When the students begin to write, it will be useful and appropriate to give them
a stick of the thickness of a pen to hold. On the sticks, there will be three grooves,
two on the right and one on the left. These grooves indicate the places
where the three fingers should be placed. This teaches the students to hold the pen
properly in their fingers and makes them hold these three fingers in a good position.
– St. John Baptist de La Salle
It is one thing to say that you are concerned about something, but it is another thing to know how to practically live that out. Any experienced teacher will tell you that students very quickly and intuitively sense the slightest whiff of hypocrisy, intentional or not. At the same time, they are quick to “give a break” to someone genuinely struggling to find the best way forward. So perhaps in today’s new educational containment field, the best we can do is to say, “Look guys, I’m working hard to find out how best to work out the details of how we’re going to proceed. And I could use your help in figuring this out. So let’s work together to make sure that everyone benefits. You let me know what works or doesn’t work, and I’ll do my part as your teacher to figure out how we can best work as a class. We won’t agree on everything, but I’ll guarantee that everybody will have a fair shot at succeeding.”
Before you say that this is hopelessly idealistic, read the above quotation from the 1720 manual of Lasallian schools. Teaching writing in 17th century France was forbidden for anyone other than the Writing Masters, yet De La Salle and his teachers were convinced that “… however limited the child’s intelligence, the child that knows how to read and write will be capable of anything.” They even went to court over it, because they knew that this was a crucial, transformative skill that would benefit their students in ways unimaginable. And then there were the details, which included practical things like the quotation above.
These days, even the word “Welcome” on a door requires more details than most care to read. Yet it is exactly those details that live out the larger intent. Convictions without details are empty vessels of words.
One of the Brothers in my community – now in his nineties – likes to give this response to any question that he cannot answer: “Details are lacking.” It reveals an integrity / humility about what is true and meaningful. This sort of approach is consistent with our teaching vocation and with our Lasallian vocation. A teacher without integrity or humility inevitably scatters seeds of deceit and pride, largely without realizing it. Whereas those who intentionally pursue integrity and humility end up sharing a love of, and a respect for, all that fosters wonder, integral complexity, mystery, the priority of people and relationships, and so on. Near the end of his life, a great Jewish teacher recalled something he had written years earlier: “I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And You gave it to me.” Teachers cultivate wonder, engagement, and connections, all of which help students process the snippets of knowledge that they discover every day. Having run into some of my students 40 years after teaching them, I can say that they don’t remember the quadratic equation, but they do remember my stories, personality, approach, care, and personal attention.
What lies behind such an approach? One aspect was best expressed by a Russian nun who died in 2011 and spoke about her monastery’s “one innermost battle-cry … , the austere demand of refusing to discuss what is not lived, and the impossibility of living this ourselves: back into the revolving wheel of repentance … .” What the early Brothers and De La Salle pursued relentlessly in their teaching vocation was talking about what was lived, building on their own and others’ experience, and constantly evolving. The 1706 Preface of The Conduct – it wasn’t published until 14 years later – noted that “Nothing has been added that has not been thoroughly deliberated and well tested, nothing of which the advantages and disadvantages have not been weighed and, as far as possible, of which the good or bad consequences have not been foreseen.” The book’s first edition took forty years of shared, cumulative experience to write. And even then, it was changed and adapted for the next 200+ years and went through at least 24 different editions. If anything, this illustrates that the details really sometimes do take a long time to develop, if you care to do a good job.
So what do we do today? First, let’s acknowledge that “Details are lacking.” There is no 3-ring-binder awaiting discovery. “Knowledge makes a bloody entrance,” and we will need to become first-year teachers once more, figuring out with our students and one another how best to fulfill our educational goals. Second, make sure that we are asking the right questions. Beyond the simply practical and method ones, which are certainly not unimportant, there are other key questions that I’ve heard from Lasallian educators; “How do you establish relationships and community online?” “How do you deal with Lasallian Catholic identity online?” Asking the right questions will shape the capacity to answer them. It’s the first step to a first edition. Third, stay calm and focused. Yes, I know that it’s easier to say than to do. But saying it, and recalling it in difficult moments, gradually builds up a habit of resilience, of focused intent, of comfort even.
What else can our Lasallian heritage teach us that may be helpful? Here are a few:
- You’re Not Alone. This whole enterprise came about because of De La Salle’s conviction that doing it together is much more vibrant, supportive, cumulative, and enriching than doing it alone.
- Prayer / Meditation. Look beyond yourself, and within yourself, for depth and perspective, for right relationships with people and things, for an appreciation of grace in your life. Take time to just be.
- Gardens. Prime Video’s The Gardener reminded me of DLS’s care that the Brothers had gardens where they could replenish their spirit. This really works. Visit a garden. Do a hobby. Be creative.
And amidst all the details, problems included, let’s not forget the main thing. Can you guess what that is?