The sighs and groans were heard throughout the room.  It was a Thursday and so, like most Thursdays, we had a journal entry.  It was clear to me that this was not their favorite thing to do.  Then again, they are high schoolers, and so finding activities that they actually, visibly enjoy is a difficult task.

“I hear you,” I say as they begrudgingly pull out their notebooks.
“Five to six sentences?!  Really?  That is like a whole paragraph.”
“And you are seniors in high school.  You should be able to write an entire paragraph.”
“I don’t want to do this.  What if I just write two sentences?” one student asks.
“OK.”  I decide not to fight them on this one.
“You mean, I can just write two?”
“You won’t receive full points.  You can write two sentences or even no sentences.  I’m not going to spend my time trying to get you do your work.  It is your choice.”

In my profession of teaching, I have come to realize that I am very pro-choice.

My life as a high school teacher often involves reminding my students how many choices they actually have.  They view their lives as having very few choices, always being told what to do and where to be.  But, really, they have many, many choices.  It is simply that some of them seem less open-ended.  Many of their choices involve consequences that they really don’t want to face and so they think that means they don’t have a choice.

But the reality is that I can’t make them do anything.  I can strongly persuade them or make consequences they don’t want to face, but I cannot force them to do anything.

When I talk to my students about free will, I will applaud them for using their free will in a positive way at different points.  I thank them for choosing to be in class and sit in their seats.  After I say this, they suddenly look like they never realized another option existed.  Of course another option exists, I tell them.

“If you all got up right now and tried to leave the classroom, I couldn’t physically stop you all.”  They shift in their seats as though preparing to launch from them.
“We won’t get in trouble if we leave?”
“Of course you will.  But you have a choice.  And I am thankful that you are choosing to stay in the classroom and be in your seats.”

They always look a bit deflated at that point.  As though I offered them freedom and then took it away.  Yet, in all reality, they are still just as free.  They are choosing to stay in their seats.  This is largely a result of the unhappy consequences that would face them should they choose otherwise, but that doesn’t make it not a decision anymore.

The same is true with me.  Too often I view the things I do as not in the realm of my choice.  I don’t often sit down with a stack of papers and think, “I choose to grade these papers.”  During school, I find myself wanting to take a nap, but I choose to not take one.  On one hand, that is because I need to be teaching and the consequences of not doing my job doesn’t seem worth the little snooze.  Nevertheless, it is still a choice.

A couple weeks ago, I was having a conversation with someone about the morality of a specific action.  Once again I was struck by the width and breadth of the Church’s teaching.  People often view the Church as overly strict and filled with unnecessary rules.  Yet I see a Church that is abundant in choices.  So much is left up to each person to discern, with God’s grace.  How many children should I have?  Where should I live?  What job should I have?  What type of prayers should I pray?  Where should I go on vacation?  Which charity should I donate to?  The Church provides guidance and structure (as Christ promised the Church would), but there are so many aspects that are left up to personal choice.

And God is a huge proponent of choice.  He dearly wants us to choose to be with Him.  But He does not force it.  In the end, our choice determines where we spend eternity.  Our choice is made up of the little details and decisions in our daily lives, not simply in our voicing that we would like to be with God forever.  At times, choosing God may seem inconvenient or not what we would want to do in that moment.  It may be particularly difficult to choose to follow Him.  Yet despite all of these difficulties, it is still our choice.

This freedom of choice is why I have a classroom rule that if I catch someone copying another person’s paper with that person’s knowledge, both people get zeros.  It isn’t a popular rule, but I want them to acknowledge that the choice to cheat happens on both ends.  When it happened for the first time this semester a couple days ago, I had to remain firm in my decision.  Yes, it is unfortunate for the person who did all of their own work, but they still made the decision to allow someone else to copy their work.

Life is filled with many choices.  Some are between two morally neutral things: decaf or regular?  fries or onion rings?  carpet or hardwood flooring?  Others are between a good and a bad action: punching or not punching the co-worker?  stealing that top from the store or not stealing it?  embezzling the money or not?  And some choices seem like we loose no matter what: lie about the situation or accept responsibility and get in trouble?  cheat on the homework assignment or get a late grade for not having it done?  The beauty, however, is that God gives us the freedom to make our own decision.  Naturally, they will have consequences, as all decisions do, but it is our choice to make them.

Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.  (St. John Paul II, Apostolic Journey to the USA Homily 10/08/1995)

Good for my Heart

My beloved 7th period class is good for my heart.  I was recently talking about them, and I felt my heart overflowing with a sense of gratitude.  Despite my fondness for them, I will never claim that they are perfect.  They are beautiful and they bring out my best side, which probably contributes to the warm reception I receive from them.

I have never had such a clear favorite.  This is one of the first things I will tell people before I gush about my class.  While I am far more comfortable with my classes then in years past, this is the one class where I can let my guard down.  I never feel like I’m defending myself or persuading them of something or fighting them to accept a truth.  We laugh together, have inside jokes, and learn together.  I’m not their best friend, but I am definitely one of their favorite teachers.

There is a freedom that comes with being loved.  I can give them more of who I am really am.  Each day, 7th period, I feel like I teach the best.  Sometimes we get off topic, there is chaos, too much energy–but always there is a familial atmosphere that fills the room.  I don’t myself subtly battling the class in defense of the one kid that says things people roll their eyes at or repeatedly asks questions already answered.  When I was sick this week, one girl said she missed me.  Although I’m not extremely close with each student, I feel an understanding with most of them and, if nothing else, the class as a whole.

I am not the only one to appreciate my blessings.  One of the freshman teachers made a remark to me about my beloved class.  Typically nobody else sees the class as a whole but all of the classes each period met in auditorium for preparation for confession this week.  I have never sang the praises of this class to this teacher, so I was overjoyed to hear him applaud my class.  He said it was though each good student was hand-selected for my 7th period class.  As he was saying this, I realized they were.  The good Lord knew that I would need this oasis, this haven from the storm during my school day.  I look forward to them and love the time we spend together.  Professionally, I need to remain fair toward my classes, but I often feel a desire to spoil them, to give in to all of their requests.  Today that teacher stopped by when they were coming into my classroom and declared that heaven came early today.  We smiled and he told them it was an inside joke.

This class is the only reason I am not running forward with utter joy to Christmas break.  Next semester I will have most of these students again, but they will be shuffled around and students from my other class will be mixed in.  I am hopeful that next semester will be wonderful as well, but I know that the beauty of this class will soon end, never to be achieved again.  Life will move on and they will simply be the cherished favorite class of the past, the ones I subconsciously measure each future class against, sighing when they inevitably fall short.

For now, they are my precious gift.  They are blessing to me from the Lord.  Yet it is only the difficulty of my first two years that makes me so deeply relish this class.  If I had them my first year, I would have expected all classes to be like this.  Now I know, battle-weary veteran that I am.  This, is not the norm.  This is, most assuredly, a gift from the Lord, hand-selected for the good of my heart.  Another beautiful display of the Lord knowing what I needed before I even thought to ask for it.

The Battle of the Droid


The sound came from the midst of my students as I was in the middle of a discussion/lecture about abortion.  I was already giving far too little time to such an important topic, but I had miscalculated with the semester.  As I heard the sound I briefly thought of my nephew and how I had heard that sound come from his phone many times while he was at our house.  Now, though, it was in the middle of my class and school policy was that the phone was now confiscated for a week.  The first time this had happened in my class was on day two of teaching.  My students were looking at me and while part of me questioned if I had heard correctly, the looks on their faces reconfirmed my hearing.

“Alright.  Give me the phone.”

Then it happened.  I watched the students, one in particular, lean back in their seats, cross their arms, and give me that smile that aroused every stubborn fiber in my body.  Suddenly it was them against me.  They were unwilling to give up the phone and they wondered how I would get it from them.  It was an implicit challenge.  I’m not entirely certain what their perception of me is, but they didn’t think that I was as stubborn as I turned out to be.

“Come on.  Just give me the phone.”  I waited, letting the silence extend, showing them that I wasn’t just going to brush off this incident.  The students began to look at each other.

