Does Success Happen in a Straight Line?

Feb. 23, 2020

Exploring Catholic University of America

Choosing the right school for your student is more about your son or daughter than the school. In some of my first presentations in Northwest Arkansas, more than a year before Ozark Catholic Academy opened its doors in 2018, I would ask parents what do they want for their children? I would let it sink in for a few seconds and then answer, we all want our children to be happy.

The answer is still the same, happiness, but maybe we actually disagree on the definition of what will make our children happy? In Ready or Not: Preparing Our Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World, Dr. Madeline Levine presents her observations based on her practice as well as research. In an adapted article from her book, in The Atlantic, the reader is hit directly on how young children are being guided by their parents for success. Dr. Levine acknowledges that children are being groomed for success and winning; yet, they have no concrete guideposts other than that money will be their measure of success: “Money is overvalued, and character undervalued. The 10-year-old sitting before me is the logical outcome of this culture. He wants to be a winner, but knows nothing about the kind of work he’s signing on for.”

Catholic schools are known for educating the whole person. Forming students in the Catholic tradition happens in the most complete sense, when the school is integrated in its culture, curriculum and Catholicism (faith). Whether your children are attending a Catholic, charter, traditional public or even home-school, are they receiving an integrated formation?

Looking over the history of Catholicism, one sees that the saints of the world were not linear, many wandered. Yet, Levine believes that Americans, “fervently believe that staying ‘on track’ beats wandering around. However, reality suggests otherwise. And instilling this concept of success as a straight line can set kids up for unrealistic expectations and disappointment.” Catholic Education has always been rooted in reality. The reality of the human person is important to acknowledge not just in our daily lives as adults, but in the formation of our children.

Dr. Levine continues speaking of all the speeches and presentations she has given over the years: “‘How many of you who consider yourself successful have followed the straight path? How many have followed the squiggly path?’ I have asked more than 100,000 people these questions. Whatever the composition of my audience—techies from Silicon Valley, cops and teachers from middle­-class neighborhoods, the highest levels of management from some of America’s biggest companies—the proportion of ‘straight arrows’ and ‘curious wanderers’ is always the same. Straight arrows make up, at most, 10 per­cent of the people who consider themselves successful. The remaining 90 percent are folks who have taken risks, failed, changed course, recovered, often failed again, but ultimately found their stride.”

The straight path is not for us all. Bradley Birzer in Beyond Tenebrae speaks of how each person is called to live as they have been created, “remind the human person of his universal qualities as well as to leverage his particular gifts, abilities, and excellences.” We may find our stride as Levine speaks; perhaps the discovery of our children’s path will happen with an education that walks along with each student as they find their own path. Western Academy and Ozark Catholic Academy are two schools where their faculty walk along with students.

Dr. Levine reminds me of two other physicians and authors that through caring for their patients began to do studies beyond those that entered their office doors, Drs. Leonard Sax and Meg Meeker. Dr. Levine’s book, Ready or Not, is worth our exploration.

Why do I teach at a Catholic School?

Jesus calls the fishermen to be his apostles; in the background he performs the miracle at Cana.

I would like to turn your attention to a young lady, Stefani Aquila, who taught one of my daughters at Incarnate Word Academy in Houston. From my daughter, I heard how challenging Mrs. Aqulia was as a teacher and yet empathized with her students as young women in high school. Mrs. Aquila now teaches at St. John XXIII in the most vibrant Theology department of all Houston area Catholic Schools.

Her post is fresh and you can easily sense her love and enthusiasm for Catholic Education. She presents four reasons why she teaches at a Catholic school:

1. Teaching the whole person.
2. Sharing Our Love for Christ
3. Mission Driven
4. Authentic Community

Enjoy the reading her post.

From her four reasons and post the reader can see that Catholic school teachers are in communities which they can fully teach each student through the full lense of the Catholic faith from Science to Technology to Physical Education to History. The faculty of Catholic schools jump whole-heartedly not just with themselves in the classroom, but committing their children to receive an integrated education – of the mind, body and soul. Whether it is Houston or Northwest Arkansas, the teachers are the professional and personal models for Catholic Education.

