Monday, November 30, 2020

The Call

As a principal, I would often remind my students that they were made for greatness, built for holiness, and destined for sainthood. Based upon the universal call to holiness from Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, I wanted my students to know that God was calling them, and all of us, to become the people that He created us to be. 

We are all made by God on purpose for excellence.  

Today, on the second day of Advent, we celebrate the feast of St. Andrew, Simon Peter's brother and the first apostle. From today's Mass, we hear Matthew's account of this call. Jesus appears on the shoreline and calls to two sets of brothers: Andrew and Simon, and James and John. All four of them drop what they're doing and follow Him.

They leave behind their professions, possessions, and connections, and they follow Jesus. The sons of Zebedee, James and John, are actually out on the water in a boat with their father at the time. While these details are omitted, we can imagine these two brothers literally jumping out of the boat, into the water, and swimming ashore. 

Jesus called them - Andrew, Simon (Peter), James, and John - to fulfill the reason for which they were created.

He was calling them to assist Him in fishing for other people. The Bible is filled with stories of people who received training, perhaps unbeknownst to them, for their true purpose. These four fishermen who were skilled at hauling in huge catches. Matthew the tax collector who was versed at collecting what was due. Saul (Paul) the soldier whose zeal transitioned from persecuting Christians to spreading Christianity. Jesus the carpenter, who like His earthly father Joseph, would have carried huge pieces of wood far distances.  

As we begin this season of Advent and we look for ways to prepare for Christ's coming - historically on the first Christmas, spiritually into our hearts again this Christmas, and literally again at the Second Coming - I think it is fitting that the feast of St. Andrew and the call of the first apostles so often falls within the first part of Advent. 

Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). He came to show us the way, teach us the truth, and give us new life in His spirit. So, as we prepare for Christmas, let us also prepare our hearts to answer Christ's call. Let us embrace a spiritual indifference to our lives so that like the Jesuits, we can live with one foot raised, ready to leave behind our nets, jump out of our boats, and follow Him. 

Jesus told us yesterday, "Watch!" He even said it multiple times. 

Today, so that we can hear His call, maybe He's also encouraging us:


Sunday, November 29, 2020

Excellence Happens on Purpose

For their final assignment of the semester, my Internship and Practice students had to reflect on both their ministry and coursework and offer up their perceived strengths as well as some ways that they hope to improve upon their self-identified areas for growth in the semester and year ahead. 

I found myself providing a common suggestion in regard to their ideas to help them improve: strive for more specificity and details.

To put it another way, excellence happens on purpose. 

Making a change and/or improving in anything requires more than just the desire to do so. 

In his book, Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg cites a study that followed hip or knee replacement surgery patients whose average age was 68 for thirteen weeks after their surgeries. All of the patients were given a booklet with instructions for recovery followed by thirteen blank pages for them to write down their goal for each week and exactly what they hoped to do. 

The result? Those who wrote something on those blank pages started walking again almost twice as fast as those who wrote nothing. 

The takeaway? Excellence happens on purpose. 

Fr. Mike Schmitz, the chaplain for Newman Catholic Campus Ministries at the University of Minnesota Duluth, recently wrapped up a six-part homily series titled, Roadmap. The short form is this: excellence happens on purpose. The longer form is well worth listening to (but jump to 23:45 to listen to Fr. Mike tell you about this study). 

In week four he talked about a study that followed over a large group of people who wanted to exercise over a period of time. The study broke participants into three groups: 

  1. track/write down how often you exercise;
  2. track/write down how often you exercise and watch a motivational video before exercising;
  3. track/write down how often you exercise, watch a motivational video before you workout, and write that you pledge to work out for 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on certain days of the week at certain times of the day. 
The findings, as if you really need me to tell you:

38% of Group 1 made it through the workout program. In Group 2, 35% completed it. And, 91% of the members of Group 3 finished the exercise program! 

Why? Because excellence happens on purpose. 

As we begin this season of Advent and as you approach any goal in your life: growing in physical fitness, praying more, performing classroom observations more frequently, acting more courageously, the more specific and detailed you can be about how you will do these things, the more likely we will be to accomplish them. 

In 2015, I accepted a challenge posed by the very same Fr. Mike Schmitz to pray the Rosary during Advent. At first, I agreed to pray it on days that I didn't go to Mass. As a Catholic school principal at the time, that meant every day except Sundays when I went with my family, Wednesdays when I went with the school, and most Fridays when I tried to go before starting work. By December 8 of that year, though, I started to pray it every day. 

