School of Virtue: Preparing our Families for a Graceful Return to School

Josh Florence

School of Virtue: Preparing our Families for a Graceful Return to School

Beginning of school is upon us! Our children will all have a variety of reactions to this statement. Some will look forward to seeing their friends regularly, some will be nervous about starting in a new grade or school, others will want to keep hitting the snooze button.

Wherever your children may be in preparedness for school, all of us can use a little refresher for beginning the year. I am composing this list from my years of teaching experience throughout the last decade, from multiple schools across the US. This list includes things that I make an effort to do before school starts, which I have found helpful, and I hope others reading may benefit in order to grow in virtue as the school year begins.


Practice Your Morning Routine

It may have been awhile since everyone as a family has needed to get up by a certain time, in order to get to multiple different places to start the day right. School can be challenging some days, but getting there on time, with a good breakfast beforehand, with enough sleep, really sets a tone. It’s a dance, so practice the steps beforehand.

At some point before the first day, practice going to bed by a certain time and getting up by a certain time. Then, I would suggest structuring your day with your children as much as possible.

How the day looks as a family is really up to you. Go to the park, go to a museum, drop the kids off at a family relative, go grocery shopping but try to get out of the house by the time you would go to school. If your older kids have responsibilities, like packing lunches for their younger siblings, this would be an opportunity to start.

My personal goal with this is to be up and ready consistently for at least a week before I need to report back to work. I have found it helps my body acclimate and helps me grow in discipline. Even if your family does this one day before school opens, it will be beneficial. It also helps us to look at the hurtles which may come from not doing our regular morning routines.


Do Hard Things/Challenge Your Children

You may think this list item is about having your children do chores outside. You could have them do chores, chores can build virtue, but I have something else in mind. This can better be explained with a story from my childhood:

My family got into playing ping-pong growing up. For a gift one year, my Dad bought my brother and I a professional, German-made, foldable ping-pong table. It was an exquisite table, especially for someone who grew up playing racket ball games with chalk lines on their driveway.

I found out quickly, after unwrapping the present, that the gift came with a catch . . . it was still in its box and it came with some assembly required. My Dad and I picked a day to take every piece out and put it together. In short, it was just like IKEA furniture. It was designed to be a two-person job (although three would have been nice), and it was supposed to be straight-forward and easy (though it wasn’t).

We can give kids chores and even reward them for their efforts. It’s reflecting the market economy that they will one day enter. Nothing wrong with that. The challenge as teachers and parents, day-in, day-out, can be creating a “market economy” of virtue. (“If I show this good action, I get this reward. I will only show this good action if I get this reward.”) 

A different perspective, especially in instilling virtue in children is to have them earn dominion over something. When I built the ping-pong table with my Dad, I learned the ins and outs of how that table functioned. I learned how to care for it, set it up, and put it away. It took work to build it, there were challenges, but once I overcame that obstacle and showed mastery or “dominion”, I was able to literally “play”.

 In another example, a child who struggles with grammatical parts of speech may benefit from something like MadLibs. He or she may need to put effort in to understand which words can be used as a noun, verb, adjective, etc. Once they have done so, they then can really use their mastery or dominion over this concept and “play”. You also might think of it as “rest”, especially when our minds don’t have to think as much about a certain concept. In this example we can really relax, rest, and as odd as it may sound  . . . . enjoy grammar!

Whether we realize it or not, we really like order (like grammar) and wish to understand the world around us. God gave us dominion over the earth so that we might live in communion with Him and rest with Him. 

This is innate in us. So at home, children could have dominion over things like their bike. If a parent is mechanically minded, you can help a child fix a bike. If you are not mechanically-minded, teach them how to clean their bike, or put air in its tires. 

They will grow in virtue through the process and learn more about how the bike works. Since they put work into it and are now handed over the responsibility for its care, they will be more likely to take care of it because there is a value or a good in doing so, not because they get an allowance. I certainly know that I took much better care of my ping-pong table than if I had unwrapped it already put together.

This perspective can really be beneficial for children when they are confronted with hard academic challenges at school. They can think back to the time they had to do something hard and that they overcame it, and then were able to rejoice in their mastery and rest and give thanks for their hard work.

