Leaders are gardeners. I've probably said it before in this incredibly irregular blog. I was reading somewhere about how positive change is built on a foundation of trust. I'd like to slightly alter the metaphor - trust is the soil out of which the fruits of our creativity flourish. Just like in a classroom, where our goal is to support the growth and vitality of students in community, the fruits of our efforts are not engineered - they are grown. These are natural processes born out of the design of the Creator. Leaders are not more valuable than any part of the organizations or communities they lead - but they are important! Good leaders cultivate the natural energies, talents, desires, and dreams of those they lead. In Catholic schools, this should be even more true. We in Catholic education recognize the inherent dignity of each of our students, staff, faculty, and families - but beyond that we should recognize the value of the gifts granted each of them by God. The gift of leadership, like teaching, like coaching, lies in identifying these gifts and creating structures that allow them to bear fruits.
A good gardener does not attempt to force the growth of plants, but encourages the natural energies of these plants according to their unique character. Vines grow best when they have a structure to climb on - so we give them trellises. Carrots don't reach their full potential when they are planted too close together, so we give them space. Beans, squash, and corn compliment each other's needs and mutually flourish in each other's presence. So too with leadership.
If your staff doesn't have the capacity to use a new system yet - give them time, training, and ownership. If your teachers are struggling with classroom management, give them an ear to vent to and skills to support their confidence. If your families feel unheard - give them a path to you that is unimpeded and welcoming. If your meetings keep running the same loop and your staff are disengaged - reimagine them. If some sour talk is dominating your staff dialogue, like vines choking out seedlings, redirect the vines, and place the seedlings in a place where they can grow. It is the role of leaders to "have their ear to the ground" and understand what these needs are.
My father-in-law gave me this bit of wisdom about gardening "work with what the garden gives you". There is beauty in what you have, leader, but it is up to you to see that beauty and help it realize itself. The leader's role is not to lament the absent, but celebrate the present and encourage it to become even more itself. In the absence of a gardener, the garden will cease to thrive in it's best way. So too with leadership.
I spend a lot of time thinking about systems. More specifically, I think about how systems within an organization impact the people within and outside its boundaries. As a developing educator, I frequently thought about how the "system" of education had failed me, and how it fails so many others. When I became a teacher, I had to reconcile my part in that system. I watched as I saw the same mistakes, the same flaws, the same injuries occur to my students as happened to me. I saw myself, not intentionally, but out of a desire to just survive as a beginning teacher, injure my own students. Later, as a doctoral student, I studied the system even more. I saw how education connected to even larger, more complex systems that appeared to possess incomprehensible power. Systems created to intentionally marginalize others.
Racism. Sexism. Ableism. Poverty. Incarceration. Hunger. War. Neglect. Hate. Bitterness.
All these and more personified and crystallized into ominously amorphous spectres. Over which one individual could wield no power. "The Work" we call it. "This Work". A spiritual refrain of secular religion that motivates those burdened with consciences to stumble forward against powers that seek to oppress. It's hard to have hope when you're fighting a monster.
The more I study systems, the more I realize that the systems we create are reflections of us. They are imperfect, broken, naïve, silly, insecure, bold, angry, brave, and most importantly....temporary. Yet...systems aren't real things. Jaron Lanier, a pioneer and author on technology, points out that computer programs are designed by people. The more we personify programs, the less we see the role of individual people in their design. I believe the same is true with systems. To some extent, I believe we have deified systems, given them power and status that is undeserved. At bottom, what is an organizational system than the coordinated efforts and regulated behavior of individual people in relationship with each other? All it takes to break a system is for one individual to choose otherwise.
Yet, the myth lives on that all we need to do is "continuously improve" or "deconstruct" current systems and build new ones in their place. This, my friends, is a chasing after the wind. The systems are to some degree, scapegoats. We blame them, we hold them accountable, we point to them as the cause of our callousness, but ultimately it isn't the systems that need reform, it's our hearts.
