The pandemic exposed how broken our Catholic schools are. But it also created an opportunity for change.
As the fog of the Covid-19 pandemic begins to lift, both public and private schools are swimming in uncharted waters. Learning has been interrupted at a scale not yet appreciated. Truancy has worsened (particularly in public schools), and there is strong evidence of increased anxiety, stress and depression among children of all ages. In addition, parents are being asked to monitor more closely school activities at a time when they too are experiencing added stressors from joblessness, health worries, caretaking responsibilities and isolation. Where does that leave our Catholic schools?
What we are returning to is anything but “normal.” The flourishing of Catholic schools will require a delicate balance of seemingly opposing paths, one focusing on tradition and the other on change. Maintaining the pandemic strategy of bringing schools together to collaborate and share best practices is also a key to success.
The flourishing of Catholic schools will require a delicate balance of seemingly opposing paths, one focusing on tradition and the other on change.
Tradition and rituals matter. In a recent article for America, the theologian Susan Bigelow Reynolds wrote, “We know what to do, what to say, where to stand, how to be. Rituals are the language of community. To be deprived of ritual...is to be deprived, in a real way, of solidarity and hope we need to envision the future.”
Whether it is a pep rally before a big game, the celebration of the Mass or daily announcements over the loudspeaker, rituals and routines are critical in education. They provide a shared anchoring to a moment in time, a signal of belonging and purpose.
I believe a critical factor in the success of Catholic schools during the pandemic is our faith tradition and attention to ritual. School leaders and teachers have been not only concerned with managing student health and safety; they have worked to address the spiritual needs of their school communities by adapting elements of ritual for Covid times. Simple yet intentional things like maintaining the daily morning prayer online have provided a rootedness to purpose that keeps hope alive.
Simple yet intentional things like maintaining the daily morning prayer online have provided a rootedness to purpose that keeps hope alive.
It is important, then, that schools have conversations about pre-pandemic routines, rituals and traditions in order to identify those that serve the school well. By re-establishing these rhythms and practices, schools can use the familiar to help mitigate students’ sense of loss and to reinforce the communal ethos of the school’s mission. In this way, “returning to normal” is essential.
It would be imprudent, however, not to recognize the struggles that had persisted for many years among many Catholic schools even before the pandemic: declining enrollment, cost and tuition pressures, infrastructure needs, teacher talent concerns, and uninspired learning environments and pedagogical approaches. Fully returning to normal means fully returning to these problems, and a failure to address them most likely means a slow descent to irrelevance.
The pandemic has shaken things up, and if we pay attention, we could learn a few things that could change the pre-pandemic trajectory. Does this mean technology? Yes, to some degree. But more importantly, we are reminded that students are adaptable when we need them to be, schools are more flexible than many would have thought, and, with the proper supports, quality learning and student care can come in a variety of forms. More important still is what has been revealed about Catholic education. Though the schools themselves are a plurality of shapes and sizes, our collective mission matters.
There are numerous examples of successful collaboration. Why, then, don’t we do it more often?
Amid the chaos of spring 2020, Arrupe Virtual Learning Institute hosted weekly gatherings of Catholic school principals and assistant principals to discuss emerging issues. Whether we were talking about cleaning protocols, camera technologies for classrooms or virtual graduation ceremonies, participants problem-solved with one another, providing expertise when it was theirs to give and gladly taking help when needed. Some participants led more regularly than others, but what struck me was the mutuality of these sessions. All were there for a common purpose.
I believe that Catholic schools need to share more. Collaboration in Catholic schools is a place where tradition and change can converge. Our shared identity is our strength but only if we use it for our mutual benefit. Whether it is two schools coordinating service trips for student volunteers, schools in a diocese sharing the support of a learning specialist, or students from multiple schools sharing common coursework, there are numerous examples of successful collaboration. Why, then, don’t we do it more often? Part of the reason is likely due to the ways schools view change and tradition.
We take pride in our institutions in part because of the substantial and lasting effect our traditions have on our students, parents and alumni. Even a small change can be met with resistance when that change seems to call into question the value of a closely held tradition. So imagine the confusion and hurt that can arise when a larger change initiative, such as instituting block scheduling for classes, substantially alters a school’s established rhythms. How, then, are we to confront the real and persistent challenges to our schools?
Japanese culture may have the answer. Recently I was introduced to the practice of kintsugi, which translates to “golden joinery.” It is the ancient practice of repairing broken pottery by artistically mending the fractured pieces using a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver or platinum. Kintsugi does not attempt to return the pottery to its original state. Instead it celebrates each artifact’s unique history by emphasizing its fractures and imperfections. With kintsugi, new beauty is born from the brokenness.
The process begins with the broken pottery being intensely studied to gain an appreciation of its history and purpose. Various lacquer treatments are then carefully considered, and the delicate process of restoration and renewal begins.
The pandemic has left our schools in a state of brokenness. Still, there is little stopping us from simply gluing the fractured pieces back together and continuing on as if nothing had happened. This, however, does not honor the exceptional yet imperfect efforts of the past year, a period that is now part of our narrative. Should we not seek to enfold these recent events into the historic arc of our schools? What lessons can be gleaned from doing so, and what precious treatments can we carefully apply to revitalize our schools, envisioning a new reality that is distinctly beautiful?
The melding of tradition and change. This is our path forward.
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