This afternoon I attended a funeral for a former colleague, a 63-year-old science teacher. He developed cancer a few years ago and struggled to keep up with the demands of his classes. Mid-year, shortly after his diagnosis, he was let go. He died this past Sunday, and when we teachers returned to work on Tuesday, many of us shared our regrets about his last months at school. Today, at his funeral, another colleague, a priest who teaches Ethics at our school, delivered a homily that celebrated our friend’s life. I’ve always believed that the pulpit should convey challenges to live our values and to honor the dignity of our fellow travelers on this journey. We should hear words that ask us to examine our hearts. The priest did not disappoint. He shared the teacher’s story: his nineteen years of dedication to our school, his love of chemistry and of his students, his deep involvement in clubs and activities. And then the discovery of cancer and his dismissal. Most importantly, though, he shared this man’s remarkable ability not to hold a grudge. Generous and kind to the last, he never spoke disparagingly of the school. In fact, he asked that any offerings made in his name be given to the school for a Science Enrichment Fund.
Since learning of our colleague’s death, I have been thinking often about the obligations an institution has to its community. How and in whose interests ought the institution to be governed, especially a non-profit institution such as a school? Certainly there is the legal bar that must always be hurdled, but that shouldn’t be the highest level of responsibility.
Of course, a school exists first and foremost for its students. It is designed to help students develop their full capacity for personal achievement. So what should happen when a teacher isn’t able to perform to the best of his or her abilities? Granted, the students might suffer academically; they might not receive the full benefit of engaging instruction and analysis of the subject’s content. But is that the only purpose the school serves? If we look to most mission statements, especially those of independent schools, they express far more than the intellectual development of students. In addition, most aim to develop a sense of understanding and compassion for others, responsibility for one’s decisions, and the courage to act on one’s beliefs. These affective goals recognize that no man is an island. Each of us makes choices and acts in ways that cause ripple effects that spread out into the lives of others. These schools believe that they are called to develop in students the will and character to do the right thing, regardless of the costs, because doing the wrong thing, inflicting harm or grief on others, ultimately hurts everyone.
So what should happen when a teacher or any member of the school community faces personal struggles that may affect his or her performance? I believe the institution must honor its mission and treat its employees with the same respect and compassion that it wishes to develop in its students. Certainly, that would benefit the employee.
But it would also ultimately benefit the institution too. The institution must recognize that any decision that subverts the mission of the school, even ones that it perceives to be minor or that it believes will be overlooked, should be challenged.
The Biblical author of Song of Solomon urges, “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes” (2:15). The large foxes steal into the vineyard and eat the ripened grapes, but the little foxes often enter unseen and, unable to reach the tempting grapes, chew on the vine instead, destroying the vineyard as a whole.
A school needs to be on guard to ensure that it remains a morally healthy institution. To do so, it must ask that every member of its community fully assume its mission statement, living out its precepts in every word and deed. A school needs to protect itself from the insidious damage even the smallest fox can cause.