I was raised Methodist, and although we took a historical interest in the Saints, we looked at them as mostly mythological rather than models of holiness. I don't think I really envisioned the saints as real people, or even considered how God might use these saints in their unique positions to teach us how to walk with Him. I was lucky enough during Lent to once again learn from a mentor of mine. She spoke about the canonization cause of Dorothy Day, a figure about whom I had no knowledge, and even now only some. The message from my mentor was this - for the church to canonize Dorothy Day was to show to us that her walk with God is a path toward holiness. While I still don't know much about her or her cause - that idea stuck with me.
Later on, in a conversation with my good friend and frequent spiritual guide Mr. Art Taylan, the saints knocked again on my door. I have a dream of starting a school. Recently, that dream has taken greater shape as I have seen a need for a preschool that is inclusive of all learners - meaning more specifically those with disabilities. I can go into detail about why this is the case and why there is a need, but that's another conversation for another forum. What's important here is that I've been thinking about it. I was telling Art that I wanted to make this school Catholic, but didn't know if I could (again, for a number of reasons). Art said "I wonder what St. John Bosco would do?" I looked at him perplexed, mostly because he pulled the name of a saint I had NO knowledge of out so immediately. He told me the story of St. John Bosco and the founding of the Salesians and how they educated poor children. I immediately made connections with a saint I do know about, St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle. A thought occurred to me then that echoes in my mind still - the saints just really didn't give a #$%^! They were in it for God and God alone. The fire in their hearts burned in spite of everything around them trying to douse it out.
I thought of my confirmation name, Lawrence, and St. Lawrence, Deacon and Martyr, who sarcastically presented the bare truth that the poor are the treasure of the church to Valerian, and who joked with his executioners as he was roasted on a grate. In the words of C.S. Lewis - "He's not a tame lion." Sometimes God calls us in ways we don't think of, and though he is definitely sending you somewhere that no one else can go, that doesn't mean he didn't give you guidance for how to get there. Looks like I'll be reading more about the lives of the Saints this summer!
Where is God sending you?
some key words in the objective with their own. One of those key words was "Develops". I was impressed overall with their efforts, but particularly struck by how many students substituted the word "grows" for develops. I liked this because it gave the characters a human quality, something organic rather than mechanical.
We are now a full quarter into "pandemic learning", midterms are coming to a close, and I now have a moment to reflect on where we've been and where we still are yet to go. Full stop. Let's consider something important - NO ONE HAS DONE WHAT WE ARE DOING. Like I said to a colleague, there are no best practices, there is no manual, there is only ourselves and our creativity to make this work. In other words - we are all learning, which is a place in which I love to be.
I consider how rough our start was last school year, with so much uncertainty and so little knowledge about how to even make this work. Now, we are pushing ahead with a growth in technical expertise the likes of which the teaching profession has never seen. Students are growing faster and learning a whole new way of interacting. Yes - perhaps we are learning less "content" but in reality we are learning more than we ever have!
So it is important to pause, and reflect on what has changed, and what should change moving forward. I recognized that many things have improved. My feedback to students, the technical mechanical aspects of teaching, have all improved. I have better systems, more communication, and more efficient assessment strategies. But in that - with the computerization of teaching - I have also lost something critical. I feel the loss of the connectedness of the classroom, of the spontaneous and natural flow of instruction that is driven not by me, not by the curriculum, but by US, by the culture of the classroom.
In talking with some of my former students, this is exactly what stuck with them about my classes. It was this natural, responsive type of learning environment that engaged them the most and helped them learn.
I don't seek to reclaim this as something lost. I now seek to recreate this with all the benefits of technological efficiency I've gained. My classroom design next quarter will be changed, fewer, more complex assignments. More time given to individualization of instruction; more time getting to know students and building culture. That's where my greatest impact has been, and that is where it will continue to be.
Students - I have developed, I have grown, I have learned - and so have you. You will learn and grow no matter what, but you only do so for good by working, by working hard and keeping at it. By failing over and over again and recovering. I ask you - reflect on what you have learned, not necessarily in the classroom, over the past quarter. How have YOU developed as a character? How are you working with God to co-author your story of sainthood?
