August 12, 2022

Educators share advice about making the most of new school year

As another school year begins, upper class students at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis welcome first-year students into their school family on Aug. 9. (Submitted photo)

As another school year begins, upper class students at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis welcome first-year students into their school family on Aug. 9. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

It may be the best piece of advice for teenagers and children as another school year begins, a piece of advice that could lead to a year of tremendous growth as a student, a young person and as a follower of Christ.

The advice comes from Joe Hansen, an assistant superintendent for Catholic schools in the archdiocese who previously served as a principal at St. Roch School and Bishop Chatard High School, both in Indianapolis.

“I’ve said this for 18 years as the leader of a school,” Hansen said. “I would tell the kids, ‘God is calling you to something great. He’s not calling you to be a bully. He’s not calling you to disrespect your parents. He’s not calling you to be the most popular person on Instagram. He’s calling you to something great.’ ”

Hansen shared that advice during a conversation with The Criterion about the best ways for students, parents and teachers to approach the new school year, a conversation that also included archdiocesan superintendent Brian Disney and assistant superintendents Michelle Radomsky and Sarah Jean Watson.

Here are some of their tips and insights:

‘It’s all about grace’

One of the main bonds that connect students, parents and educators at the beginning of a school year is that they have all been out of the routine of having their lives revolve around school. So Watson emphasizes that everyone should share a common approach to each other.

“It’s all about grace,” she said. “We all have to understand that as we transition back into a new school year, most of us are out of a routine. And it takes a while for us to adjust back into that routine. We all have to have grace and understanding toward one another.

“Setting expectations for ourselves at home and setting expectations for ourselves at school will make that transition smoother. Setting basic things, like in the morning for a parent to pray with a child on the way to school. And make sure they say, ‘I love you,’ as they get out of the car. Because if the last thing you say to your child is something that puts them in a bad mood, they carry that with them all day. But if it’s something positive, they carry that with them, too.”

Start with a foundation of love

A central theme echoed through a pre-school meeting for teachers that the archdiocese’s Office of Catholic Schools held a few weeks ago at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in St. Mary-of-the-Woods.

“We were reminded of St. Mother Theodore Guérin saying, ‘Love the children first. Then teach them,’ ” Radomsky recalled. “That’s important for parents and for teachers to remember. Love them first, and then the teaching comes along after that.”

Share and live Christ’s teaching

Disney emphasizes that Catholic schools in the archdiocese are “really guided by Jesus Christ and his teachings. He’s the reason we have our schools. He’s the role model we want to be as educators.”

While that faith emphasis is complemented by prayers and Masses throughout the school week, Disney advises parents to also make that emphasis a priority at home.

“A prayer routine is the first step. Praying the Our Father as we go to school. Praying together before and after meals. Praying before going to bed. The second thing is to celebrate the sacraments as a family. Attending Mass together weekly, going to confession together once a month as a family—where we’re experiencing Jesus’ love and mercy in special ways. And many of our families do service things together.”

Disney and Hansen both stressed the importance of parents having conversations with their children about their faith lives.

“To have a conversation about faith, you don’t have to be an expert. Just talk about what God means in your life,” Disney said. “I love the question, ‘Where did you see God in your life today?’ ”

Hansen noted, “Simple questions like, Where are you in your faith? How’s your prayer life? What are your praying for?’ It’s a conversation.”

A recipe for success

In her five years as a teacher and 14 years as a principal, Watson recognized several key ingredients for creating a successful school year for students, parents and educators.

“For me, it was always about everyone being there to learn, whether you were the adult or the student. And being open to that. My first thing was always to build a relationship. We all give a little. At school and at home, this is a partnership. Our role is developing the whole child with the family. If we don’t work together, our expectations fail, no matter what they are. That partnership is essential. That’s what makes us successful for the students.”

So is the strong influence of family.

“The students who have a lot of success have that strong family unit behind them, and they know it. And they have that time with the sacraments, in prayer, which helps the family grow. That family doesn’t have to be the traditional, nuclear family. They just have to have a family unit.”

Encourage students to get involved in an activity that interests them

“The sooner you get a kid connected with something, they’ve got some social currency, they’ve got friends, they’ve got someone they can sit with at lunch,” Hansen noted.

Disney added, “In elementary school, our students’ primary community is their home. In high school, their primary community is their peers. We want their community to be other like-minded, strong Christian, Catholic people. They have great mentors and role models with our high school teachers and coaches.”

Keep the lines of communication open, part 1

“If you’re a parent, keep the lines of communication open with your student,” Radomsky advised. “And if you’re a student, keep the lines of communication open with your parents. Talk about what’s going on in the day. It is not easy to raise teenagers, especially in this day and age where we as parents don’t know exactly what they’re going through because we did not have social media to deal with when we were in high school.”

Build community as a family

In a world where adults and their children are too often absorbed in their phones and electronic devices, Disney stresses the need for a different approach this school year.

“In our families, there’s so much wisdom, so much we can learn from each other from being together in community. From an educator’s side, we see how social media, our phones and constant messaging have caused our kids to lose some of that community. Put the social media away for a time and spend time together.

“Family game night might not be faith-based, but when a family is growing together, when community is growing together, God is there. Things that build community are essential to our children’s development as people.”

Cultivate strong student leaders

Hansen encourages principals to stress to their eighth-grade students in elementary schools and their seniors in high school the great influence they can have on other students.

“I met with some principals and told them to leverage their eighth graders. A strong eighth grade can have a tremendous effect, positively and negatively, on a whole school. As educators, we can spew the rules and tell the students they’re part of the family, but if they see it modeled and lived by the upperclassmen—the eighth graders and the seniors—it has a tremendous impact on the culture of our schools. And I think our kids take that seriously for the most part.”

Keep the lines of communication open, part 2

“When I was a dean of students at a high school, I used to tell parents that every day in high school for a freshman isn’t going to be perfect. There are going to be some hard days,” Radomsky said. “When they’re starting to string together three, four, five hard days together, that’s when to make contact with the school.

“Let the school know what you’re seeing. Because that’s important to us. We need that relationship with the parents to do our jobs at the high school level.”

A reminder about forgiveness

“None of us are perfect. We’re all humans. We’re all growing,” Disney said. “Many things are going to go wrong at some point this year. We’ve got to be willing to forgive ourselves and forgive others because mistakes are going to happen.”

‘An awesome opportunity’

Hansen advises parents to take advantage of parent-teacher conferences, back-to-school nights and other opportunities that schools offer to meet with teachers, principals and other parents.

“I think some people feel if they go to those, they’re going to find out bad news. But what I’ve seen over the years is an awesome opportunity to connect with teachers, support staff, other parents.”

Two main thoughts to keep in mind through the school year

Watson encourages students, teachers and educators to consider two main points as a new school year begins.

“Just remember that a new year allows for a new beginning, but also every new day allows for a new beginning.”

“We want our schools to be an extension of our faith. Our long-term goal for our students is for them to become citizens of heaven and Earth.” †

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