To Serve and To Know . . .

29512640_1527604330682312_8341771817601705422_n“Community is much more than belonging to something; it’s about doing something together that makes belonging matter.” – Brian Solis

Teachers are accustomed to serving others. Each day in the classroom – and sometimes beyond – teachers do their best to meet the needs of all the children in their care. No small feat, teachers must balance different learning styles, academic levels, unique family needs and the personal situations of all of their students. In short, though they are paid for their work with children, teaching is both a job and a vocation to serve children the way only teachers can.

In the midst of serving their students, teachers are also teaching them how to serve others. From organizing Layette Drives, collecting Free Dress monies slated for our mission trips, and even learning to work with their fellow students, teachers teach service and by extension, unselfishness. Students learn valuable lessons about the purpose, value, and joy of serving others. In doing so, both teachers and students live out their faith in dozens of constructive ways each day.

Recently, however, the tables were turned and our teachers became the taught. Last week, schools in the Drexel System were encouraged to participate in a day of service. At Holy Spirit School, we chose to participate in our Parish’s Sandwich Ministry that feeds the homeless. Over twenty teachers met in the Parish offices to learn the fine art of making sandwiches from our intrepid leader, Pastoral Associate, Merry Reardon. Like a well-oiled machine, she helped us set up various stages of an assembly line for sandwich fixings – bread, turkey or bologna, and cheese – chips, cookies, and a drink. “Baggied up” and placed in paper sacks, the food and drinks were loaded in our cars for the trip downtown.

Our mission for the day was simple. After we arrived at St. James Park, we broke into groups and were instructed to walk up to one of the many homeless persons gathered in the park and ask, “Would you like a lunch?” Our brief interaction ended with, “God bless you!” in return. We also offered large plastic bags for storing their wet clothing from the recent rains and extra water bottles. It took us less than thirty minutes to distribute almost 100 lunches

While our task was simple and accomplished quickly, the impact of our actions upon each of us was lasting and profound. Handing a stranger a lunch is a fairly straightforward experience, but to see their faces light up with the joy of receiving something so simple is hard to forget. Most poignant of all, this joy and appreciation were reflected in our own eyes each time our offer was accepted. We may not have changed any lives on this particular day, but we did make – for a brief moment – a few people’s lives a little easier and happier.

The old adage states that it is always better to give than to receive. Based on our experiences on this day, there is no doubt in my mind of its truth. In serving others each day in our classrooms, it is equally compelling to step outside occasionally and serve others in true need. Being good role models of our faith requires nothing less . . .

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A Moment in Time . . .

IMG_3913Like hundreds of other schools around the country, today, our Middle School students joined the National School Walkout in remembrance of those students and staff who lost their lives at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Though sadly, there have been dozens of other school shootings during the past several years, the Parkland shooting, and the activism of its surviving students, has energized youth across the nation to finally say, “enough!”

The march at Holy Spirit School was simple – students left their classrooms in silence, each carrying a beautifully decorated paper cross with the name of a Parkland victim, and marched single file around the school to the Church. Once inside, the silence continued and a slide show with the faces and names of each victim was projected. We ended our silence with a prayer led by our Student Council Religious Affairs Officer.

What was remarkable about our march was not the steps we took to honor these fallen students and staff. What was remarkable was the silence. Out of respect and in remembrance of their fellow students at Parkland, our students remained steadfastly silent throughout the seventeen minutes and beyond. Even the well-known “squirrels” and semi-professional class clowns, stopped their fidgeting, squirming, and whispering to view, in solidarity with their peers, the results of what our society is capable.

Even more remarkable than the silence, were the tears and muted sniffles of the students in the room. As the Parkland victim’s pictures filled the screen, and a bell tolled for each one, it was possible to feel the air being drawn from the room each time the slide changed. By the time the final prayer was tearfully read aloud, the air was returning, but only enough for each of us to be thankful for each other.

As the students returned to class, breathing deeply for the first time in seventeen minutes, they were still silent, though even an outside observer could sense a change. Some exited holding hands, some were still in tears, but most of all, they appeared grateful – certainly for the end of an emotional and moving service – but also, for the newly appreciated gift of each other. Life can indeed be short and even cruel at times, but at least for today, while remembering those who were taken from us, they are concentrating on those that remain.