But this is not what I wanted to talk about. Linguistics are awesome and lead us deeper into the contemplation of divine mysteries, but love is worthy of more. Frequently, we are called to love our neighbors. When a tragedy strikes or we encounter someone having a hard time of it, we feel sympathy. It has become the custom to offer up our "thoughts and prayers" or to say, I'll be praying for you. But how often do we? When did it become enough to love our neighbor by offering expressions of care and sympathy without a tangible helping hand?
If we offer a prayer for someone, pray with them. Pray fervently for them. That in itself is an act of love. But Christ didn't just offer his prayers - he offered his whole self - body, blood, soul, and divinity. He didn't say "send thoughts and prayers to the needy" but commanded us to love our neighbor as ourselves: To clothe the poor and feed the hungry, to comfort the grieving and the sick and yes - to turn the tables of the temple and rise up against injustice. Our God is not a tame God, nor should our love be weak and meager offerings of empty words.
So pray - pray fervently and whole heartedly for those in need and for the strength of heart to do what God calls you to do - and then become yourself the answer to someone's prayers.
Something I love to do is cook. I didn't inherit a love of drawing or the ability to do so (my students will attest to this). I have a love of music, singing, and playing instruments, but never liked to perform. When I grew up, I struggled to find my place with really any art (I didn't think of myself as much of a writer then). I found that place with cooking. It is my art, and it is the art that I love to share with everyone. Cooking is a joy to me, especially when I can make something entirely from scratch - even better with ingredients I grew, caught, hunted, or gathered. The more challenging the better.
A great example of this happened a few weeks ago. My tomato crop had finally come in and came in fast. I had more tomatoes that I could handle, so I made enough sauce to feed an army - or my family for a few weeks. I took the tomatoes, combined them with basil, garlic, and onions from my garden as well as a few other proprietary ingredients. The thought occurred to me that this was a beautiful sauce, and it would be wasted on a less than beautiful pasta! So I took some semolina flour, some eggs, and salt and started to work some dough together. My son Declan helped me through the process. I told him the best pasta is made with love, and asked him if he could put some love into the pasta. Without skipping a beat he put his hand over his heart and scooped out some love, putting it right into the dough as he kneaded it. It was the best pasta I've ever had.
This is how it is with God. You see, I didn't make those ingredients. The tomatoes were sown with my labor, but I didn't make them grow. It was God, not I that spoke life into the wheat that made our flour. God's act of love is what gives birth to all good, but in the same breath that God creates, he invites us to be creators with him. It was God's love that gave me that moment with my son, when we together took the wheat made into flour and worked into it a new life as pasta. It was our love poured into our work that made the pasta, and the sauce, and all good things. What God has gifted us, we took with our hands and worked into something beautiful, and made it even more so by offering it up to be shared.
God invites you to create. You were not born to pay bills and die, you were born to be a co-creator, a participant in the work of Christ - what being a Saint really means. But here's the thing - what this means is giving yourself completely over to God. It means taking every gift you receive - and every burden - and bringing it to the altar to be transformed. Bishop Barron reminds us that this is exactly what happens during Mass: "Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this bread to offer, which earth has given and human hands have made. It will become for us the bread of life."
The gifts we bring to the altar are returned to us as the very source and summit not only of our lives - but of everything.
It's in these small things. These small acts of creation where we take the gifts God gives us and offer them back - to the poor, to the hungry, to those who are marginalized, to those whose dignity is most denied by society - to our neighbor - that we receive the gift of becoming who God made us forever to be.
Welcome back SAINTS!
As you already know, and has already been repeated to you several times...this is a year like no other.
G.K. Chesterton frequently wrote about the majesty there is in ordinary things, and it is under extraordinary circumstances such that we now find ourselves in that the ordinary reveals itself as truly precious.
The image above is a word cloud made from student survey responses about how they feel about online learning. In class I asked students to take their feelings, take their past experiences and first name them...then...set them aside. My challenge to all of you, students, parents, teachers, and community, is to set aside your attachments and open yourself to new experiences. Invite God to come into this time and transform it, to transform us.
The image below reflects what students miss about being on campus. Unsurprisingly, we miss our friends, our small interactions, and numerous other things we counted once as given. Let us invite God in to remind us that everything is given from Him, and let's pray to be more grateful, gracious, and forgiving in our recognition.