Upside Down Education?

My children are spread out from ages 24 to 6, as I currently write this post. With children of varying ages, my wife and I often think, “What do we want for each child?” Each child is different; they are all uniquely made in the image of God. So we must want something different for each? Actually, the answer is no. In one word, parents want their children to be happy. Do the education that most children receive from grade school to high school prepare them for happiness?

Education today, is upside down. High schools teach to the test, focus on skill based, and ultimately have become focused on technological utilization.

Ozark Catholic Academy (OCA) struggles to balance all three key aspects of forming the whole person: the mind, body, and soul.

Peter Crawford in his essay, “Education Right Side Up” published in Humanum discusses the misunderstanding of education in most schools, whether they are classical, private, traditional public, or charter. If you choose not to dive into the essay, below are a few quotations that stand out with a bit of my own reflections.

“Education is about the acquisition of knowledge not for its own sake, but because it opens the door to power.” I do not exactly know how to comment on this utilitarian implementation of education today…

“Finally, the modifier “classical” is often just a code word for “safe” and wholesome, with good books and a Latin requirement.” Ozark Catholic Academy does not call its curriculum “Classical” because there are too many different understandings or definitions of the term. As OCA strives to form our students minds, body and soul, the term liberal education is a more truthful reflection of what we are trying to accomplish. We form our students so that they may be free young men and women when they graduate from OCA.

“The fundamental soil of education is culture and community.” Potential families and students hear these two terms from me often, yet I often do not receive follow up questions. If the heart of OCA or every Catholic school is the Eucharist, culture and community are what direct the faculty and students toward the center. Classrooms are not institutional for conveying facts and skills, but places of relationships and mentoring that actively create and sustain a unique culture and community. Wherever your children attend school, ask yourself how would you describe its culture and community?

“…the vast majority of questions I have received from prospective parents revolve around curricular questions and are generally never about the culture of the school.”

“This means that the first question we should ask is not about book lists, but about how one builds a human community.” OCA focuses on friendships and what does it mean to have authentic friendship. The “real” world is not about navigating your way through the halls of large buildings with another 3,000 students, but rather how to build relationships with your spouse, children, and co-workers. Large public and even private schools are creating cohorts or using the house system, so students and faculty can build some kind of community, but for what end? Friendship is not about transactions; it is about walking side by side with those closest around us toward the same goals. In our professional lives, it is for the success of our business and for our families it is about being in the arms of Christ.

“Though we may be tempted to blame emotional imbalances on puberty and fluctuations of hormones, we must help our children develop stalwart hearts that can withstand the attacks that are bound to arise as they reach adulthood.” Our second year families are given Grit by Angela Duckworth. Solid formation is necessary for our children not to acquiesce to society’s immediate whims, particularly from what they receive through social media. OCA does not hide students from the world, but rather truly embraces the scripture that we are lambs but should be as cunning as wolves. Guiding our students through worldly experiences grounds them for the practice of prudence. As our seniors graduate in May, it is less than three months that most of them will be on their own in college.

“Conventionally, schools tend to reduce intellectual formation to an encyclopedic dimension. Classes focus primarily on factoids and computation.”

“Classical academies provide richer courses of study than their conventional counterparts. Their students read better literature, study classical languages, and, if they are fortunate, many even develop as mathematical thinkers rather than mere computational experts.”

“…we begin to see the glimmer of formation—not just knowledge acquisition, but the cultivation of understanding—that is possible with a deep curriculum.” OCA does not offer the plethora or cafeteria variety of course electives, but rather chooses its courses carefully. If someone asks, “Describe the curriculum of OCA in one word?” Deep.