Whether the “movement” of ending the violence and creating the awareness for change that has arisen from Parkland and other senseless tragedies continues into the future, we cannot say. However, I am encouraged by the words shared at the service:

“Our prayer service and our period of silence this morning recognize the dignity and well-being of each and every person. We recognize how precious every life is and how fragile it is. At any given moment, unexpected events can change the course of our lives forever. Time and time again we are reminded that life is a gift and we need to cherish every moment we have. Let this be a reminder for us to be thankful for what we have, who we have, and to treat each other with kindness and respect.”

As I returned to my office, I could not help but be reminded of the now even more powerful words from Isaiah 11:6, “A little child shall lead them . . .”

“Be All That You Can Be . . .”

images-1It is difficult to walk into any bookstore these days and not be overwhelmed with the number of self-help and advice books that dominate the shelves. From business coaching to dog walking, taming the stock market to buying a car, there seems to be an advice-filled book out there for everyone and everything. While access to this much advice is oftentimes beneficial, the sheer volume (no pun intended), of information and frequently conflicting methods or strategies offered up can be confusing.

As school administrators and teachers, we have access to the same high volume of how to books. The vast number of self-appointed experts brimming with advice gives credence to that old adage about how everyone is an expert on education because everyone has been educated. However, as educators – and frequently as in life – the simplest advice is often the best. In this case, the most profound advice for someone involved in teaching and working with children comes from CNN producer, Ayesha Siddiqi:

“Be the person you needed when you were younger.”

In reality, the quote above can be applied to virtually any area of life – parenting, business relationships, coaching, friendships, and more. If each of us were to approach life from this perspective – to remember our own childhood with all of its learning issues, hesitations, fears, and needs – how much better will that make us in our jobs and relationships? The sense of empathy that this basic phrase asks of us can have a transforming effect on our world and the people around us.

Over the years, when we as administrators look to hire new teachers to the school, there are certain basic criteria we look for in addition to the subject degree and related professional experience and qualifications. At least equal in importance – if not more so – must also be a sense of passion: a passion for working with children, and a passion for learning – both for one’s students and personally. Without passion, new teachers or any teacher would simply become the instructor or two we all remember that simply seemed to go through the motions and phone in their time – teaching us very little along the way.

In addition to competence and passion, the concepts of empathy and understanding articulated in the quote are what distinguish great teachers from the rest. The ability to remember yourself as a student, to recall the pressures and frustrations – as well as the many shining moments – and to be able to use these memories to help students in similar circumstances – these are the great qualities of teachers that are life-changers for our children. To teach, to understand, and to empathize with every student as they go through their learning process is to help them beyond measure.

Whether teacher, administrator, parent, or other professional, the willingness to pause frequently throughout our daily lives and recall how we once were and how much better we have become – all the while recognizing this same potential in those that are in our care – is to be not only empathetic, but also, the best that we can be. For most of us, that is the only advice we will ever need.

Reality Check

IMG_6731As I have shared before, one of the great perks of being an administrator is the ability to pop in and out of classrooms. Although the intent of such drop-ins is to observe the wonderful learning opportunities afforded to our students, we are also able to see great teaching taking place. Occasionally, such great teaching can even come from our students. Such was the case today as I visited the PreKindergarten and Kindergarten classes.

In PreK, the students are currently studying dinosaurs, and were arranged on the floor learning to sing a song – I distinctly remember the term “Brontosaurus” being bandied about . . . As I listened in the background, I took the time to tour a dinosaur museum that the teachers had put together. Complete with lots of pictures and even a dinosaur bone or two – large cow bones actually, but please don’t tell – the highlight of the museum was the recent hatching of the class’ dinosaur egg.

Actually, a small watermelon painted to look egg-like – again, no telling! – the egg had recently “hatched” and had a small dinosaur (plastic), now struggling to emerge. I was immediately struck by both the creativity of the museum and egg, as well as by the fact that several students actually bought into the egg scenario, with one grabbing my hand and telling me that they hoped I wasn’t scared. As I was about to assure my new friend that I was OK, I felt a tug on my other hand. Leaning down to listen – PreK students are notoriously short in stature – my newest friend told me “Don’t worry, it’s not real. We’re just pretending!” Steadied by this revelation, I felt strong enough to move on to Kindergarten.

As I entered one of the Kindergarten classrooms, and despite my desire not to interrupt, I was immediately greeted and invited to view their new class pets. I particularly enjoyed the hermit crabs, though I evidently violated classroom protocol by picking up a shell to actually see the crab inside. Though not directly reprimanded for my egregious act, the loud gasps told me immediately I had gone one step too far. Noting that the teacher had thankfully not seen my crime, I apologized to the students and assured them I would never do it again. Their smiles told me I was surely forgiven.

