motion Offense in Basketball. (November 2017)
  • Bully, Victim, and Bystander in light of the Woman Caught in Adultery (July 2018)
  • Searching for God in the MCU (September 2018)
  • The Way (truth and life) of the Cross: Reflecting on the road to Calvary through the temptations of Jesus Christ (March 2019)
  • My Inner Room during the Coronavirus Pandemic (March 2020)

Adam can be reached at azoeller@saintx.com.

Rock Star Principals

The following blog was contributed by Jill Annable, executive director of academic excellence at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.

I recently ran into an old friend, a fellow Catholic school alum, whose children attend a Catholic school. As we discussed the launch of the most unique school year to date, she candidly shared, “Our principal is a rock star.” I agreed. In her admiration, this parent did not know that her principal has not taken a day off since the pandemic hit; she serves with unwavering passion and is the core of vibrancy of the school.

When I became the assistant superintendent in the Diocese of Grand Rapids, I had never been a school principal. My background is in teaching and curriculum development, and I must admit: I was initially intimidated! I took the first weeks on the job to observe classrooms but also found myself observing principals. It was fascinating. My tunnel vision of classroom life was nothing compared to the scope of principal responsibilities; as a teacher, I had been completely ignorant of school budgets and operational vitality. Now in this seat, positioned to support schools as the assistant superintendent, my internal questioning mirrored what my own children wonder about their principal: “Does she run on coffee alone?” “How does she always know the right answer?” I quickly learned that my role had to be singularly focused: How can I help you?

I focused on this question in my time as assistant superintendent, attempting to lift the work of curriculum and instruction so principals could focus on operations and relationships. It was fulfilling, yet it paled in comparison to what principals were handling on a daily basis.

Not many realize the crises averted and conflicts resolved by Catholic school principals. Parents see how the principal supports their own children, but the sheer volume of personal encounters and supports is unimaginable. The launch of the 2020-2021 school year was no exception. Principals filled their summer with tense brainstorming sessions ranging from safety protocols to instructional practices. They worked late nights, on the phone with parents who were worried about their children’s health, the options our Catholic schools could offer, and concerns much beyond the scope of the school. But how did our principals respond? They delivered. They did not wait for the rest of the world to come up with solutions; they instead rolled up their sleeves and worked tirelessly to ensure Catholic education could continue in the safest ways possible.

When the old friend shared that her principal was a rock star, her next question was, “How can I help?” Reflecting on that moment, and in comparison to my own response years back, I am reminded of the beauty of Catholic school communities. This parent, who already sacrifices financially for her children’s education, seeks to give more. The prayer of St. Francis reminds us “It is in giving that we receive.” We are certainly seeing this in one another during 2020.

The most amazing part of watching principals at work is that I expect, by all laws of nature, to see signs of exhaustion, but it never comes. Instead, they are energized by the ministry. When I explained this to my friend, I encouraged her to pray that God continues to grant grace to those in Catholic school leadership and to perhaps send the principal a note of gratitude.

It is with great admiration that we celebrate this year’s Catholic Principal Appreciation Day on November 19. They are not only rock stars, but also headed to sainthood.

A Perspective on Election 2020 As We Await the Results

The following blog was contributed by Kathy Mears, interim president/CEO at the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) in Arlington, Virginia.

As Catholics, we are called to participate in civic activities, to work for the common good.

We are called to vote.

As a principal, my school was a polling place and our eighth graders were treated to lessons from poll workers and voters. Our students recognized that our school was important, as we were a place where we selected our next president, governor and other elected officials. Our students saw firsthand that people had different opinions, but everyone was respected, and everyone had the right to express their hopes and dreams by choosing the candidate of his/her choice. I believe that most people still honor and respect that right and I know it is what our teachers are teaching.

Pope Francis stated, that if “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics,” the Church, “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice.” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 183). As members of the Church, we are called to be part of the solution to the problems we face. We are asked to do what we can to assist in the political process in order to work for outcomes that support the common good. Therefore, we vote, we serve, we do what our conscience calls us to do for the common good. We are guided by our faith, our consciences, our hearts and our minds. 

We must also remember that the election will not solve our problems. People will still need employment, people will still need food, and healthcare will be needed by all tomorrow and the next day. The election does not end our civic responsibility. It is one point along the journey of faithful citizenship. It is but one way that we participate.

As in all elections, someone will win, and someone will lose. We are called to challenge each other to respond with kindness and respect after the election. We must model this and teach our students that our response shows our character.

Micah 6:8 asks what is required of us. The response: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. It is our prayer that these words become our guide as we teach and learn during our electoral process. We pray for unity, grace, peace and mercy. We pray for our nation and its promise.

We Are Called to Love All of God’s Children

The following blog was contributed by Tiffany Norris, MA, school counselor at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, California.

As a society, we are in a time of tremendous insight, potential transformation, listening and for many a newfound understanding. The horrific acts of cruel injustices inflicted upon George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery and countless others have become the most recent cry for change in the African American community. As a faith-based community, we are called to love all of God’s children and bear the burdens of our brothers and sisters in Christ. In our Catholic schools, we have a unique opportunity to implement change that is long overdue, and can better address the injustices that are rooted in over 400 years of systemic oppression.