The short form of the results of my acceptance of the Advent Rosary Challenge is that excellence happens on purpose. The longer form is that I have prayed the Rosary daily ever since and that Mary brought Jesus into the world and that she can bring Him to you as well. 

So, while there are countless options for your Advent journey, commit to something: 
  • some form of the Advent Rosary Challenge (pray a decade a day on Monday - Friday; pray a Rosary a week; pray a Rosary a day); 
  • sign up for Dynamic Catholic's Best Advent Ever
  • join Chris Stefanik in Unspeakable Joy
  • read the daily mass readings
  • or anything! 
And, apply this same model to any area of your life. 

Make a plan and make it detailed, because excellence happens on purpose. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

We Can Do Hard Things

"Faithful to the past and open to the future, we must accept the burden and welcome the opportunity of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ in our times. Where this is a summons to change, we must be willing to change. Where this is a call to stand firm, we must not yield" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1972, #41). 

At some point over the summer, I came across the following video: 


 The caption included with the post read, "2020 in 50 seconds." 

To say that 2020 has been hard is an understatement. I know that for some, this has been the hardest year of their lives. Death, sickness, loss of work, working in the face of health risks, virtual school, working from home, quarantining, wearing masks, anxiety, stress, political and racial turmoil. 




As 2020 draws to a close and the darkness of winter looms over us, we grasp for glimmers of light, for reasons for hope: potential vaccines, bipartisan efforts in the government, anti-racist efforts being a movement not a moment, a new calendar year and the opportunity to leave 2020 in the past. 

But, as we look ahead with hopeful optimism, may we also look back to take stock of our efforts to survive this year and remind ourselves that we can do hard things.

The world of education pivoted practically overnight. Schools went from in-person instruction to virtual school with almost no preparation, no precedent, no research on best practices, no knowledge of just how long this virtual experiment would last. 

Eight months later and many schools find themselves still in or returning to online instruction. 

There are undoubtedly many ideas about how to best navigate these unfortunate circumstances, coupled with emerging research about what works best as well as the effects that this approach is having, and will continue to have, on our students. Like some other aspects of our lives, hopefully this time of unprecedented schooling will leave behind some positive changes to our overall programming. Perhaps some of the ways that schools have been forced to operate differently in order to figure out what in the world to do this year can make us better once life returns to normal.   

First, perhaps school's efforts to figure out what is most essential to teach can result in the identification of power standards. When the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were published in 2010, one of the touted advantages was that they would allow for teachers and students to go a mile deep over an inch worth of standards, compared to an inch deep in a mile long list of standards. 

Perhaps 2020 will allow us to be even more intentional in what and how we teach our students. 

Second, schools have had to amplify their efforts to communicate with teachers, students, and most importantly families. Even the best of communication plans could not have had a contingency plan for 2020. As such, new avenues for teacher-family communication, teacher-student communication, and school-home communication have emerged. Instead of forcing parents/families to come to school during an incredibly small window on 1-2 days for conferences, perhaps more frequent meetings can occur over Zoom. Given that many parents/families in work from home situations had to act as classroom assistants, schools needed to get these unpaid staff members up to speed regarding content, instruction, assessments, and progress. 

May schools continue to find ways to help parents/families take active roles in the education of their students. Out of necessity, teachers have hosted office hours and found other creative ways to communicate with and support students. May teachers make themselves available to their students in similar ways, albeit in person, in a post-pandemic world. Finally, may schools continue to transparently communicate with teachers, families, and students rationale for decisions and keep them informed of school news and events. 

Third, I've heard from many teachers and administrators that observing teachers has been difficult throughout the pandemic. Given the time demands placed upon leaders, there are many reasons that getting into classrooms and/or Zoom rooms would pose challenges. On top of this, the stress of the pandemic has inspired many school leaders to lighten expectations for teachers to participate in professional development outside of trying to figure out how to transition to virtual/hybrid/modified in-person/safety precautioned instruction. In this way, principals have shifted from chief evaluator to executive coach. Formative and explorative conversations fill staff rooms, Zoom conferences, messages, and inboxes. 

May school leaders continue to support teachers in this way in more traditional times and build upon this collaborative relationship forged in the midst of these trials. 

