I never wanted to be a teacher. In fact, when I came to the sisters, I pretty explicitly stated that being in a formal classroom wasn't where I thought I was meant to be. It wasn't my desire to be a classroom teacher; I know that that is neither my skill nor my gift. Don't get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for teachers; I just know that I am not meant to be one... or at least that's what I thought.
Traditionally (we're talking over the last 165 years), Sisters of Saint Joseph of Philadelphia have been teachers. If you entered the order in the 1960s, you were going to be a teacher. Maybe you would move on to being an administrator, but nevertheless every sister began in the same place: the classroom.
Whether you wanted to or not, this is where you were headed. It was just what we did. And we were (and still are) good at it. Yet, the last 50 years have marked a transformation in the ministries that we do. Sisters today minister in ways unimaginable just a few generations ago. We are lawyers, doctors, nurses, professors, consultants, social workers, pastoral ministers, artists, and social justice advocates (just to name a few ministries in which our sisters take part.)
So, when I began seriously discerning religious life a few years ago, I felt free enough to speak my truth about not wanting to be a teacher.
Unlike dear friends of mine, I hadn't ever really considered teaching. They yearned to be teachers, I did not. I yearned to make a difference in the world, to serve those most in need and to reveal the truth and beauty of our loving God to those I ministered to and with. I loved story- telling stories, sharing stories, and being present to others' stories. (And, I still do.)
Thus, it came as a surprise to me when last year, during my first year of novitiate, I was asked to go into the classroom.
The discernment was mutual. I knew that novitiate is about stretching (and the ensuing growth) and what better way to do that than to be put in an unfamiliar place and situation? The thought of teaching was both frightening and exciting to me; it was also, for the most part, unknown.
Meanwhile, my director believed that being in the classroom would give me a chance to understand our history as a congregation. Teaching is a part of who we are and so, to better understand this group that I am in the process of joining, why not experience a core (though not explicit (and now not expected)) element of our being by entering into the classroom? Thus, the decision was made.
Last year, this meant working with "Junior Level" (Grades 1-3) Montessori students, teaching our congregational history to fourth graders, and assisting in a high school theology classroom. In all of these adventures, I was mentored and guided by our sisters and those imbued with the SSJ charism at our sponsored works. The experience was challenging and enlightening. I learned a lot. And, by the time I was done, I breathed a sigh of relief- grateful for all that had been shared with me and relieved that I had made it through the experience.
After finishing that experience, I looked forward to my time in Chicago. It seemed like a time where I could continue the growth from my first year of novitiate and where I could again branch out in ministry. Right and wrong. Growth is certainly taking place-there is no doubt about that- yet, after discerning the many options available for ministry here, I again find myself in the place I thought I'd escaped: the classroom.
Now, I join the company of twenty-four little balls of love (ages 3-5) in a Montessori classroom at the Cardinal Bernardin Early Childhood Center on the North Side of Chicago one day a week. These students have taught me many things since I first arrived a few months ago. Hopefully, I will get a chance to share some of those lessons as time goes on, but for now, -without further ado- I share the story of one little boy and a lesson learned... the lesson of "We".
This lesson cryptic as it might sound literally came in the form of a puzzle.
One morning after the typical game of "ask Miss Colleen one hundred questions" and after helping individual children with reading I found myself with Patrick* working on a multi-layered puzzle.
These puzzles serve dual purposes in a Montessori classroom, they help children practice spacial relations like a traditional puzzle, while also revealing the steps of a process as each layer is completed. Each consecutive layer has more pieces than the last and explains the next step in the process (see: egg-chick-little chicked- big chicken).
So, when I joined Patrick he had already completed the first four-piece level that showed a bunch of sunflower seeds in soil. We then moved on to six pieces showing sprouting seeds and so on and so forth until we reached the twelve pieces that showed fully grown sunflowers. Getting to that point took some time though.