To my students - I am thrilled to be a part of this experience with you. It is truly and adventure I am grateful to share.
What are you watching?
So...with the pandemic I have had a lot more time to watch T.V. Not so much more that I'm sitting on my butt and binge watching, but I can at least take in some shows. Before the pandemic my life was so taken up by commuting, work, and other obligations that I was lucky if I got 30 minutes to an hour after my kids went to sleep to enjoy some time to myself.
In my house Netflix's purpose has for some time been to just cycle "The Office" or
"Parks and Rec" on loop..you know, like most reasonable Americans. I love these shows, and there's something about their character that suits them to being on in the background, almost like commentary on your own life. They're close to home in a way....more on that for later blogs. This is about why I enjoy GOOD T.V., not just something to have on in the background, but something that creates a world you can immerse yourself in for a few hours. T.V. that isn't an escape (as I think the aforementioned shows are) but are an invitation to an experience.
The reason I love good T.V. is the same reason I love good books. They get my mind going. I connect with characters, their motivations, their emotions, their moral ambiguities...I...and here's the critical part...I imagine with them. And that is exactly what I like about T.V., it is theater. It gives my mind a place to play. This is important for us. We all are to some extent our child selves. Trust me, to grow up is both overrated and impossible. We'll always carry our inner child with us, and that inner child is the most centrally human thing about us. We have an innate need to play, to imagine, to have leisure. (For my fellow Catholic scholars it's here that I will plug some writing by Josef Piper "Leisure, the basis of Culture" https://www.ignatius.com/Leisure-P1445.aspx.) For everyone else, trust me, imagination is important, more important than we give it credit for. C.S. Lewis believed that the imagination was the key to the heart, and I can't say that he is wrong.
So what have I been watching? Star Trek, mostly. A bit of Picard (My bald officer inspiration). The Mandalorian, I can't say enough of this show. Disney did a phenomenal job here creating a class space western. The show goes well beyond Baby Yoda, but let's be honest, he is the star. Weeds I'm re-watching this series. Just as an advisement it is not for younger audiences, or those who have a discomfort with morally ambiguous literature, but it is good satire and social commentary that addresses issues of class, race, gender, criminality, and in some cases dives deeply into some existential absurd-ism. Weeds can be funny, inappropriate, disturbing, and wickedly intellectual.
That's about it right now, What are you watching? Why do you like it?
[Having] been reduced to the perplexity of realizing that he did not know… he will go on and discover something. (Meno 84a-d, Lamb translation)
Have you ever been in a situation where you realized that you didn't know what you didn't know? It's kind of hard to articulate. Another way to say it is that you realize that you don't know enough to even know what you don't know. How about that for a sentence? The thought is just as awkward as the turn of phrase.
In Greek, the term is "Aporia" literally "perplexity" or "reaching an impasse". It means coming to a point where you become aware of your own ignorance. You know that you don't know. For Socrates, this was a great place to be. This is where you cross a border from the cave of ignorance into the real world - the place of discovery. The shock of coming to realize that you are ignorant, that you don't know everything (even some things that you think you know) is to come to a place of intellectual humility.
Have you ever done something thinking you were right, then argued about it. You know that you are right, no way you could be wrong. Then come to find out, you were wrong. (Shazaam is a movie from the '90s with Sinbad!) That's the feeling, right there.
Aporia is healthy. It's a place where we can truly humble ourselves and allow ourselves to grow. We aren't the masters of our own lives, and the more we realize this, the better we become. G.K. Chesterton wrote that the lunatic wants to take the entire universe into his head, and in doing so, the universe crushes his mind. The rational person doesn't try to fit all things into his mind, but seeks an ocean to let his mind expand into.
This is how we learn, this is how we grow. How beautiful is this idea that by beginning by acknowledging our own emptiness, we begin the path to true discovery. No one is fixed. We are always in a state of becoming; there is always another thing you can do to grow.
Do you feel like this at times? At school? At work? In relationships?
If you find yourself in a state of Aporia - rejoice, for now you can go and truly discover.