I am a Lasallian educator. I’ve known the first part of that phrase for several years now, but the second for a much shorter period. As a graduate of La Salle University, I know well the teaching philosophy of the Christian Brothers, an order for whom education is of the highest priority. They run schools across the country and around the globe in the tradition of Saint Jean Baptiste de La Salle, with a special focus on social justice, universal respect and inclusive community. I have visited several of their institutions for short periods, schools in Kenya and Palestine, Italy and Montana, Vietnam and Nicaragua. Each is wildly different, but united in their shared philosophy of achieving student success.
I served for one year as a Lasallian Volunteer, an AmeriCorps-affiliated position that placed me in a Christian Brothers high school on the border in El Paso, Texas. There I lived with and learned from four brothers, seasoned teachers who provided wisdom on their profession and deep compassion for their students. This grounded me with the context and experience needed to begin my time this semester as an instructor of freshmen writing at Rutgers University-Camden.
Students enter into their first years of college with a host of different skills and experiences, inside and outside the classroom. I’m teaching composition to both international students who had never been to the U.S. before this August, and to students who have lived all their lives in suburban or urban New Jersey. Some of my students carry deep scars of having been told repeatedly that they cannot write, or do not believe they have anything worth writing about, while others have made it through Advanced Placement classes without once being asked to revise their work. It is my challenge to provide value to each one of these young people as individuals who hold the infinite potential to create something great. I do this the best way I know how — in the Lasallian tradition.
There are five core values to a Lasallian education: concern for the poor and social justice, faith in the presence of God, quality education, respect for all persons, and inclusive community. I felt these at La Salle but didn’t really understand them until I worked in El Paso and saw them daily on the walls of the school and deeply incorporated into all that was done within them.
Two of my greatest Lasallian models, Brother Michael McGinniss of La Salle University and Brother Nick Gonzalez of Cathedral High School, El Paso, served as presidents of their respective schools and handled a staggering amount of responsibility in each position. They both also had a startling capacity for remembering names, stopping always for a handshake and an update from their students, knowing them beyond the classroom as individuals with complex lives and needs. I only have 23 students, but know that I might be their only teacher with the luxury to know them beyond a number on a lecture hall sized roster. In a classroom where they are asked to take risks with their writing and discuss personal situations, this is an invaluable necessity.
For my workshop-based model of teaching composition, it is additionally necessary that my students trust each other with their writing. It can be a vulnerable experience to offer up what one has written for inspection and critique, a discomfort I hope to mitigate by building them into a community of writers. Each has something to add to the conversation of the classroom, “the academy,” and the wider world into which they will soon be sent.
So the latter three Lasallian values seem to fit seamlessly into my current context, while the first two may be less clear. Yet in Rutgers’ new “Bridging the Gap” program of providing excellent aid to students of all economic backgrounds, and through their selection of powerful social justice works such as Ta-Nehesi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” as a first year text, we certainly see the first fulfilled. And while we don’t discuss religion in my secular classroom, my own faith is a strength that carries me through each step of the educational process. In El Paso we started each morning with a prayer for our students and ourselves, asking “for the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and piety” to guide us through the day. I don’t always use those words, but I ask it still.
There is a gift that comes from getting to be a teacher of first year composition. I get to be with my students as they test out their place in the world, as university students with a voice worth hearing and thoughts worth sharing.
I believe in the words of my students, and I believe in Lasallian education.
Catherine Buck is a freelance writer and part-time lecturer at Rutgers-Camden, where she is also enrolled in the MFA creative writing program.