The question for faculty, staff and administrators then becomes, “what tangible things can I do to help at my school?” It seems as though thoughts and prayers are no longer enough, and so we must now take action. To overlook this opportunity to address our Catholic school communities would be a failure to accept our responsibility as Catholic school educators. Upon return to school in the fall, conversations with students (no matter the subject area) can start fairly simple. Develop ice breakers that discuss what topics really resonated with them over the summer. If no students openly discuss social injustice, make that your topic of choice and hold open discussions in your classroom about what students feel will help them better understand social injustice in the world around them. It will be important to remain upfront with them and let them know that you, as an educator, are willing to take on hard topics for the betterment of the class. For example, in visual and performing arts classes, study African American music, base a school play or musical on an African American show. Take time to reflect upon why this has or hasn’t been a part of your school’s curriculum in the past, and if it hasn’t been…change that.

Knowledge is power. As an educator, you have a chance to make a tremendous impact. Take time to decide what you want your students to get out of the school year, and find reading material for them that addresses systemic racism and how that plays a role in your subject area. I would recommend making this an individual versus group project, so that students are engaging and everyone has an opportunity to learn.

As you work through this next school year and new topics are discussed, one thing to keep in mind is that many people are still learning. As you take the lead in these discussions, carefully foster all perspectives, which will lead to deeper learning opportunities for everyone. With transition in curriculum there also may be negative feedback from time to time. Your focus must remain on what God has called you to do, and that is to lead by His example.

The devil is the root of fear, but God is the presence of truth. You’ve got this!

Recommended Resources:

https://www.amazon.com/Third-Option-Racially-Divided-Nation/dp/1501172190

https://www.instagram.com/tv/CA9LyigBdjT/?igshid=1rgon9ffas5r6

https://www.schoolcounselor.org/school-counselors/professional-development/learn-more/race-and-equity-resources

https://www.tolerance.org/

https://vimeo.com/ondemand/ethnicnotions/98681735

https://www.amazon.com/White-Fragility-People-About-Racism/dp/0807047414/ref=nodl_

http://doloreshuerta.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/privilege-walk.pdf

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 nearly 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.

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.

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.

Finding the Words

The following blog was contributed by Liz Ramos, principal of St. Michael – St. Gabriel Archangels Catholic Elementary School, Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

My heart is broken, and I wish I had answers. I wish I knew what to tell my parents when they ask what instruction will look like in the fall after ten weeks of remote learning. I wish I knew what to tell my teachers when they ask how to teach the idea of sharing in a Catholic school when suddenly they are told students cannot share classroom supplies for fear of spreading a virus. I wish I knew what to tell people when they ask whether or not they should begin leaving their homes to venture into a world filled with unknowns. Yes, these questions certainly have their place of importance, but right now, the question that I wish I knew how to answer is the one that will come when my students return to my building and ask why a man had to die in the hands of people they have been taught to trust.

Like many educators, we struggle with finding the right words to explain what happened during this unfathomable incident and so many other tragedies that occurred before this one, but our struggle to find the words is nothing compared to the injustices and oppression that so many within our society continue to face each day.

I often wonder if we, as educators, and more importantly as Catholic school educators, do enough to teach the concept of racism. In religion class, we teach our students to treat others with respect and dignity, but we often avoid discussing the consequences that could happen when we fail to do that, other than telling students that such actions will not lead one to Heaven. In history class, we teach about slavery and the Civil Rights movement, but often we quickly move on to the next topic, claiming there is so much other history to cover before the end of the year. Even in our language arts classes, when we could be discussing more modern pieces of literature that showcase the lives of people from various cultures, we turn to the “classics,” often written by Caucasian males about Caucasian families and lifestyles. Failing to teach about the importance of other cultures continues to leave the impression that one race is more important and that there is little room for those of color. We may not mean to do so, but that is the message we are sending our students when we do.

As individuals, we work hard to provide a safe and welcoming environment for our children so they can be afforded so many opportunities that may not have existed when we were their age, and yet, we find that there are obstacles that continue to prevent our society from progressing as a whole.  We must seek change and allow our students to share their own stories and their own struggles and actively listen to what they are saying to gain insight into what they are feeling. Many of our students are too young to have their voices heard, and so we must be the megaphone for their voices so that all children of God can be heard.  We also need to model what healthy dialogue is with all community members. While we may not always agree with what another person says, we need to welcome other voices to join the conversation so that even for a moment we are forced to think about our own ideas and values. We also need to continue to explain that people make mistakes – some graver than others – and that while forgiveness needs to be shown, it is not always easy to give, for healing wounds takes time.

While it may not always be comfortable, it is important for us, as educators, to teach our parents and our students about how to have these discussions about race and culture so that change can be made. Below is a list of books you may find helpful not only in having those conversations, but also in celebrating the lives of so many who have risen above the injustices they have faced. 

Book Titles

We Rise, We Resist, We Raise Our Voices, An anthology edited by Wade Hudson and Cheryl Willis Hudson

Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez & Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation, by Duncan Tonatiuh

The Whispering Town, by Jennifer Elvgren

Rosa, by Nikki Giovanni

The Day You Begin, by Jacqueline Woodson

My Hair is a Garden, by Cozbi A. Cabrera

Something Happened in Our Town, by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard

That’s Not Fair! Emma Tenayuca’s Struggle for Justice, by Carmen Tafolla and Sharyll Tenayuca