We Fight for the “Others”

A PD day designed to inspire teachers in urban Catholic schools.

By Barb Szyszkiewicz

Catholic Partnership Schools, a network of five schools serving the children of Camden, New Jersey, recently hosted a day of professional development and inspiration for Catholic-school educators in urban settings. Featured speakers focused on the additional challenges teachers in urban schools face.

Our society is full of “others” — students who every day are searching to be seen and heard. … We fight for the “others” — the ones who need and deserve a champion most. (Wes Moore)

The first speaker of the day, Wes Moore, focused on the fine line between success and failure in our communities and ourselves. Moore’s first book, The Other Wes Moore, recounts the parallel stories of two children with the same name, growing up within blocks of each other in inner-city Baltimore, whose life stories diverged dramatically during adolescence: one young man’s military-school background prepared him for college, military service, and eventually a career. The other Wes Moore began serving a life sentence in prison as a young adult.

“You are working with kids facing a real and significant void,” Moore observed.

You are delivering freedom: a freedom to dream and knowing that your dreams will be supported by someone else other than yourself. … Your job is not to decide which ones win or lose. We all have to decide that sometimes they all win. Your job is not to disqualify. Your job is to welcome them with a God-honoring love.

We are in the seats we are in for a reason, and it’s not to be placeholders or caretakers: it’s to push.

Moore concluded, “We are not products of our environment. We’re products of our expectations.”

Psychologist, performer, and poet Dr. Michael Fowlin, who performs under the stage name “Mykee,” observed that what we see is not always what we think we are seeing, and what we hear is based on context. Taking on various characters during his presentation, Mykee challenged teachers to stop asking children to seek out differences — and to smile at differences instead. He also urged teachers never to be the kind of person who makes a Friday feel like a Monday.

“The only time we talk about mental health is when some tragedy happens,” he noted.

Closing out the day was Dr. Kirby Wycoff, Associate Professor and Co-Director of the School of Psychology at Eastern University in Philadelphia. Her current research focuses on adverse childhood experiences, and she brought this experience to bear in her presentation on resilience.

Discussing the physical effects children (and adults) experience from the trauma that comes from living in “hard places,” Dr. Wycoff explained the “weathering effect” trauma has on our bodies at the DNA level.

Dr. Wycoff encouraged teachers to help children “unpack their backpacks and lighten the load” by communicating these messages:

  • You are worthwhile and wanted.
  • You are safe.
  • You are capable.
  • I am available and won’t reject you.
  • I am responsive and won’t hurt you.
  • I will listen and seek to understand you.

“Think about where our young people are coming from before they come to us,” she advised. “Remembering what it is that brought you to this field literally will save children’s lives.”

I left that PD day and immediately got my hands on Wes Moore’s fascinating dual biography/autobiography, The Other Wes Moore. It’s a compelling read.


Barb Szyszkiewicz is managing editor of Today’s Catholic Teacher. Learn more about her writing at FranciscanMom.com.

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