Fourth and finally, Catholic schools have had to figure out how to make faith, over the internet and void of the communal nature of our religion, important during these difficult times. Schools have had to intentionally make time for and consider the best approaches to community prayer, celebrations of the Eucharist, faith sharing, and offering general social-emotional-spiritual support. 

In some cases, this exercise of reimagining how we pray as a community may have also unearthed the beliefs underneath these practices. Why do we celebrate Mass as a school community? Why do we have morning assembly? Why do we start each class with prayer? If we truly believe they are worthwhile, we should not let the problems of a pandemic keep us from engaging students and teachers in these activities. In fact, perhaps it is even more important that we find a way to bring people into relationship with Jesus Christ now more than before. 

As stated by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in 1972, "Within both the Christian community and the educational ministry the mission to teach as Jesus did is a dynamic mandate for Christians of all times, places, and conditions...Proclaiming the Gospel is a perennial task and joy for the Church of Jesus Christ" (#'s 4 and 6). 

Jesus's commission is dynamic and proclaiming the Gospel is a perennial task and joy for us. We don't get a hall pass for 2020. In this way we must remember:  

The Christian community has every reason for hope in confronting the challenge of educational ministry today. To all our efforts we join prayer for God's help, and for the intercession of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. We face problems; so did those who came before us, and so will those who follow. But as Christians we are confident of ultimate success, trusting not in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ, who is at once the inspiration, the content, and the goal of Christian education: "the way, and the truth, and the life." (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1972, #155)

We can do hard things. Don't let 2020 cause you to forget.  

Thursday, November 19, 2020

We Are Better Together

We don’t build community. We reveal it (Nuzzi & Hunt, 2012, p 6). 
As believers in the mystery of the Trinity - the belief that there are three persons in one God - we recognize that God Himself is a relationship. Therefore, for those of us made in His image and likeness, which is all of us, we were created for relationships. 
Relationships, then, are pathways to holiness, and our Triune God undergirds every connection, every encounter, every relationship with another person. This is why as Catholics we do not build community. Rather, we reveal the beauty of the relationships that God has divinely orchestrated in our lives. 
This is the foundation of the communal approach of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program as well as the approach that we propose every Catholic school should also adopt. We believe that since we are created in the image and likeness of God that we are made for one another. Because of this, we have designed our program as essentially communal. 

First, Remick leaders move through the program within a cohort, a group of disciples with hope to bring with whom they learn, live, eat, study, work, play, and pray throughout the summer. 
Because we believe that we are made for each other, Remick faculty ensure each leader will be called by name from the very first moment they step foot on Notre Dame’s campus. We echo and take seriously this mandate from our Church, “From the first moment that a student sets foot in a Catholic school, he or she ought to have the impression of entering a new environment, one illumined by the light of faith, and having its own unique characteristics” (Congregation for Catholic Education, 1988, #25). 
Furthermore, because we believe that we are made for each other, we honor the inherently social/relational aspect of learning. Remick faculty employ in-class dialogue, processing with cohort-mates, group work, and co-generation as signature pedagogies.
During the school year, while the cohort scatters across the country and sometimes the world, Remick leaders gather for monthly video conferences with a professional learning community of about five of their cohort-mates and an Executive Coach, a veteran Catholic school leader who acts as a confidant, advisor, mentor, guide, and to fit with its title, a coach. 
To offer yet another layer of communal support, Remick leaders from different cohorts gather into Houses, cross-cohort groupings of Remick leaders and one of the core faculty members to promote a greater sense of community across the entire program, offer structures of support and inclusion, as well as generate a spirit of camaraderie and pride.

The Remick Leadership Program unites like-minded and like-hearted Catholic school educators around a common mission to make God known, loved, and served by sustaining, strengthening, and transforming Catholic education. Forging our individual gifts and talents into a unified force for good, we wholeheartedly profess, “What you dream alone remains a dream, what you dream with others can become a reality” (Edward Schillebeeckx). 
Come dream with us. 
We are better together. 

*This blog originally appeared on the Alliance for Catholic Education's website: 

*Interested in becoming a Remick Leader? Know someone who would make an outstanding Catholic school principal and/or school/diocesan leader? For more information on the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, visit this link: 

The Congregation for Catholic Education. (1988, April 7). The Religious Dimension of Education in a Catholic School: Guidelines for Reflection and Renewal. Retrieved from  

Nuzzi, R., & Hunt, T. (Eds). (2012). At the heart of the Church: Selected documents of Catholic education. Notre Dame, IN: Alliance for Catholic Education Press.