“But take away the vibrant community, the virtue of humility, or the love of the teacher, and the classics alone may be insufficient to form the minds, hearts and bodies of our young.” Docilitas is one of the words of our school motto. It can be defined as to be open to learning something new. When a potential teacher is applying to OCA, we are looking for depth and expertise in content, and classroom relations, but a teacher but be a person of docilitas. A classroom full of children with iPads in their hands all filled with the best age appropriate writings fiction and non-fiction, will not form students minds, bodies and souls. Teachers, living out their faith through professional excellence will form our children.

“Education is a formation in reality.”

Why Latin?

I often hear from potential parents, “Why Latin?” “I thought Latin was a dead language?” or “Perhaps you should require a language that is more practical like Mandarin, Arabic or Spanish?”

The article below does not answer all of the questions above, but Jared Staudt gives the foundation of Latin’s importance in later studying other languages, the training to think logically that comes with learning Latin, and its importance to our culture and faith.

Here are a few quotes of interest:

“Not only has Latin served as the language of the Church since the third century, it also has provided the key language of education and learning.”

“On the Promotion of the Study of Latin,” he also proclaimed Latin’s crucial role in education: “There can be no doubt as to the formative and educational value either of the language of the Romans or of great literature generally. It is a most effective training for the pliant minds of youth. It exercises, matures and perfects the principal faculties of mind and spirit. It sharpens the wits and gives keenness of judgment. It helps the young mind to grasp things accurately and develop a true sense of values. It is also a means for teaching highly intelligent thought and speech.”

“Engaging in the rigors of ancient grammar teaches language itself, in a much more complete way than found in modern languages. Its complexity and precision leads to discipline within the mind itself, learning the craft of words and the logical thinking needed to form them clearly and cogently.”

Enjoy the article.

“Secret Sauce” of Catholic Schools

The NY Post published an opinion piece by Kathleen Porter-Magee. She is the superintendent of Partnership schools in the New York area, a group of Catholic schools in Harlem and the Bronx. Ozark Catholic Academy’s diverse student body does not mirror the urban students of New York, but the foundation of Catholic Education is the same. The integration and formation of the whole person.

Here are a couple of quotes that stand out: 

“…Catholic schools seek to form students with the habits of virtue that help them choose to do good. To that end, Catholic schools emphasize that freedom comes with responsibility, with actions consequences.”

“Catholic schools profess that truth is objective and that one goal of education is the search for objective truths. This informs students about the merits of civic engagement, commitment to family and devotion to Almighty God.”

Catholic Schools Week 2020

Founding Faculty of Ozark Catholic Academy

“True education seeks wisdom, not mere knowledge or technical skill.  It does not believe in shaping the person for the here and now, but for the eternal.”
Bradley J. Birzer

“The good educator knows, too, that the secret of the discipline he imparts is not the final secret of existence.  The world is not to become perfect, even with the best education for everybody. Education does not pose an insurance against error and sin.”
Mark Van Doren

“Accordingly, the whole of Christ’s life was a continual teaching: His silences, His miracles, His gestures, His Prayer, His love for people, His special affection for the little and the poor, His acceptance of the total sacrifice on the cross of redemption of the world, and His resurrection are the actualization of His word and the fulfillment of revelation.”
St. John Paul the Great

I have been involved as a teacher in education for quite some time.  I began my teaching career in Catholic education and, wherever I am, it is a part of me.

Reflecting on this year’s theme for Catholic Schools Week —“Learn. Serve. Lead. Succeed.”— is not a theme much different than what public schools in Northwest Arkansas, charter or traditional, might say to separate themselves from one another.

So what makes Ozark Catholic Academy, our local parochial schools, and even Catholic education distinct from what public education has to offer?  

Catholic education seeks to educate the whole person: forming the mind, body, heart, and soul of a student. It only takes a quick Google search to see what great athletes and musicians, as well as public leaders, have received due to a Catholic education.  My thoughts do not tend toward those we easily find on the internet, but rather the millions of students, like myself, who heard God’s call during their high school years and said, “Yes.” Such men and women are not only successful in their professional lives, but know that their relationship with God and their family comes before all.

