All their previous course work won’t completely prepare six college men for the intense learning experience they’ve embarked upon this fall semester.

As their fellow students attend lectures on campus, these men who come from three Midwestern universities will learn while they live in a homeless shelter, help teach at three inner-city schools and participate in a religious community.

By introducing them to the poor and showing them the Lasallian education tradition, the Brothers of the Christian Schools are encouraging the men to become Catholic school teachers — preferably in one of their more than 70 elementary and secondary schools in the order’s U.S./Toronto region.

At the same time, by enabling them to experience religious life with brothers in three different cities, program organizers are also promoting vocations.

Fewer than 22% of Catholic elementary and secondary teachers are men, according to the National Catholic Education Association. In public schools, only about 25% of teachers are male, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Since growing numbers of students don’t live with a male adult, they need more role models in schools, said Brother Pat Conway, director of the Lasallian Teacher Immersion Program and an adjunct faculty member at St. Mary’s University in Winona, Minn.

In its fourth year, the Lasallian Teacher Immersion Program represents a recruiting shift in the order’s Midwest district that has resulted in both new teachers and vocations.

“My first goal is to gather teachers, because for so many years our recruiters would meet with young men and many of them didn’t have much interest in becoming a teacher,” Brother Pat said. “That’s who we are. We’re Brothers of the Christian Schools.”

All the men are sophomores or juniors attending one of three Lasallian universities: Christian Brothers University in Memphis; Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill.; and Saint Mary’s University. Students pay tuition for the semester, and the brothers pay most of their expenses, including travel, books and room and board, Brother Pat said.

As a separate component of the program, he also takes participants to Guatemala for three to five weeks every other summer. The men take an intensive Spanish course and then travel around the country visiting some of the order’s 12 schools. The order also pays many of the men’s expenses for the trip.

After five weeks of study at one of the brothers’ retreat centers near St. Louis, Mo., the young men and Brother Pat will live for about three weeks at Cherith Brook Catholic Worker House in Kansas City, Mo. Among their activities, they will work at a daycare center and an AIDS hospice and help prepare the shelter’s meals.

Life in a Shelter

Living in the shelter takes the men outside their comfort zone, Brother Pat said. “It’s critical that they understand what it means to depend on the Church and/or different organizations for some basic necessities.” He recruits only six students per semester to avoid using too many shelter resources.

Next, the participants travel to De La Salle Elementary School in Memphis where they will spend three weeks getting field and clinical experience as they apprentice with teachers. Then they’ll spend three weeks at Ocean Tides School in Narragansett, R.I., where they will help tutor court-adjudicated young men. They wind up their tour with three weeks at the Christian Brothers College all-male high school in St. Louis.

Exposure to different grade levels is another goal of the program.

Throughout the program, the men pray together, and Brother Pat teaches classes on education, theology and other subjects. They learn the philosophy of the order’s founder, St. John Baptist de La Salle, which emphasizes the relationship between teacher and student as a means to encourage good performance. It also focuses on giving individualized help to students of varying abilities.

A course on Catholic social teaching draws from encyclicals and pastoral letters that reflect the dignity of the human person, he said. Also as part of community life, the men receive training on domestic tasks such as cooking and laundry. The students earn up to 16 college credits for participation.

When they’re not studying, students also go on some field trips. While he was shocked by the poverty he saw, Steve Schmidt also was impacted at an Alateen meeting in which he participated as part of the program two years ago.

“After the time we had been spending throughout the program with the poor and the minorities, we tend to forget sometimes that there are also issues and problems and help that’s needed on multiple different levels in society,” said Schmidt, a junior majoring in education at St. Mary’s University. His academic interest shifted from real estate to teaching as a result of the program.

Sam Olsem expects the program this year will be very different from life in his small town of Fulda, Minn., but the St. Mary’s University sophomore math major is looking forward to it.

“It’s going to be an eye-opening experience,” he said. “I’m super nervous and I’m super excited. I don’t know which to be.”

Personal Improvement

To date, 18 men have completed the program. Of the first class, which graduated last year, two are teaching in Lasallian schools, another at a non-Lasallian Catholic school, and one at a public school.

Experiencing religious life and the order’s apostolic spirit makes a big impact.

“It’s hard for young people to fathom,” said Brother Pat. “Okay, what does it mean to be a brother? With this program we’re able to not only bring them into the schools and give them an intimate look at what it means to be a brother, but also to live in a community with a shared mission and shared value system.”

One former participant is in the order’s postulancy, two are looking at it seriously, and one is enrolled in seminary.

Schmidt was glad for the chance to experience community life. “Living with the brothers, eating with the brothers, praying with the brothers — I loved it,” he said. “It was great. And hearing about what the brothers have done with their lives is also amazing.”

He adds that the program made a difference in his life. “The best part of the program was becoming more aware about everything I saw,” he said. “The poverty we saw, the kids we learned about, the different teaching philosophies, the Catholic social teachings — all of those made me a much more aware person. … It changed my life forever.”

Susan Klemond writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.