Rolheiser, R. (1996, July 17). Dreaming With Others. Retrieved from 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

A Cloud of Witnesses

"Community is at the heart of Christian education not simply as a concept to be taught but as a reality to be lived. Through education, (people) must be moved to build community in all areas of life; they can do this best if they have learned the meaning of community by experiencing it" (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1972, #23). 

Any organization is only as strong as the relationships between and among the members of that group. 

Teams. Work groups. Schools. Communities. Nations. Churches. Families. Friendships. Any group is as strong as the weakest relationship link within it. 

United we stand. Divided we fall. 

This does not mean that group members must be homogenous. Nor does it imply that those in an organization always agree with one another or that differences of opinions, thoughts, or behaviors are nonexistent. 

Rather, it means that the group has established a loop of safety and vulnerability. Members acknowledge a shared future with one another which creates safety. This increases the likelihood that members will be vulnerable with one another. When vulnerability is reciprocal, the level of safety goes up, and the loop continues. 

Vulnerable sharing. Enhanced safety. Enhanced safety. Vulnerable sharing. 

And, the centripetal force holding this loop together and keeping it in motion is a collective purpose. This sense of purpose might be in the form of a mission statement. It might be a set of root beliefs held by members of the group. Maybe this purpose is a commitment to a particular cause, a clear WHY that articulates the overarching goal of the group. 

In his book, The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (2018), Daniel Coyle covers all three of these components of a strong culture in vivid detail. All three, Coyle argues, contribute to the strength of a group. 

Build safety. Share vulnerability. Establish purpose. 

According to a study by John Kotter and James Heskett, the difference between a strong and a weak culture is a shocking. In business terms, the difference is apparent in monetary ways:


Strong, "performance-enhancing" cultures, according to Kotter and Heskett, "highly value employees, customers, and owners and that those cultures encourage leadership from everyone in the firm" ( The effect these cultures have on performance is that it is enhanced.  

Companies without "performance-enhancing" culture fared much worse, by comparison, than their strong culture counterparts. 

It is worth considering that a similar difference can be experienced in other metrics of success as well. In the realm of education, this can signal higher test scores, lower instances of discipline, and enhanced graduation/college acceptance rates. Numerous studies support this focus on community and/or culture to enhance the performance of students in schools (from Deal and Petersen's Shaping School Culture, 2016): 
  • Rutter, Maughan, Morrtimore, Ouston, and Smith (1979) found that school "ethos" contributed to academic achievement
  • Bryk, Lee, and Holland (1993) discovered that a sense of community played a vital role in creating a culture of excellence in private schools - teachers were more satisfied in their work, students were less likely to misbehave, less likely to drop out, and had higher achievement in math than their public school counterparts
  • Waters, Marzano and McNulty (2004) argued that "student achievement was related to a shared set of core beliefs, a clear sense of purpose, recognition of staff members and student accomplishments, intellectual engagement, and celebrations of success" (Deal & Petersen, 2016, p. 12). 
With this said, how might Catholic schools leverage this power of culture to enhance students' overall development and growth? 

First, a theology of education based upon the foundational belief in the mystery of the Trinity - our God is three Persons in one - should permeate our schools. Relationships between and among leaders, teachers, parents, families, students and community members carry sacred significance and time spent building relationships should be prioritized. 

Second, this should, in turn, impact our policies, procedures, programs and behaviors within our schools. Everything from admissions policies to tuition collection to discipline to formation to instruction to evaluation to support to prayer and worship should acknowledge the theological underpinning of the education in our schools and respond accordingly. 

If we are to help people "(t)hrough build community in all areas of life" we must give all members of our Catholic schools an experience of the type of communities that will help to establish the kingdom of God here on earth (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1972, #23). 

Our Catholic schools must create the "cloud of witnesses" described in the letter to the Hebrews (12:1-2) that allows us to "rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith."  

Animated by the belief that we are made for each other in the image and likeness of our Triune God, let us surround the members of our Catholic school communities with support, love, and mercy. 

Build safety, share vulnerability, establish purpose, and instead of merely persevering in the race, our students can run it - with a cloud of witnesses cheering for them, supporting them, and ushering them across the finish line - so as to win (1 Corinthians 9:24).