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By: Betsy Holcomb, Upper School Theology Teacher and Mercy in Action Director // MDS Musings Blog

This post is the second and final post in this series. Read Part One here.

Betsy Holcomb, center, with students

Kinship in the Classroom

Kinship is an outgrowth of compassion.  Or compassion is the root and kinship is the flower.  One of my favorite stories in Tattoos is about the song O Holy Night.  Father Greg discusses a lyric I sang mindlessly for years, but now it echos with me.  He refers to, “Long lay the world in sin and error pining—’til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”  Boyle says about the quote, “Sure, it’s a song about Jesus and Christmas, but how is it not also the job description of human beings seeking kinship.  It’s about ‘appearing,’ remembering that we belong to one another, and letting souls feel their worth.”

There are lots of aspects of teaching that are stressful.  But kinship reminds educators that the purpose of teaching is much greater than any of these things.  As teachers we have the opportunity to help students realize their worth, their value, their dignity.  As Catholic Christians, this is not simply motivated by wanting kids to have a high self-esteem, but to remind people we encounter that God created humans in his image, and that all humans deserve dignity and respect.

Many teachers burn out from all of the responsibilities because teaching is largely a selfless vocation.  But kinship, as defined by Fr. Greg Boyle as “not serving the other, but being one with the other,” transforms the purpose and goals of a teacher.

Teachers and students spend so much time together, but how often do students feel seen, heard, and known?  Helping students feel known is a fundamental part of what we can do as Catholic educators, in imitating Jesus’ ministry.  Consider the moments in which Jesus practiced kinship in the Gospel, like in Luke 7 when the sinful woman arrives at the Pharisee dinner and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and anoints them with oil.  Admittedly, this woman is practicing repentance but this story also recognizes the importance of kinship, being one with another person, recognizing their worth.  Jesus, a servant leader, was not criticizing the Pharisee for not worshiping him or honoring him as a monarch, but for not welcoming Jesus as a guest, knowing him, and being one with him.

Perhaps Catholic educators can learn from the kinship that the sinful woman practices and be one with our students, particularly through choosing compassion and to subvert a traditional model of education in which a teacher is the singular authority and the students the obedient learners. Teachers who practice kinship can connect in meaningful ways with students and transform communities by helping people feel their worth.

Humor in the Classroom

This is my favorite, and of the three characteristics of Fr. Greg Boyle’s the most controversial approach to Catholic education. One of Fr. Greg Boyle’s “superpowers” is his ability to make people laugh.  Humor can be used in the wrong way; it can be used as a weapon to isolate or marginalize someone.  Humor can hurt people directly or indirectly. However, employed in the right way, humor can build healthy relationships.  It can relieve stress, it can improve a person’s day, and bind communities together.

Humor can build trust.  It can make isolated students feel connected.  A colleague of mine masterfully uses humor to connect with students.  He playfully refers to a student and something that she does well in order to praise them.  Through this playfulness and delight, the students feel encouraged, supported, and known.  Of course, the teachers must always be careful to avoid humor that may even appear to isolate or marginalize a student, but if used correctly, humor can lead to joy, delight, and kinship.  

Also, it’s important to remember how Jesus employed humor in the Gospels, which can often be overlooked or forgotten. Check out Fr. James Martin’s book on this subject: Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life.

Being an Excellent Catholic Educator

Compassion, kinship, and humor create a culture that promotes the dignity of the human person and encourages students and teachers to thrive!  Students who feel known, supported, and encouraged have more opportunities to thrive—pursue athletic, academic, social, spiritual interests in a supportive and loving environment.  I can’t think of a better definition of Catholic education.  Just as Jesus embraced and welcomed people from all backgrounds and ideologies, created a culture of kinship, compassion, and even employed humor, so too can students be formed by these virtues.

Please consider watching Fr. Greg Boyle’s  Ted Talk, or reading his books  Tattoos on the Heart, or  Barking to the Choir.