Why do we do what we do in the classroom? Are there rationales for the way we currently structure our class environments? Can we articulate how our daily instructional choices reflect our school’s expectations for what students will know and be able to do by the end of the year?
Earlier this week, Associate Superintendent Dan Roy and I had the chance to have a video chat with several aspiring instructional leaders at Catholic Schools throughout the Archdiocese and we left the conversation energized. These leaders all demonstrated the passion that our Boston Catholic Schools are known for and the discussion allowed us to seek clarity on what good instructional leadership could and should look like in our schools. But we were left with an overarching question for which I don’t yet have an answer: what does it say about a school if its instructional culture isn’t aligned with its Catholic identity? Said another way: has a school adequately lived out its mission if the instructional decisions teachers make aren’t clear examples of that mission in action?
This question hit me like a ton of bricks. Most of my time, I’m diving into the technical, granular work of enhancing teaching and learning and working out how curriculum and instruction can be better organized, implemented, and supported. But what emerged in this conversation with aspiring leaders was the following possibility: a high quality school that has effective instructional design and implementation, as well as a very clear sense of its Catholic mission, but that does not treat its instructional leadership and decision making as an extension of that mission.
In all honesty, my first reaction was, “What a nice problem to have. Mission effectiveness AND high quality instructional design?! Sign me up to teach at that school.” But I couldn’t let go of this thought, especially during this season of Lent, that we’re called as Catholic educators to do more than just this. We’re called to question whether or not what we’re doing (our instruction) actually coheres with the ultimate reason for why we’re doing that thing in the first place (to live our mission more fully). And we can see that call in today’s Gospel reading.
A group of John’s disciples ask Jesus why his followers don’t fast as much as either they or the Pharisees do. They try to comprehend why this teacher, who seems to demonstrate a lot of traits they admire and is saying all of the right things, doesn’t engage in the spiritual practices in the same way or to the same extent as they do. They have the faith, they have the practice. Things seem to be going well. But Jesus and his disciples act differently, engage in a different form of practice, and it makes them question whether they’ve got it right after all. Jesus offers the gentle reminder that any practice has to be engaged with intentionality and purpose: a perfect reflection during this first week of Lent to help us answer our call to better connect our Catholic identity and our instructional culture.
I don’t have the answer to how to make any of this happen at scale. But I want to offer a few simple steps we can take as administrators, teachers, and instructional leaders to slowly move toward better alignment between our mission and our instruction.
1) Create a Crosswalk of Instructional Values and Catholic Values
Take your school’s instructional priorities and itemize them down one column of a spreadsheet. Then look at your mission statement and write the major concepts from that statement across the top row of the same spreadsheet. See where there is coherence or tension between your instructional priorities and your mission. This activity might allow you to see whether there’s something meaningful in your instructional priorities currently absent from your mission statement (or vice versa). I’m not encouraging you to abandon either your mission statement or your instructional priorities if there isn’t perfect alignment, but this crosswalk can help generate critical conversations among your instructional staff about how to differently articulate next year’s priorities in light of your mission.
2) Focus Instructional Rounds or Classroom Observations on Catholic Instructional Identity
There is always value in teachers observing other teachers in a school building. But maybe you take time to shift the focus of those observations to how Catholic identity manifests itself in classes that aren’t religion classes. You might have the middle school science teachers observe an elementary school morning meeting/community building session to generate ideas for how to make science instruction more mission aligned. Or you might have social studies teachers observe art, music, or physical education classes to see how experiential learning can better enhance a students’ engagement if this coheres with your mission or what your school values about Catholic identity. There are any number of ways to reframe an observation to get teachers thinking about what Catholic instructional identity really means in the first place.
3) Devote a Faculty Meeting to Discussing This Question
Take one faculty meeting and simply raise the question: is our instructional culture aligned to our mission? See what responses emerge. Dan Roy and I were fascinated to hear the perspectives of aspiring instructional leaders throughout the Archdiocese. It may be very productive to hear from within a single building whether or not this sense of alignment is either present or valued throughout the school community.
These strategies may work for you, they may not work for you. What really matters, though, is taking time to view our instructional practice as a logical extension of our Catholic identity. It’s impossible to ask ourselves prior to every instructional activity, “Is this worksheet aligned with our mission statement?” I’d be crazy to suggest such a thing. But over the course of time, making space for intentional conversation about instruction and mission alignment may just increase our capacity to live out our vocation.
CSO Academics Blog
Director of Academics, Andrew Miller, will post regular commentaries in this space about teaching and learning throughout the Archdiocese.