Adults need this final step of rest/play too. We don’t do Math because we’re gluttons for punishment, or because we’re “supposed” to do it. We do Math so that one day, we can lift off in a rocket, go to the stars, and be amongst the heavens.


Practice Listening/Attend to others

This suggestion comes to mind because we live in a culture and world that is often self-centered. A world where we have the ability to search for whichever fact we want in the blink of an eye. As useful as technology can be as a tool, we live in an overly-digitized world. As a result, we can often times not be as focused on those we care about, be it friends, family, or neighbors.

It leads to a world that wants instant gratification and this has affected our interactions with others. I have noticed this amongst adults and children alike, which is a trend of people interrupting their peers, family members, and people of authority.

Being able to have a clear thought and communicate it well is a very virtuous thing. Being able to truly listen (not just hear) and understand someone shows great patience and charity. It actually is a really loving thing for another person to be seen, known, and heard.

Some small ways to help with this could be to invite a family friend over for dinner. Prep your kids beforehand and tell them to ask appropriate questions to their guests. You could tell them that you will ask them later about what they learned from their guest.

You can also practice this at your own dinner table. Someone in your family could tell a story and then different member of the family gets to retell the story to see how much they remembered (for younger children this also helps to reinforce the concept of “beginning, middle, and end” and can be helpful in their writing). If you feel like your family could benefit from conversation starters, there are family conversation topics readily available online (obviously, read them over first) that can get the ball rolling in practicing good listening and conversation skills.

The benefits of this positively effect a child’s social skills but also helps attending to their school work.


Charity in thoughts/words

At my current school, we have developed a culture, through all of our grades, of asking our children if the questionable thing a student said was true, good, and necessary. If it is not all three of those things, they should reevaluate their phrase, or offer an apology to their classmate, etc. 

I need to recognize, in my role as a teacher, that I need to speak to my colleagues in the same manner. Whether I am in a different classroom or passing someone in the hallway, there is a good chance that my students are listening even when it seems like they are not. Things said by a teacher to peers, colleagues, or other adults in the building can set the right tone for a student’s learning environment, or not. Things overheard like “When is this day going to be over?” or “This assembly on Tuesday is going to be a nightmare” are not constructive and if overheard by a student can really set a wrong tone.

Likewise, at home, our kids are still listening, even if we think they are not. In a parent role, vigilance in this regard is beneficial. Things might be said in exasperation such as “Why is your school teaching this language and not this language?” or “This program has just gone downhill in recent years.” The concerns you have may be valid, or even true, but with children in mind, is it necessary to share these thoughts in front of them rather than to the teacher or administration?

In reality, we are talking about the off-handed comments we may make. If a student catches on that a parent doesn’t respect a certain class or teacher, this can lead the child to think “If my Mom or Dad doesn’t respect this class, why should I?” 

In light of the comments made in list #3, sometimes kids listen to us when we really wouldn’t like them to do so. Sometimes, the kids, without even realizing it, may mimic the attitudes and words of the adults around them and this can lead to behavior issues.

To set the right tone before entering into another school year, take a look at the school’s mission statement as a family. If the mission statement is lacking in your eyes, then write one for your family. What is the goal of an education? For who does it serve? The mission statement can be expounded upon as your children get older. Whether you use the school’s or your own, you can discuss as a family that you are committing yourselves to follow this mission, or certain virtues, as you study this year.


A School of Prayer

A school of prayer orients all of our actions in their proper order. Any learning that we undertake is for God’s greater glory and service. If not, it will be purely for our own service and will be in vain. The Church has such a repository of saints to assist us in our academic endeavors, from St. Thomas Aquinas to St. Joseph of Cupertino and everyone in-between.

Prayer, done well and faithfully, will lessen all of the pitfalls and magnify all of the virtues mentioned in this article. It gives focus, discipline, charity of thought and word, and allows us to attend to The Logos, our ultimate end, Jesus Christ. Study, done virtuously, will help us in our attention and devotion to God. 

I will leave you with a quote from St. Vincent Ferrer, “Do you desire to study to your advantage? Let devotion accompany all your studies, and study less to make yourself learned than to become a saint. Consult God more than your books, and ask him, with humility, to make you understand what you read. Study fatigues and drains the mind and heart. Go from time to time to refresh them at the feet of Jesus Christ under his cross.”