Friday, February 10, 2012

What Makes a Good School?

One question that St. John Baptist de La Salle would often ask in his letters to the Brothers was, "Does the school run well?" There was no specific definition of what that meant. He assumed that the recipient would understand the meaning of "run well." The Brothers had over the years developed a resource called The Conduct of Schools that specified everything in the school, from the schedule to the exact curriculum to the placement of wall art. A Starbucks or McDonald's franchise manual couldn't be as detailed.

But the question, I think, had to do with more than simply how well that Conduct of Schools was being applied. When we ask someone, "Are you well?" or "How are you?", there's more going on than meets the ear. Certainly, we are interested in the practical details of the person's life. But also, and perhaps more critically, we are making a cautious venture into the person's deeper levels of life. One can simply respond with "Fine!" and leave it at that. Or one can respond with humor, as Kathryn Hepburn is reported to have done - "Fine, if you don't ask for details." Or one could cautiously ask in return, "Do you really want to know?" and thereby begin a very different kind of conversation. (Many people don't particularly want to go there, by the way, unfortunately.) Finally, there are those who really will tell you how they are, and then it's either "excuse and run" or "full speed ahead."

Perhaps De La Salle had this in mind, giving permission to the Brothers to whom he was writing to be perfectly candid in their responses, letting De La Salle know both the joys and the challenges of their vocation. At the same time, he was genuinely interested in making sure that all Lasallian schools ran well. And that meant more than simply doing a fine job of academics. Reading his meditations makes it very clear that education must be more than academic excellence.

Some might think that there's little that's more important than good academics in a school. After all, isn't that why schools exist in the first place? Well, yes and no. De La Salle and Lasallian educators would say that academics are vital but never sufficient. A school is much more than a bunch of people gathered in one place in order to learn academically. It is a community of learning, a group of individuals who together advance in ways not yet fully realized or fully appreciated. Why else do we form such close bonds and carry so many fond memories with us for years afterwards; conversations, discoveries, relationships, clubs, sporting events, outings, explorations, and all the rest. Seeds of wisdom, of knowledge, of relationships, of spiritual life, and of true vitality were planted, many of which would need years of cultivation before they came to blossom. Saint Thomas Aquinas calls teaching the most charitable co-operative art, because teachers hardly ever see the results of their efforts. And the final results that teachers truly appreciate are much more than those that come from academics alone.

One of my favorite quotations about teachers and teaching comes from Abraham Joshua Herschel:

"Everything depends on the person who stands in the front of the classroom. The teacher is not an automatic fountain from which intellectual beverages may be obtained. He [She] is either a witness of a stranger. To guide the pupil into the promised land, he [she] must have been there himself [herself]. When asking: Do I stand for what I teach? Do I believe what I say? he [she] must be able to answer in the affirmative. ... What we need more than anything else is not textbooks but textpeople. It is the personality of the teacher which is the text that the pupils read; the text that they will never forget."

Wise words. Is it any wonder, then, that De La Salle spent such time and effort on cultivating the souls of the Brothers, those who followed him into teaching the young? Teachers are the ones who carry the school forward, who bring the "mission" to the classroom, and who are the direct instrument of God's grace in the lives of their students. They carry the seeds of Lasallian education.

So I think that when De La Salle asked the question "Does the school run well?," he was really asking about the people, about the community, and about the inner vitality of the school's life, not about its academics alone. His was a much more broad understanding of "school," one that essentially focused on the people within it.

Are we a witness or a stranger to those we teach? Does our inner school run well? (How are you?) De La Salle's provides a bit of fine advice for fostering the inner school life of all:

"Never speak except in a kindly manner. When you fear to fail in this, remain silent."