As August begins, so does another school year. Long gone is the era of summer vacations that lasted until after Labor Day weekend. In fact now, quite often, the first day of school comes on - as with this year - or even before the Feast of the Assumption on the 15th.
One of the events that occurs prior to the official opening of the school year is the retreat day for new faculty. This Friday all those who are on the cusp of beginning their careers as teachers at Saint Ignatius will be welcomed into the fold and shown some of the ropes that help the Good Ship Wildcat sail smoothly. As a part of the event there will be a panel of seasoned faculty, myself included, who will offer some reflections on the Ignatius experience and some advice on how to navigate through their first days at Saint Ignatius.
As I ponder what I will pass on to these new colleagues I am reminded of my very beginnings as a teacher at my famed Alma Mater back in the late summer of 1981. The advice I got ran the gamut from “don’t smile until Christmas” to “just be yourself.” At the time the first approach seemed beyond my abilities, and yet the second didn’t bring all that much comfort. What if “just being myself,” rather than creating a good classroom environment for teacher and student alike, simply revealed the fact that I had no business standing in front of young men whose parents were spending good money to get an education?
Knowing that the alternative to “just being myself” was to alienate my students by acting like Roger Waters’s worst nightmare - “You! Yes, you! Stand still, laddie!” - I decided to risk it all and be myself.
Fortunately for me the concept of “just being myself” had been filtered through the lens of my experience of being taught by the legendary religious educator Mike Pennock ‘64. He commanded a classroom not by being tough or strict, but by being kind and gentle. Mike treated each of us like his younger brothers in Christ, and this was intentional - it was Mike “just being himself.” He respected our opinions and our questions no matter how influenced they were by the tsunami of social change that permeated “the troubled years” at Saint Ignatius High School.
Unfortunately for me, unlike Mike, I had little cache with the freshmen staring back at me in 227 Loyola Hall on that first day of the 1981-82 school year. I had no reputation - except possibly with Kevin Ginley ’85 who knew me as a friend of his brother Mike ‘77 (and that reputation was probably tenuous at best) - and so I was to them no more to be listened to than the driver of the bus that got them to school that morning.
In the end this approach, though not without its difficulties, turned out to be the right formula for my classroom over the past four-plus decades. I no longer look younger than many of the seniors, and they have to teach me all the latest phrases and terms used by “the kids these days,” but all of the angst that I felt about the art of classroom management has fallen by the wayside.
So when Friday’s panel discussion rolls around and I am called upon to give advice to those who are about to be thrown to the Wildcats I will tell them what Mike Pennock told me: be yourself, and treat them like your younger brothers in Christ. If all goes well, and I pray that it does, then there will come a time for each of them when they will be in the position that I will be in on August 15th: looking out at a new crop of students who I see as my grandsons in Christ and who are such good young men that they are willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the person in front of them who is just trying to be himself.