Monday, August 31, 2015

Nothing Harsh, Nothing Burdensome

"nihil asperum, nihil grave, nos constituturos speramus" Preface, Rule of St. Benedict

That time has come, of course-the end of the summer. Pretty soon, schools will re-open, work will start and the standard routine of class prep, extra-curriculars and marking will take over the lives of teachers, parents and students alike. And, that is okay. There is an excitement around back-to-school and hope as well, because everything is, at least, a little new during Back To School.

For me, the lead-up to school entails a few things. First, there are the standard administrative tasks like revising course profiles and other administrative documents. Then, there is whatever class prep I can squeeze around the last summer activities of the year. It is also the time that the reality hits that I won't finish the gazillion projects I thought I'd like to do at the beginning of the summer. And it also the time for my annual reading of the Rule of St. Benedict.

I'm always a bit defensive about this annual reading because I recognize reading the Rule at any time may strike my readers as an odd practice for anyone who isn't a monk.  After all, what does a sixth-century AD monk have to say to a twenty-first century public school teacher. Plenty, it turns out. While there's no call for planning psalm readings or the Liturgy of the Hours in the life of a a teacher in the  secular school system, Benedict's Rule has much to say about the creation and maintenance of a community of teacher and students which I do think is essential for good teaching.  The guidance that St. Benedict gives is rooted in the fact that he firmly believed that people needed to be received as they were and they should be nurtured in a community which gives them a chance to learn and grow. That is, I suggest, what monasteries and schools have in common- communities in which people are welcomed, encouraged to discern their gifts and to develop them in a supportive environment. Benedictine wisdom about hospitality and community has become central to how I've learned to nurture the the community of students, who come to sit with me to explore Latin in my classroom each year. Besides, didn't Benedict characterize his community as a school, albeit for for the Lord's service?

So, one of the phrases in the Rule which stays with me as I consider this sense of community is the programmatic statement of 'nothing harsh, nothing burdensome'. This is a general statement of how a Benedictine community is supposed to run. Out of context, perhaps, this statement might be worrying because it suggests laxity, but, if one continues just one sentence, Benedict makes it clear that, that that aim may have to be adjusted to correct the conduct of community members and promote fairness (actually, correct sin and foster charity). Indeed, there are times in the Rule that St. Benedict seems pretty harsh, especially in his use of corporal punishment for children and 'simple' adults. That is, of course, to our eyes. By the standard of his much harsher and more violent time, he wasn't extreme in any of these punishments.

What St. Benedict does in his Rule is to steer a middle course between the excessive harshness of other monastic rules like the Rule of the Master and the laxity of some monastic communities like the much maligned Sarabaites in his age. Benedict realizes that neither extreme works in learning. Laxity doesn't push people to learn or grow. It just gives them permission to stay as they are. Harshness doesn't help much either  because, while it might breed outwardly obedient monks, it, also, fosters the kind of fear and anger which destroys not only communities, but also the chance to teach what is good. Benedict should know all about that because, in his first community, he was almost poisoned  by some lax monks who found his way of life rather too harsh for their taste (to be fair, he did warn them). That particular community, understandably, didn't survive.

Mind you, I don't expect to be poisoned by my students because of my teaching style, even if I give them the opportunity in my Roman food project each year. However, what the phrase 'nothing harsh, nothing burdensome' tells me is to avoid the extremes of harshness and laxity in my own conduct in the classroom. I know from my ten plus years of teaching that no student can function at their best  in a classroom where the rules are harsh and the work excessively burdensome. Sooner or later, anxiety and anger rob the student of the chance to learn and teacher of the ability to teach. Yet, having no standards creates a chaos in the classroom and an instructional void in which nothing nothing gets done and there is no learning. A functioning classroom needs its rules and it needs flexibility about how those rules are applied. That sometimes means negotiating with students about whether expectations are unreasonable in an assignment and that sometimes being firm with them when they want to take advantage of what they may see, early on, as laxity.  What that looks like changes from year to year and situation to situation, so I can't say that I'm perfect in keeping that balance, but St. Benedict's dictum reminds me to keep balancing firmness and fairness because that is one of the secrets of a truly effective teacher.

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