“OK.  If you don’t give me the phone, I’m just going to have to check your bags to see who else has their phones.”  They didn’t look very perturbed, but after a while longer they began to tell me that it wasn’t their phone, that they didn’t have a Droid, that their phone was off/in their locker.  As time continued, though, the individual with the offensive phone didn’t come forward.  I was remembering what I had overheard other students say about phones going off in other classes and how when they simply sat there and didn’t give it up, they left the classroom at the end of the period with the teacher simply saying that what they did was very rude.  Rude, perhaps, but that didn’t bother them too much when they all still had their phones at the end of the class.  I decided that I wouldn’t be one of them.

“You’re right–I’m not going to check your bags.  But if I don’t get the phone that went off, then you all have detentions.”  Their faces changed a little bit with that.  It wasn’t that I wanted to give them all detentions (they would be my first of my career) but I figured that would be enough of an incentive for the person to come forward.  Who would be willing to give the entire class a detention simply so they could keep their phone?  In my mind, it would be a few moments before I would have the phone in my hand and class could carry on as it should.  A couple of the girls were uncomfortable with the situation, as displayed by their red faces.  When a couple of the boys found out that these girls had never had detentions, they riled the class to take the detention.

“Guys, let’s take it!”  “Yeah, its just a study hall in the morning!”  “We can talk with Mr.— about bringing donuts tomorrow!”  Their excitement wasn’t what I expected or wanted.  I didn’t desire them to be miserable, but I was hoping the peer pressure would make the person step forward and surrender the phone.

That didn’t happen.  Instead, I waited for them to give me the phone.  When I pressed them more for the phone, one student got up and handed me his phone, telling me to just take it.  I knew it wasn’t his and although it was an act of valor, I was unwilling to allow that one person to avoid punishment simply because a classmate of his was sacrificial.  With the one phone stowed in my podium, I told them that I wasn’t going to waste any more class time over this but that if I didn’t have the phone by the end of class then they would all have detentions.  And then I continued with class.  I ended five minutes early, on accident, but I thought it would be a good time for them to think about it and then give me the phone.  Perhaps they thought I had issued a simple harmless threat, but I fully intended to give them what I said I would.  No, I didn’t want to give them a detention, but I wanted to be true to my word and I wanted them to know that I meant what I said and should be taken seriously.  When the bell rang, they all walked out and I never got the phone.  I was amazed that the person never came forward and that the class didn’t pressure them to do so.  While I didn’t want them to rat the person out, I was hoping that the disgruntled class would impel the person to honesty.

I didn’t think I was over-reacting.    After e-mailing the principal the list of people in the class, I waited for him to come and talk to me.  Somehow, I knew he wouldn’t like that I had given all twenty-four people a detention, but I thought I had sufficient reasons.  He came just before my third period class and asked if I could locate the area of the room the sound came from.  Over the next couple periods he called discreetly into his office a couple trustworthy people in the class to ascertain who let their phone go off.  By fifth period he came and told me who it was and their punishment.  What I didn’t altogether expect was that the rest of the class would no longer have detentions.  A student came and asked me at the end of the day if the detentions still stood and I told him that as far as I was concerned, they did.  I had said I needed the phone by the end of the class and since that hadn’t happened, I intended for the consequences to stand.  The next morning a had a couple visits from the administration explaining to me why they did what they did and how to handle a situation like this in the future.  I understood where they were coming from, but I still think my method was better.  I heard from several people that my students were complaining about the detention for the rest of the day.  By the time 8th period walked in on that same day, they were smirking and saying, “Droid” and laughing about the incident.  I wasn’t offended.  Now they knew I was serious and that I meant what I said.  Too many high school teachers of mine made empty threats that nobody listened to because they knew they would never follow through.  I was determined to not be one of them.

In an e-mail to a parent, I told them that one thing I desired the students to learn from this was that they are an individual belonging to a community and what they do as individuals does affect the rest of the community.  So perhaps it was one person’s phone that went off.  The rest of them were complicit in the act by not speaking up or encouraging the person to be honest.  Whether or not that explanation was sufficient, I don’t know.  But it makes sense to me.

And that, dear readers, is the story of how this young teacher gave twenty-four detentions in one class period and had them all overturned within twenty-four hours.

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh.  Blessed be the name of the Lord!