Friday, October 21, 2011

Kick the Tires

Incarnation Catholic School (and probably many schools across the Diocese of St. Petersburg and even the United States) just finished the first quarter of its 2011 - 12 school year. The ending of one quarter and the pending beginning of the next is a good time to reevaluate a teacher's or school's policies, procedures, expectations, and even philosophy. It is a good time to tighten anything that grew loose over the past 9 weeks. It is a good time to "kick the tires".

A month ago, I wouldn't have been able to use this phrase. For anyone unsure of its meaning, it will be revealed in a few moments. For now, let me relate how I came upon this expression.

At a recent in-service a vendor who was pitching a product (and sponsoring lunch!) said that since his company's product boasts customer service, in Spanish, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, he makes a point to wake up on Christmas morning, call the help line, and utter "Feliz Navidad" to the unwitting operator answering his call. He said it's his way to "kick the tires", as a way to ensure that his company is living up to the ideals it professes.

His presentation and the lunch his company sponsored were equally impressive. He was a good salesman; but not that good. Despite not purchasing his company's product, this phrase stuck with me. First, I love the imagery. I picture a beat up car on a dusty road and I can almost feel my foot bouncing off the front driver's side tire. Not that I know anything about cars, but I imagine this being a final step (after filling the tank, checking the oil and doing other such car maintenance tasks) before climbing back into the vehicle to continue on my travels.

Second, much like the first time my Uncle Dave asked me if I was "feeling froggy" and if so told me to "go ahead and leap", I was amused by this expression and intrigued by the fact that I had never heard this figurative expression used before. Contextually, I understood the way he included it in his presentation. But to be sure, I googled it: Doing research before making an investment and To make a quick, superficial inspection of something, were two of the definitions upon which I stumbled. Then, I found the etymology: since tires on early automobiles were often made with cheap and/or thin rubber, "kicking the tires" was an easy way to test not only the thickness but also the tire's ability to hold and retain air. "Kicking the tires" would quickly reveal an inferior product.

Third, I respected this gentleman for putting his own product to the test. We could fill volumes with the number of companies that promised one thing and then produced something very contradictory. Few business or organizations or even people behave in such a way that they consistently do what they say they'll do.

Of course, no company or person is perfect. But rare are those who follow through with what they say they'll do with some regularity. No organization entirely lives its mission, no person holds onto his/her convictions without stumbling. Unfortunately, though, few even try or care that they fall short.

Jesus called such people Pharisees. Today we label them hypocrites. We are all of us guilty of being less than perfect. We can, though, continually improve.

We can "kick the tires" and discover chinks in our armor. Doing so exposes our weaknesses and challenges us to make changes. Neither of these is pleasant. Both are essential as both people and Catholic Schools.

Kick your tires. Ask someone else to kick them for you and with you. Don't kick somebody else's unless you've been asked in turn. Worry about the plank in your own tire and not the splinter in another's.

Ask the questions, "Why do we do that?" or, "Why do we do that in that way?" Put behaviors, policies, procedures, actions in terms of your mission and scrutinize whether or not they help you to fulfill it. Analyze areas where you are saying one thing but doing something that sends an entirely different message (educators know this as the null curriculum).

Never accept "we've always done it that way" or "I've always done it that way" as sufficient enough reason to continue to do something.

Take the biggest obstacle keeping you from being the person or institution God has created you to be and throw it out the window. Then ask yourself, "Now what?" Maybe that obstacle wasn't the thing keeping you from being your best self. Maybe you and your reluctance to change are.

Check your ego at the door and start allowing God's spirit to mold you and shape you into what He wills. Invite God to give you and/or your school a tune-up. Allow Him to fill you with air if you're flat, patch you if you've been punctured or make a change if you need a new part. Let Him do it now so that when He calls at a time like Christmas morning to kick His tires (us!), we can answer, say "Feliz Navidad", and pass Inspection.    

Sunday, October 2, 2011


Earlier this week, Emily and Elizabeth visited our public library for story time. While I have not had the opportunity to attend, it has been described to me as songs, stories, and a free sharing of and playing with toys. At this most recent visit, Elizabeth climbed onto the lap of another mother who was holding her 10 month old daughter (Elizabeth is 11 months old). Seeing Elizabeth infringe upon her territory, this little girl quipped, "Uh oh!"

As Emily related to me this episode as well as other words spoken by this prodigy, I responded like any parent- why can't my daughter, 30 days this girl's elder, talk with clarity? What are we not doing? Reading to her enough? Speaking to her and not just about her? Doing things for her instead of teaching her and/or letting her figure it out herself? Luckily, my feelings of concern quickly fleeted. The educator in me rationalized with my inner-parent: every child progresses at different paces.

This story time-mate can use interjection in appropriate contexts but may not yet be able to stand, wave or make a complete mess of her bedroom by unshelving and opening every book she owns. Everyone is inherently different. Thank God for that! All created in His image and likeness, we were also created as unique and special persons. As such, we all have varying gifts, talents, weaknesses and shortcomings. Thank God for that, too!

With this in mind, the dynamics of having 20-30 individuals, each with their own unique gifts and talents, in the same classroom presents various challenges to meeting the needs of all of those individuals within that classroom. Known in education as differentiated instruction, teachers are charged with meeting each student where they are and helping them to progress. It starts by shifting to a student-centered classroom (as opposed to the traditional teacher-centered ones). From there, delivering the content so that it makes sense to and has meaning for students trumps teaching in the method, style or pace most suited for the teacher. Covering material is out the window in differentiated instruction. Sitting in its place is student learning. Student learning, not teacher teaching, should be the focus of any classroom trying to do more than just educate those students in the middle of the ability spectrum within a classroom.

As one would imagine, differentiating instruction successfully is extremely difficult. Most teachers aim for the middle of the famous "bell curve", figuring this strategy and pacing will allow them to educate a good percentage of students. This is hardly blameworthy. A majority of students get a best fit education. Meteorologists cannot boast a higher success rate. Major League Baseball players make millions of dollars if they can be productive at a much lower rate.

But, when it comes to education, specifically Catholic education, a majority isn't good enough. The top tiered students will become bored. The lower end frustrated. Both extremes disillusioned.

Bottom line: unacceptable.

Catholic social teaching promotes the dignity of all persons. As Catholics we respect and honor human life from conception to its natural end. Jesus challenges us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal those who are hurting. Go and make disciples of all the nations. Jesus even gives us the parable about the vineyard workers getting hired at different times but receiving the same wage (Mt. 20:1-16a). Fair doesn't mean equal. Every student in our classrooms deserves our time, attention, talent and love.

A staple in special education classrooms, differentiated instruction involves open ended assignments, tailoring instruction to meet the specific needs of all students, allowing different groups of students within the same classroom to be at slightly different stages, and even activating multiple intelligences. Luckily, general and even Catholic education classrooms have taken to this approach. Educators have come to realize that this is just good teaching because it promotes good learning. The student becomes the focus and the center of the educational effort. The teacher employs different strategies to reach each student. Instead of students adapting to a teacher's style, teachers differentiate to meet the varying needs of each and every student.

Good teachers will get a majority of the students in their classroom to succeed. Outstanding teachers will design ways to engage the highest and lowest performing students as well.

The difference is something that makes a world of difference, especially to the kids on either end of the spectrum: differentiated instruction.