You see, Patrick is one of the slower learners in the class. At age 5, the oldest age group in the room, puzzles are not his forte and in general, he is often doing something other than the work prescribed for a specific learning material. (see: shooting marbles meant for counting across the room)
Sitting down on the floor with Patrick, I soon recognized the challenge ahead. For him, the challenge would be the puzzle itself; for me, the challenge would be being patient enough to allow him to learn at his own pace. This is part of Montessori- allowing children to problem solve on their own and give minimal guidance in the process. Thus, I needed to stop my hands from "doing" and give hints and nudges along the way instead. This was hard for me to do. I could see what needed to be done; I've learned to match sides and colors- the basics of puzzle assembly- but this wasn't about me.
Patrick had none of these skills. I would suggest looking for a specific color or shape of piece, but to no avail. I watched as correct pieces were spun and handled, pressed and mangled without ever finding their proper resting place. The pieces wouldn't come together in his mind or on the board.
After limping through layers two and three of the puzzle, we arrived at the twelve-piece sunflower in full bloom. By this time, Patrick could see the pedals and tried to get that portion of the picture together. With time and effort, we assembled the puzzle outside of the frame of the already assembled puzzle and so, all we needed to do was transfer it. No problem, right?
Despite having the whole picture together, Patrick couldn't do the transfer. One piece would go into place then the next piece would be spun about- rotating ninety degrees or coming to a resting place other than where it should be.
Try as I may, I couldn't get Patrick to get the concept. In watching the process and being unable to guide, I felt helpless. All I wanted to do was teach Patrick but there was only so much I could do. After all, to do more would be to do it for him...an injustice to him and to this style of learning/teaching.
Eventually, we got the pieces into place, completing the puzzle. Upon completion, (about forty-five minutes later) Patrick was less triumphant than relieved to have the puzzle over with. I then watched him do a number of layer puzzles that were divided by size not by pieces, similar to Russian dolls. He had done these puzzles before and whipped through them. Every now and then, he would turn a piece the wrong way and struggle for a moment, making the proper correction after ample pressing to try to force the piece.
After two or three of these puzzles, I got it... he was showing me he could do it. He could do puzzles fast and he could do these familiar puzzles well. I gave the requisite "oh's" and "ah's", hoping it would continue to encourage him to keep trying the harder puzzles. As he went to grab another familiar puzzle, I suggested maybe doing the sunflower puzzle again- that suggestion was clearly rejected. Instead, I tried suggesting regular wood block puzzles, designed for smaller children, thinking it might give him the chance to practice his matching and puzzle-solving skills. Rejection again, at which point Patrick rolled up his work rug and went to have snack.
Really, we'd both had enough. I sighed a breath of mixed relief, impatience, disappointment, and frustration. What more could I do?
About a half hour later, as I worked with another child, I watched as Patrick made his way over to the regular wood block puzzles I'd suggested earlier. He brought with him one of the youngest children in the class. Watching the two of them, I had to smile. I was happy to see Patrick practicing something that wasn't his strong suit, striving to learn and grow. As I looked closer though, I realized that he was not only practicing the puzzle skills we had worked on, he was also guiding the younger child in completing the puzzle. He watched as the child struggled here and there and gave little hints and nudges. Suddenly I realized Patrick had learned more than a puzzle lesson, he'd learned the lesson of we.
We had done the multi-layer puzzle together. We had practiced patience with what we were both learning to do. We faced the challenge of each new piece together. And neither one of us was going to leave until all the layers of that puzzle were complete. We were in this together.
That was the true lesson of the day: We are in this together. It is the way we're called to live- for and with one another.
We believe together, too. We believe in each other and so give value; we show love in patience and compassion towards one another and so we come to believe in the love we profess and practice. We are in this together and so, we can believe in the goodness of God offered to us in the love of others. And only then can we understand that our God is We with us and for us, calling us to community and to love... and ultimately, helping us to put the puzzle that is our lives together one piece at a time.