Editor’s Note: Next week marks Catholic Schools Week, a national celebration of the Catholic Church’s centuries-old commitment to intellectual and faith formation. In this week’s blog, Tom Peri, NDP science teacher, offers his reflections on being a life-long Catholic educator.
Picture this………September 1975, standing in front of his first class ever is a new teacher, just three months out of college. He was determined not to allow the smell of his fear to reach the nostrils of the 28 sophomores seated before him, he was not successful. That is the only recollection I have of the first day of my teaching career. I suspect those students remember even less.
Teaching is a marvelous way to spend a year or 40 (and counting). It is a vocation to fall in love with and every day brings a new surprise and new insights. The irony and the beauty of being a teacher is that you never stop learning. I have learned some lessons and almost every one of the really important ones come from my students. In that regard I have had a charmed career – my students have been among my very best teachers.
I have worked exclusively in Catholic schools: one all-boys, four co-ed, and one all-girls. I have been called Dean of Students, Assistant Principal for Student Affairs, and Principal twice. In all those years, regardless of my title, I have also taught biology.
When I started the latest technology was colored chalk. If that 1975 teacher could walk into our Science Lab 4 today he would think he was on the starship Enterprise. But as exciting as the changes have been, what I love most of all about Catholic education are the things that haven’t changed and in that, any one of my 100+ NDP teacher colleagues could finish this blog equally well. When I walk in to a class today, I have the privilege of working with students as complete persons, each with talents and foibles, grace and pratfalls, great humor and remarkable seriousness, leaders who follow and followers who lead. We are engaged in a grand collaboration involving much more than biological vocabulary or MBAs. We, both of us, are learning to stretch; to flap wings and fly for the first time or to soar to new heights. The flight path is never linear, or level, or logarithmic and that is the joy of it. Risking disaster is the only way to ascend to new heights, parabolic arcs, 90o turns, steep dives to gain momentum needed to carry past the peaks. There is no growth without risk.
A lesson learned early was from a young man at John Carroll. I was invited back to the school to speak at the Junior Ring Ceremony. After the ceremony, Sean came up to me and said, “Mr. Peri, you said something to me that changed my life. Today I am an honor student because of what you said.” I remembered Sean well and pictured him sitting exactly in the classroom. But I had no idea what I said that was so profound. So I asked and he told me that one day I was handing out tests and when he got his he said, “Wow, 87! I’m surprised.” The “profound” words that I spoke were heartfelt, automatic, and simple, “I’m not” was all I said. And I continued handing out papers without giving it a second thought. Sean taught me at that instant every single interaction between student and teacher is an opportunity not to be wasted. There are no throw away days. In 40 years I have been absent seven days.
My NDP students teach me great things that I couldn’t learn anywhere else. They are models of academic commitment, sharers of side-splitting humor, exemplars of kindness, and the embodiment of service. They teach me how a haircut binds hearts forever. NDP girls demonstrate annually that if you commit totally you can make anything cool. Proof the skeptics among you ask. I have just two words for you……………..Gym Meet.
The last thing I have learned from teaching is the greatest lesson I can pass on to my students and for that matter to my own children as well. If you work in a job you love, it’s not work at all.