Moving on to the fish tank in the same classroom – this time with new escorts – I noticed quite the growing collection of assorted goldfish – the living kind – and perhaps a few others. Proudly displaying their new “school,” the students clearly enjoyed sharing their new treasures with me. However, once again, I slipped and let my obvious ignorance show.

Noticing a sticker from “Finding Nemo” on the front of the tank, I said that Dory was my favorite fish. Just as I turned to leave the classroom, I saw one of my young escorts eye roll the other and then say, “He thinks it’s real!” Laughing too hard to defend myself, I walked away content in having learned my lessons for the day: dinosaur eggs don’t hatch anymore and Dory from “Finding Nemo” is not real. Couple both of these with the obvious rule of not picking up hermit crabs in the classroom, I was already exhausted – and it was only 9:15 in the morning!

While the best thing about being an administrator may be the ability to visit all of the various classrooms, it’s obvious you better be able to learn and you better follow the rules. If not, there are always plenty of “teachers” available to help.

I understand the other Kindergarten class has an animal that looks just like me – something about a bearded dragon . . . I can’t wait!

Be Still and Know . . .

UnknownThroughout the school year, we often share with various parent groups, potential parents, and the parish community a great deal about the academic program of the school. Rarely, however, do we share about our most important purpose as a school – growing and living our Catholic Faith.

There is a moment in our weekly Mass at Holy Spirit School that never fails to move and inspire me. Minutes before the service begins and without any visible prompting or direction, the voices of over five hundred students grow slowly silent and the usual fidgeting seems to still. The brief and unprovoked silence is as if we all know that God is present and deserves our undivided attention. This feeling is then magnified a hundred-fold when the voices of all the students and adults join in the opening song of the liturgy. For one brief moment, all voices and hearts seem united in recognizing the wonders of God among us.

However, just as God is present in the lives of our students during our weekly Mass, so, too, is He present throughout our daily school lives. As a Catholic school, God and growing our faith in Him is at the center of all that we do. From prayer to Bible readings, Church history to service projects, our faith is constantly renewed and refreshed throughout our daily school routines.

First and foremost, prayer is the single most important aspect of living our faith. Each day begins with prayer at our All School Assembly, followed by readings from the Gospel and a pause for reflection on that day’s Scripture. Teachers frequently add classroom prayer to the beginning and endings of their class day or week, and all classes pause for prayer before lunch. As a defining moment for our community, each day at exactly 11:20 am, a campus-wide bell rings to remind all classes to pause for the Peace Bell Prayer. Though brief, it is a moment of welcome centeredness for all of us to channel our thoughts back to God.

As a team, the faculty and staff also find themselves frequently centered in prayer. Each week, we begin Monday mornings at 7:40 in the Library in prayer for each other and the week ahead. In addition, throughout the week, at staff meetings, parent meetings, school events, and other gatherings we are always brought to order through an opening prayer or blessing.

Throughout the school’s curriculum, Holy Spirit School students have the opportunity to discover more about their faith. From learning the basics in the earliest grades through songs, projects, and lessons, God is made real to our students. Older students begin to dive more deeply into the meanings and implications of their faith in their daily lives – coloring in pictures of Moses and Jesus are replaced with instruction in Church history and involvement in public performances such as the Advent Program. Catechism classes with the Parish are also a key component of learning about our faith. From the concentration in second grade on preparations for First Communion to the two-year program for Confirmation in seventh and eighth grades, sacramental prep is a coordinated effort of both school and parish.

Beyond simply learning or singing about our faith and relationship with God, living out that same faith is one of the most important teachings of the Church – and of Holy Spirit School. In addition to the school’s required community service hours, students are offered service opportunities through the Village House shelter and retreat opportunities through the Church at our missions in Texas and Nicaragua. Several grades and classes organize fundraising opportunities that directly benefit areas and issues of need in the larger San Jose community. Finally, numerous students also contribute individually through being altar servers and youth leaders and volunteers in Sunday School and Vacation Bible School.

Of course, there is much more to the daily instruction and growth of our students’ faith. Unscripted moments of prayer, the celebration of additional Church feasts, and the simple joys of participating in the serving of others and their needs, to name just a few – all add to the most well-rounded of spiritual educations. At Holy Spirit School, students participate in a rich and varied academic life, while at the same time are provided the strongest of underpinnings for their faith and relationship with God.

