In mid-October, five area teachers were honored by the Education Deans of Greater Milwaukee for their work in service learning, “… a form of experiential learning where students apply academic knowledge and critical thinking skills to address genuine community needs.”
Their projects – which range in scope from environmental activism to artistic expression and humanitarian assistance –clearly illustrate the impact teachers have upon both their students and the communities in which they teach.
We sat down with each award-winning teacher to find out more about what inspires them to engage with their students and their community in these powerful ways.
Mary Gentile of Catholic Memorial High School, Waukesha leads a committee whose purpose is to develop, implement and monitor the entire school’s service learning program as part of its strategic plan. Her curriculum and teaching style focuses on addressing community needs and personal reflection. Her passion for service learning and leadership continues to guide Operation Michael, a real-life experience of living homeless for a night; inspire students to continue to plan and implement a Thanksgiving dinner for those in need; and to encourage innovations in programs and projects that meet the needs of our community’s marginalized.
Celebrate Teachers & Teaching: Why did you decide to dedicate your life to teaching?
Mary Gentile: Initially, I didn’t become a teacher for any noble or altruistic reason, nor did I have any specific moment of crystallization. I have always loved learning. Almost all of the time I liked school. Teaching seemed like a natural fit, like a comfortable pair of socks or the “just right” hat for life. (I like hats.) My experiences along the way have transformed by attitude towards this vocation though. I now feel committed to making students love learning, like school and recognize their particular place in the world. While I’ve seen some teachers “burn out” or, out of frustration, just try to get by, I feel like after fifteen years, I’m just getting going and finally getting pretty good at it. I think that’s because my path through the world of education has been so inspiring and life-giving – I have had opportunities to work with, for and alongside astonishingly gifted and dedicated educators, leaders and students (and some that weren’t so dedicated, but were still astonishing). I have been blessed in this journey.
CTT: What are some of the positive transformations you’ve seen within your school and your students since implementing a service-learning curriculum?
MG: Catholic Memorial High School is at a great place right now. The strong leadership and shared mission has energized the community to work toward developing some new initiatives with the overall goal of our mission to “educate, guide and prepare students to serve the Church and World”. These initiatives include the use of innovation and design thinking in every classroom and an individualized student growth plan that has students working with faculty mentors. Both of these initiatives involve service learning and are focused on the development of the skills, knowledge and virtues that students in the 21st century will need to effectively serve the world.
CTT: How do you envision the lessons and skills students learn through service-learning projects translating into improvement within your community and/or the city of Milwaukee?
MG: Even in the earliest stages of implementation I have seen students develop leadership and use their unique talents and interests to engage with their communities toward improvement. Specific examples include: re-establishing an annual “switch day” in which students from CMH and Messmer High School host one another for a day of classes, student musicians performing free Jazz concerts in Waukesha, a computer and technology club that offers free support help, a team of engineering students making some facilities changes to help case workers at Safe Babies, Healthy Families of Waukesha use their time more efficiently , the organization of an inter-faith panel to speak to our senior theology students, and development of new outreach programs through our homelessness awareness club. All of these projects, and more, were instigated and implemented by student leaders through these new instructional initiatives the school has developed. When these students see that their ideas are being taken seriously, and that our expectation is that they will actually implement them, they are sometimes surprised, but then quickly enlivened.
CTT: What motivates you to continue pushing yourself (“keep calm, teach on”) as a teacher often faced with stressors unimaginable for those outside the teaching profession?
MG: Another important outcome of this work for our particular population of students is that these experiences widen their perspective and awaken them to the realities of many people less fortunate than them. This awareness, coupled with the knowledge and skills needed to respond, empowers them. What more could anyone ask for in terms of motivation? Seeing the students gain that sense of empowerment, and develop into concerned and active citizens, makes the difficult tasks or frustrations of this profession easy to endure.