The Rocha Family

Catholic education “fully alive” educates the whole person to its families and students.  It seeks to form the mind, body and soul of each student not through an institution, but through the teachers who work there.

Over the years, several teachers have inspired me to listen to God’s call and respond generously, as they exemplified.   Two great men, two teachers, Bob Mabry and Mike McConnell, influenced me in and out of the classroom.

These men assisted my parents in forming not just me, but other young men. Mr. Bob Mabry taught ancient history at St. Thomas High School in the late 1980’s.  Previous teachers had imparted the joy of studying history, but it was his demanding presence and the expectations he had of all his students that led me to want more for myself. To contrast that with another situation, my Theology teacher spoke to my parents during parent/teacher conferences and said they should be happy with my average grade.  As a football player my grade was considered “good enough.” Needless to say, my parents did not agree with my Theology teacher. Mr. Mabry led me to a turning point in my understanding of history. I realized that it was not for us to learn history for the test or personal interest, but rather the importance of learning from those who came before us.   It was our focus on the Ancient Greeks and the Persians that opened my mind to Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. What they said and taught mattered to a 14-year-old boy, if not even more now to a man in his late forties. Mr. Mabry kindled the fire that became my love of learning in college.

Mr. Mabry expected more of me and, during that first semester, went on to inquire if I would participate on the Forensics team.  It was a world that I had never heard of, knew about, nor even seen, until my first Speech and Debate tournament. I did not win that first tournament nor did I win any trophies or medals until my senior year.  But Mr. Mabry saw in me something only a teacher could. The trust I had — not to give up, not to give in, and not to leave the team — gave me the strength to endure challenges in which the outcome was uncertain.

Coach Mike McConnell’s height is about 5’6”, but his stature was that of John Wayne or Andre the Giant when he walked into the locker room. He can also be described as a rather quiet man with a presence that takes up the whole room.  Coach McConnell was the head varsity football coach and Dean of Students at St. Thomas. My first interaction with “Coach” was during two-a-day workouts before my sophomore year of high school. Towards the end of the two weeks and just beginning to work out in full pads, he called me into his office and spoke plainly.  As I recall, I had the size and natural ability of a lineman but the varsity team was stacked with experienced upperclassmen. I was not a strong enough player to compete for a starting position, so he gave me two options: I could start on the JV football team and get plenty of playing time or I could join the Varsity team and be a punching bag for the starters.  What I did not realize at the time was that he was presenting me with an opportunity to grow physically and mentally by hanging with the “big boys.” Coach McConnell kept a close eye on me and guided me through my remaining three years on and off the football field.  

Modeling and mentoring the Catholic faith is what truly happens in schools that are fully alive. Coach McConnell modeled his faith and family life actively at school; his son, Blake, was a few years younger than me and his wife, Dorothy, worked in the school Business office. Blake came to many of our practices and all of our games.  Even though he stayed out of his dad’s hair, you could see the relationship they had through their interactions. Later, I was able to coach with Blake as he was finishing his undergraduate degree. I could see much of his father in him. While teaching at St. Thomas, I would see Mr. and Mrs. McConnell having lunch together at school and their interactions with one another.  Their respect and love for each other could be seen in the small ways. As a student and teacher, I saw Coach attend Mass and serve as an extraordinary Eucharistic minister. The challenges he gave me on the football field were tough, but his modeling guided me to what it means to be a coach, a teacher, a father, a husband…a man.

Mr. Mabry moved on to law school when I graduated from college, but Coach McConnell was still at St. Thomas.  When I began looking into teaching at St. Thomas, he was the first person from whom I sought advice. He told me that I knew the answer on the inside…

There are other men and women who have guided me and given me direction.  Catholic Education is an education of the whole person. Without forming the souls of young men and women, we leave it to society to fill in the gap.  Forming students should not be left to institutions, but to communities of learning where each student can be seen for who they are…a creature of God.

In January 1995, 25 years ago, I began teaching. Twenty-five years ago, I answered the call.

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