Whenever I think about the faith and growth of our students, I am reminded of one of my favorite hymns at our weekly Mass: “Taste and See.” While it sounds wonderful sung by any and all ages, nothing can compare to the more than five hundred children’s voices singing, “Taste and see, the goodness of God . . .” At Holy Spirit School, we “taste and see the goodness of God” each and every day. The foundations of our Catholic faith permeate everything we do and are practiced, taught, and lived throughout our school day and beyond.

At Holy Spirit School, education does indeed change lives, but it is our faith that transforms us . . .

 

 

Apples and Onions

1 apple onionSeveral years ago, a popular bumper sticker proclaimed, “If You Can Read This, Thank a Teacher!” While I believe this statement to be true and echo another bumper sticker saying that, “Reading is FUNdemental” – I also believe that there are other key aspects of learning that a teacher can impart to his or her students. High on my list would be developing in children a sense of wonder – encouraging them to ask and to investigate for themselves the how and why of events and occurrences around us, especially in the natural world.

While I have had many strong teachers over the years, my eighth-grade science teacher, Mr. Lerch was a master at sharing with us his own sense of wonder. From the sound of your pulse in your ear when you lay your head down on your pillow at night to how important our sense of smell is to our taste buds – Mr. Lerch never met a sight, sound, feel, taste or smell he could not dissect in an attempt to help himself better understand the how and why of its operation. By sharing his own personal stories with us, and then recreating certain aspects of them for us in class, he made an indelible impression on our young minds that lingers even today.

Among Mr. Lerch’s more unforgettable stories were the already mentioned pounding pulse in his ear. Each of us has, at one time or another, lay our head down on a pillow and heard the rush of our own pulse. In Mr. Lerch’s story and personal investigation at the age of seven, this seemingly mundane occurrence led to everything from an examination of his own mortality – “Does the fact that I can hear my own pulse mean my heart is rapidly expanding and I will die soon?” to the thought that some alien creature or perhaps worse, a blood-sucking ear worm had invaded his brain. We were so wrapped up in the story that time seemed to stand still, and to this day, I clearly remember that when one of our classmates sneezed, we all jumped.

As engaged in his stories as we were, Mr. Lerch’s point was that life – and not just science – is a journey of discovery and experimentation. To live life is not only to enjoy it but to constantly have a sense of wonder about it – all the while questioning and hopefully understanding what it is all about. To this day, I cannot eat an apple without remembering that while blindfolded and with a pinched nose, you cannot tell the difference in taste between an apple and an onion. Try it sometime! Also know that for about three years afterward, we used a subtle – and not so “tasteless” variation of this experiment on our unsuspecting friends and relatives. I believe I still have a cousin whose anger and perhaps tastebuds, simmer to this day . . .

Most importantly, Mr. Lerch taught us that wonder extends beyond questioning. He taught us that a true sense of wonder first awes or better yet, inspires us. His prime example of this in nature was the Grand Canyon. Though I have yet to see the canyon myself, I am prepared at a moment’s notice to be awed and even inspired by its sight – thanks to his helping me to fully understand the how and why of its creation. On a far less grand and personal level – and to perhaps illustrate the latent adolescent in me – I also have a sense of wonder each day when I take a hot shower and the steam builds up in the room. When the shower is over, the door opened, and the steam released – it never ceases to amaze me.

Perhaps it is a stretch to say that hot showers remind me of Mr. Lerch, but the sense of wonder he inspired in us, the encouragement to experiment and to question, and the fun that was often involved, are not only lifelong penchants for myself, they are also the goals of all good teachers. For these things and more, I am eternally grateful to my own teachers, like Mr. Lerch, and always hope to inspire my colleagues to be the same. Reading and writing are indeed, fundamental, but so are simply observing, investigating, and being inspired by the life in and around us each day.

Apple anyone?

Grace, Friendship, and the Dignity of Choice

searchAs many of you know, Holy Spirit Church is a leading member of a consortium of local churches and synagogues offering overnight shelter on a rotating monthly basis for homeless women in the Silicon Valley. As a member of our Church’s Men’s Faith Group, I recently had the privilege of helping to serve the Village House – as the program is called – women breakfast. While the three main words in the title above – grace, friendship, and dignity – are not often associated with homelessness, I was able to witness firsthand the profound depth of their power among the women we served.

