ST. LOUIS – The Midwest province of the Christian Brothers has begun a program to combat the growing shortage of male teachers.
The province offers the Lasallian Teacher Immersion Program at universities run by the religious community to provide male college students with classroom teaching experience and opportunities to serve those in need while earning college credit.
“(The program) is, in many ways, a return to our original mission,” said Christian Brother Patrick Conway, the province’s director of formation and director of the teacher immersion program.
St. John Baptist de La Salle began his educational mission in the late 1600s with a teacher-training program, preparing laymen to serve the church as teachers, explained Brother Patrick, a longtime educator and former university vice president.
“This is my 35th year in education. One thing I’ve noticed is the shrinking pool of male teachers, particularly as related to theology and religion teachers,” he told the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper. “In the United States today, 19 percent of all Catholic school teachers are men.
“In public schools it’s 21 percent … and 40 percent of children are growing up without a biological father in the house. Couple those things together and there is a real need,” he said.
“Our goal is to create a pool of male teachers to fill the gap, primarily in our Lasallian schools,” he added.
Brother Patrick noted that Christian Brothers by tradition have worked in inner cities or with immigrants. Their work was so successful that their students escaped the cycle of poverty, moved out of the inner cities into the middle class and wanted their own children to have the Lasallian education they had. As a result, many Christian Brothers schools no longer served a poor student body.
“So we became removed from our original purpose. We are now returning to our mission. We have been trying to become more attuned to the plight of the poor,” Brother Patrick said, adding that Christian Brothers have been involved in a number of NativityMiguel schools which educate middle-school students from low-income families.
In January, the Lasallian Teacher Immersion Program began with six university freshmen from two Christian Brothers universities – Lewis University near Chicago and St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn.
Participants not only took classes, but worked in shelters, soup kitchens and day-care facilities.
In Chicago, they volunteered at San Miguel School, an inner-city middle school for at-risk students.
Andrew Knobbe, a student in the program from Lewis University, taught some classes with teacher supervision and tutored students daily.
“I loved the classroom situation. The school is a safe haven for the students. And the teachers who teach at these schools – their hearts are there. They don’t make a lot. Many are volunteers,” he said.
The immersion students also went to Memphis, Tenn., where they worked at De La Salle Elementary School.
“It was a really interesting school, with a welcome sign in English, Spanish and Vietnamese,” said Knobbe.
During the spring, the students took college classes at LaSalle Institute in St. Louis and volunteered at Christian Brothers College High School in St. Louis.
The next semester for these students will be a five-week program in Guatemala between the summer of their sophomore and junior years. The students will live with Guatemalan families part of the time and participate in a guided educational tour with Christian Brothers who have served for many years in Guatemala.
“The goal is to understand Catholicism and the role of the church in a developing country and the implications for making the students sensitive to immigrant populations in the United States,” Brother Patrick said.
“I wanted our students to capture the altruistic side of education,” he said, noting that “the Lasallians are providing a vehicle for them to discover that.”
“Wherever these young men go in life,” he added, “this will help them succeed.”
Last year, the National Catholic Educational Association reported that lay male teachers comprised 10.7 percent of elementary teachers and 42.8 percent of secondary teachers. In total, men make up 21.3 percent of Catholic schoolteachers.
Tom Epperly, 58, who teaches physical education and health for kindergarten through eighth grade at Guardian Angels School in Chaska, Minn., said “low salaries are the biggest reason fewer men than women pursue teaching.”
When Dave Carlson, 63, started teaching 36 years ago, salaries were more competitive with other fields. They haven’t risen proportionally, he said.
Carlson teaches music at two Minnesota schools: St. Therese School in Deephaven and St. Mary of the Lake School in White Bear Lake. Dustin Fischer, a kindergarten teacher at Holy Name of Jesus School in Medina, and his wife, Becky, who also teaches at Holy Name, work five jobs between them to make ends meet and to save for when they have children.
Sue Huber, dean of the University of St. Thomas’ College of Applied Professional Studies, said the university’s education program has always had more women than men and fewer men are studying education than 10 or 15 years ago.
“I definitely would like to see more male teachers,” Huber said, noting that schools are meant to reflect the community where students live.
“The more people a student can relate to,” she added, “the more successful they will be later.”