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On the other side of the desk, with care

By David Lizotte, director of the Teacher Certification Program, and Brent Otto '01

Brent Otto '01 and David LizotteAt 6:30 a.m. on any weekday morning this spring, you would have found a small group of groggy fourth-year students, in the final stages of the College's Teacher Certification Program, exiting Mount St. James for the trek across the city to Burncoat High School. The teachers-in-training hit the road early because they were responsible for the education of 90 high school students. And it was an obligation they took seriously. Committed to the 15-week teacher internship program, these Holy Cross students experienced life "on the other side of the desk" from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily. The grogginess would soon wear off as their classrooms filled with groups of energized teenagers. 

Teacher quality has increasingly become a major concern of our nation. News headlines reveal stories about low teacher test scores, impending teacher shortages, ill-equipped teachers and low salaries. As director of the College's Teacher Certification Program and as a student participating in the program, we see, hear and feel the apathy that permeates classrooms where teachers have given up. There is a need for challenging standards and professionalism in our public schools. The public is yearning for dedicated young people to lead the charge in education reform. Holy Cross students are responding to this challenge and learning much about themselves and the public school system in the process.

Our education program is firmly rooted in the Jesuit tradition of teacher education, which dates back to 1545; at that time, the Society of Jesus first began preparing religious for a life of mission in local schools and among the poor. The aim was to produce leaders in the secular world who had been formed by rigorous academic and Jesuit values. Today, Holy Cross is preparing many graduates in the same manner for work in public schools, promoting values of scholarship, justice and responsibility within the larger community. Ignatius' intention was for Jesuit teachers to "find God in all things," which meant finding and embracing the sacred in the secular world. A foundational principle in his writings on education in the Constitutions was cura personalis or "care of the person." The teacher was to tailor education to individuals, focusing on the development of persons through the educational process, finding in each student an example of God's goodness. 

On the page, this sounds ideal. But applying these principles to the urban classroom is both complex and challenging.

Burncoat High is, in some ways, a world apart from Holy Cross. With many of its students classified as "economically disadvantaged," it is a typical urban high school. Many Burncoat students have not been successful in school. Before their teaching practicum, most Holy Cross interns had not had much contact with students who had given up on the education system. 

During the teaching practicum, the worlds of the Holy Cross student and the Burncoat student merged or converged and even, at times, collided. It is an experience that tests the teaching philosophies of the interns involved. This is where the interns are challenged to make sense of their teaching experience. They are forced to think about their teaching goals and methods.  They are asked to ask the questions: What kind of teacher am I?  What kind of teacher do I want to become?  Which of my actions in the classroom reinforce the values I possess? 

At a recent seminar, an intern-teacher named Peter appeared distraught, confused and fuming. He had just ejected a student from his class. The student had yelled at him and called him an offensive name, annoyed by a test grade. Prior to the incident, the angry student had not been troublesome. The failing grade had disrupted a steady pattern of improvement that the student had been showing since Peter had taken over the class. But the grade was an accurate reflection of the student's most recent work. She had not prepared for the test in question. The student's response to her disappointing performance was a personal attack on Peter, a new teacher who was demanding more effort than the student had become comfortable producing. Peter wondered if he had acted in a just manner. 

In their liberal arts classes, Holy Cross' student-teachers are readers and analyzers of texts. In the classrooms of Burncoat High School, on the other side of the desk, these same students have become readers and analyzers of a different text-context. To read and reflect on the educational theories of John Dewey or L.S. Vygotsky is only part of the process of learning to become an educator. To take those theories into the classroom and work with them, to watch how they play out, day by day, in the real world, is to grow into a genuine teacher, someone committed to loving all the learners.

At the core of Peter's incident is his "care" for his students. He desires that his students do well and achieve grades based upon hard work. He strives to find the correct balance between discipline and encouragement. He works to convey knowledge and skills, to instill an intellectual curiosity and the methods for satisfying that curiosity. It is not easy work; good teaching is never easy work.

But it is the highlight of our work to experience the full spectrum of our labor, the highs and lows of teaching, of connecting, of loving students who do not consider themselves to be students. The intern teachers' dedication and compassion for their students speak to the hope and the nature of Holy Cross teacher education. It is teaching in this manner that is at the core of the Holy Cross mission, and it is central to the Jesuit tradition of education. 

"We have received a privileged Jesuit education and have been instructed in the way of service," writes intern-teacher Chris Themistos, summarizing his experience in the intern-student program. "But after a short while in the real world of teaching, we really become unconscious of the fact that we are serving and caring; it is a natural impulse that is cultivated by our work."

 

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