Most of us have a fairly standard view of the homeless. Shaped by our own experiences in seeing them asking for money at stoplights, pushing their inevitably overflowing grocery carts down the street, or perhaps catching quick glimpses of their tents under freeway overpasses or at the side of the road, it is generally not a positive view. Rarely do we give thought to their plight or the reasons they are living the way they do. If you are like me, I may occasionally give them a dollar or two when asked, but for the most part, I am simply grateful I am not forced to live the same way. Village House changed all of that.

What I witnessed that morning, while still making me grateful for everything I have, also forced me to view the fourteen women who had gathered for breakfast as fellow humans – with all of the strengths, foibles, and likes and dislikes of the rest of us. Without knowing their histories or the reasons for their current condition, the women I shared too brief a time with, were each filled with amazing connections to these three words: grace, friendship, and most important of all, dignity.

With breakfast beginning early at 6:00 am, the women arrived and began gratefully accepting the coffee and eagerly eyeing the casseroles, bacon, and bagels arranged on the table. Despite the hour, I was struck at once by their smiling faces, animated conversations, and genuine ease around us and their fellow sisters in need. Despite their current lot in life, they engaged all in the room without a hint of either their current state or the struggles they may have waiting for them on the horizon. Effusive in their gratitude for what was offered, they seemed genuinely humbled by the offerings in front of them.

Most of all, I was transfixed by their care and concern for each other. I could not help noticing how often they repeated each other’s names during their conversations with each other. Seemingly every sentence or phrase contained their opposite’s name in an obviously endearing way. I had heard before that being homeless frequently meant being nameless as well. After all, when you are on your own on the streets and often devoid of human contact for long periods of time, who says your name? These women recognized both the soothing and deeply humanizing aspects of the simplicity of simply saying each other’s name.

Their concerns for each other also manifested itself in other ways. Aware that one of their group had been hospitalized during the night and had now returned, I watched as several of the women approached their recently stricken friend consoling, patting her arms, and genuinely worried for both her health and where she was going to be during the upcoming day. One woman offered to help her “lay low” today and stay safe. I could only imagine what that might entail as they spent their day back out on the streets.

Their friendship and care for one another even reached out beyond their immediate circle. One of the experienced volunteers at the Church had herself been recently hospitalized. Not wanting to lose the connections she had made with some of the Village House women last year, she called in that morning to chat with “her girls.” As she said hello over the speakerphone, the shared welcomes, best wishes, and laughter as each of them connected or reconnected their friendships was a heartwarming moment to witness.

By far, the most significant moment of the morning for me was perhaps its most seemingly mundane. At the end of each day’s breakfast, the women are allowed to pick up a premade lunch bag for the day. Each lunch includes a sandwich, some type of fruit or vegetable, as well as a drink and chips. As I watched the women pick up their lunches, I saw several of them swap out different items and offer to trade types of chips and fruits with each other. In a few cases, they stated their dislike for the type of sandwich offered and asked for ones without cheese or a different type of meat.

My first thought at hearing these requests for something different was to wonder how people who seemingly had nothing, would not simply accept without question what was being given to them. However, I quickly moved beyond my obviously condescending thought when it began to dawn on me that these women had very few choices in how they were currently living their lives. Without employment, its resultant income, and certainly housing, very few of the real choices each of us have on a daily basis as outcomes of these three things, were available to them. Having the ability and opportunity to get something you really liked as simple as a slice of cheese, was an important and in some small, yet significant way, empowering to them. If you cannot choose much in your life’s current reduced state, why not hang on to some small sliver of humanity and assert your right to choose when it does present itself?

As the final dishes were cleared and the dishwasher loaded, the tables quickly emptied and the women were shuttled on their way to their day – some to a local warming center, some to the train station, and some even went off to jobs. I realized when it was over that while an hour or so with homeless people had hardly made me an expert on the subject or condition, the time I had spent with them was one of the most profound learning experience I had had in years.

For in helping to serve a simple breakfast to homeless women, I learned that to be homeless did not mean you were heartless; that though you were officially classified as being without a home, wherever you are you create your own home and even your own family; and that what mattered most of all was a refusal to be anything less than one of God’s children – full of grace, full of friendship, and full of dignity. For one brief moment at the Village House, fourteen women let us into that family – showing each of us what it truly means to be human – a lesson that I know I will not soon forget.