We Can Do Hard Things

Nancy Lynch, the principal of Archbishop Lyke Catholic School in Cleveland, was administering a language arts MAP assessment to Leo, a young scholar who had been struggling in class lately. Leo had presented some significant behavior challenges in class, and Mrs. Lynch had spent some time working with Leo and his teacher and mom to find ways to improve the classroom situation.

At one point during the assessment, Leo squinted at the screen and asked, “Can I hear that one again?” They replayed the prompt. He looked at the possible responses some more and muttered quietly to himself. Nancy leaned in to try to hear what he was saying under his mask.

She tells me a tear came to her eye when she realized what he was repeating to himself: “We can do hard things. We can do hard things. We can do hard things…”

Leo had internalized one of Archbishop Lyke’s root beliefs: He had become convinced that he can do hard things. And in 2020, all of us in Partnership Schools Cleveland agree: We cannot lose faith in our belief that we can do hard things.

The roots of our belief in our capacity to persevere, persist, and overcome challenges come from the most essential convictions of our faith and in the Gospels. As Catholic school educators, we believe that we are all made the image and likeness of God. While we know that the human condition is one of brokenness—we are all sinners in need of God’s mercy—in the Gospels, St. Ambrose tells us, “We are taught to have faith, and not draw back from doing those things that are above our human strength,” because, as Ambrose notes: “Hope is incentive to labor.”

We believe that God made us for greatness, and despite our weaknesses, with Christ we “can do all things,” as St. Paul told the Philippians. Paul even tells the Corinthians, “I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Paul would have loved 2020.

The Archbishop Lyke and St. Thomas Aquinas school teams first gathered as the Partnership Schools community in Cleveland on a Monday in late August for the first of ten days of professional formation before the first day of school. Nine of the days would focus on new language arts and math curricula, Teach Like A Champion instructional workshops with Doug Lemov and his team, and learning to balance high-level synchronous instruction with asynchronous work for students at home and remote learners alike.

But school culture is the ocean everything swims in, so our first order of business on our first day together: surfacing the root beliefs of each school community.

Our teams worked through a series of protocols that began with asking them to reflect on what they love about their school, proceeded to have them individually complete the sentence “I believe that…” as many times as possible, and ultimately resulted in each member of the team committing to a set of root beliefs that will anchor their mindsets, decisions, policies, procedures, and programs.

Root beliefs are the convictions that motivate the daily work of the people in the school. Our root beliefs form the “why” behind our “what.” School culture consists of the “way we do things around here.” In strong school cultures, the way we do things is engineered, on purpose, to be aligned with what we believe.

On that Monday in August, the St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke teams each committed to four root beliefs, and both embraced “We can do hard things.”

On Tuesday morning after the first session, Rachael Dengler, first-year principal of St. Thomas Aquinas, found a fresh doughnut in a bag on her desk with the words “You can do hard things!” written on it.

By Thursday, Rachael found the belief on classroom doors and walls throughout the building.

Less than a month after school began, the 5th grade teacher texted the entire team: her students are internalizing the message.

The other beliefs are taking hold as well. Every morning, Rachael begins the day with morning prayer and announcements. Students at home join via Zoom and in classrooms they listen over the PA as Rachael starts the day by saying, “We are St. Thomas Aquinas School…” When she pauses, the entire school responds, “WE ARE BETTER TOGETHER!”

The beliefs are intersecting as well. At Archbishop Lyke, I’ve seen Mrs. Lynch do morning announcements and prayer. Each day she identifies something she observed that students did with excellence, and she points out: This is what we mean when we say “God made us for greatness.”

One day I visited, a second grader having a rough day was sent to her office. After getting to the bottom of the situation, Mrs. Lynch asked the young man: “What do I always say at announcements?”

“That we’re made for greatness.”

“That’s right. So what do you think you should do?”

“Apologize?”

“Well, sure, do you think that will show how great you are? I agree—that will be a good start. And then do you think you can go back to class and spend the rest of the day showing how much greatness you have?”

“Yes.”

“Okay. Let’s wipe those tears, go back to class, and make the rest of the day as great as you are made to be. You know you can do this hard thing.”

Last week Nancy passed by the girls bathroom and saw a student picking up paper towels off the floor. She thanked the girl for cleaning up and reminded her to wash her hands, telling her, “You know this is exactly what we mean when we say God created us for greatness—we take care of each other by keeping the school clean and safe. Thank you so much!” The student replied, “I didn’t know that. I just didn’t want anyone to slip and fall.” This moment is of course a reminder that transmitting these beliefs is a work in progress! But the student is engaging in an action we want to see, without being encouraged—that is to be celebrated. And Nancy is demonstrating how the beliefs are taught over time—through constant reminders, integrated into daily routines like morning announcements, rare and serious moments like trips to the principal’s office, and even random encounters by the bathroom.

These beliefs are becoming touchstones for all conversations and decisions in the schools, as they offer deeply rooted and shared points of common conviction that motivate the community. Decisions about enrollment growth, curriculum, professional development, improvement planning, health and safety protocols, and hiring are all aligned to these beliefs to ensure the decisions and actions of the schools are consistent with its convictions.

The results so far are encouraging. An increasing number of parents have been attracted to the schools (enrollment is up 40% over last year), largely thanks to referrals from current parents. In the classrooms and hallways, students and teachers are not just internalizing but are themselves actively transmitting a set of beliefs that proclaims each person’s dignity as a child of God, embraces others as community, and affirms their capacity for the extraordinary.

Christian Dallavis is the Assistant Superintendent of Partnership Schools.