An Inside Look at Teaching Service Programs

Take an inside look here at these teaching programs across America.

If you’re looking for an opportunity to make an impact, it’s not much of an overstatement to say that teachers can change the world. Education is one of the most effective and lasting ways we can change the dynamics of poverty and inequality. 

This is doubly true in Catholic schools — especially those serving underprivileged communities. For students from poor families, this kind of an educational community can be transformative. 

There are a number of faith-based teaching service programs across the nation that offer college graduates the chance to make a difference in the lives of students — and earn a master’s degree along the way. 

Founded in 2005, the University Consortium for Catholic Education (UCCE) supports a cadre of 14 Catholic colleges and universities with graduate-level teaching service programs. Each year, these teaching programs send some 400 teachers to 24 states across the country to work in K-12 Catholic schools, many of which are under-resourced. 

Colleges and universities in the UCCE include:

While all of the programs that are part of the UCCE have a different look and feel, they share a few unifying characteristics. Participants in UCCE programs dedicate two years to teaching in K-12 Catholic schools while completing a cost-free master’s degree in education. Along the way, they gain hands-on experience in the classroom, foster professional development skills, and enrich their Catholic school community.

While teaching, UCCE members live in an intentional community with other program participants. In these faith-based environments, they share household responsibilities and pray together as they invest in their professional, personal, and spiritual growth together.

To get a more in-depth look at some of these graduate-level teaching service programs, I interviewed three graduates about their experiences participating in a teaching service program.

During her time with the Providence Alliance for Catholic Teachers (PACT), Michelle Gilligan taught at Saint Peter Marian High School in Massachusetts, where she stayed for two years after completing the program. She now teaches ESL at a middle school. Analise Brower taught at St. Mary of Carmel in Dallas, Texas, during her time in the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). After ACE, she took on a role as a learning specialist and director of mission with a Catholic high school. As a member of the Pacific Alliance for Catholic Education (PACE) program, Mike Seidl worked at De La Salle North Catholic High School in Portland, Oregon — a Cristo Rey Network school — where he taught English and religion. After completing PACE, Mike started working at Saint Joseph Marquette Catholic School in Yakima, Washington, where he remains today.

Here are their insights on the challenges they faced and what they gained from their years of service.

What challenges did you encounter?

Michelle: For me, the most challenging part was at the very beginning of the first year when I was adjusting to teaching for the first time. Unlike many of the other students in my cohort, I did not study education during my undergraduate degree. As a result, I did not have prior experience with student teaching before entering the classroom on the first day. The classes during my first summer in the program were more focused on theory rather than practice; thus, I did not completely know what to expect. However, once I got beyond the nerves of the first couple weeks, I began to get into the swing of things and learn the ropes quickly. 

Another aspect of the program that was challenging at times was living in a community with others. Part of the expectation of living in an intentional community was having meals together once a week and completing assigned work together based on a book that each of us had to read. Since all of us were still adjusting to being new teachers while managing a course load, it was often difficult for people to make the effort to truly fulfill these expectations. There were definitely benefits to living in community — I made lasting friendships — but at times it was certainly difficult.

Analise: In ACE, the biggest challenges I faced were personal challenges with mental and emotional health. Teaching was all-encompassing, and the additional layers of faith and service added levels of importance — and, you could say, levels of pressure — to my desire to succeed. ACE attracts a lot of type-A people who work hard, play hard, and pray hard. In teaching, you are planting seeds in the midst of a really challenging daily grind. I felt overwhelmed by the workload and the sense of “failure.” In hindsight, I didn’t yet have the tools to see those things in perspective. My first year was a difficult experience, but the support network of my community members, my mentor teacher, new friends, and the ACE staff helped me navigate that time and have an excellent second year.

Mike: The challenges of teaching for the first time were quite daunting. I had imagined myself as a teacher for many years, but now suddenly I was at the front of the classroom, I had a book in my hands, and there was a collection of students staring at me, waiting for me to do something meaningful. I thought, “How do I engage the students in a thoughtful experience of reading, writing, and reflection? How do I instill in them a passion for learning? How do I prepare them for college or the careers that await them after school? How do I get that kid to sit down for five minutes straight?” Classroom management — more than creating worthy goals and memorable lessons — was probably the biggest challenge. 

The PACE program provided additional challenges. Living in an intentional community was the most difficult. I lived with five other people, and we were each other’s “home life” during those two years. But not all of the personalities in the community “clicked.” At times, it was difficult enough simply to coexist, and there were disagreements over many issues, from the role of faith in community life right on down to cable bills.

What did you gain from your experience?

Analise: I gained a deeper sense of self-confidence; a more grounded perspective on “success” and “failure”; a sense of wonder at just how incredible my students and their families were; a passion for fighting inequity and racism; and a profound understanding of my vocation as an educator.

Mike: If I had to answer in one word, it would be support. Being a new teacher is hard, but the burden for me was lighter because the community of other PACE teachers inspired me, advised me, commiserated with me, and consoled me. My Portland community, while challenging at times, provided this support. The various mentor teachers and instructional coaches and professors in the PACE program also offered support and the wisdom of experience. 

Beyond support, PACE provided me with experiences and opportunities for reflection that helped me to discover who I am as a teacher and as a person. Through the PACE program, I was able to explore questions like What does it mean to be a teacher? What does it mean to be a Catholic teacher, a teacher of the mind and the heart? — essential questions in discovering the purpose of one’s life.

Michelle: I gained an incredible opportunity to grow as a teacher in a setting where I felt comfortable to take risks and try new things. I was able to take on coaching responsibilities and co-lead a service trip. I also gained some lasting friendships with those I lived in community with. 

Another benefit was the support provided to us as teachers. We were observed often and given constructive feedback, which helped me to grow as a teacher. I definitely felt very supported throughout the two years, which allowed me to improve as a teacher.

What kinds of people are best suited for these programs?

Mike: Those who are best suited for programs like PACE are those who are committed to the craft and the vocation of Catholic education. The majority of PACE graduates remain involved in education — specifically in Catholic education. So the program really is for those who believe that they are called to teach and serve in Catholic schools. The teaching requirements of the program demand a passion for teaching and learning, creativity, and dedication. The masters requirement demands thoughtfulness, intelligence, and organization. The community demands patience, flexibility, and good humor. And the whole experience demands self-reflection and the ability to step back, take a deep breath, and remember why you’re doing it in the first place: To serve God by forming the hearts and minds of young people. If a person can remember that purpose and strive for it every day, then they deserve a pat on the back — even if that day’s classes were a disaster.

Michelle: I would say teaching programs like PACT are best suited for individuals who want to be part of a community of other teachers who are committed to their faith and committed to teaching.

Analise: I think programs like ACE are best for people who have a healthy sense of their own understanding of the world — and more importantly, an openness to change and to being profoundly changed. Humility and strength are equally important — a deep respect for those you serve, without even a hint of condescension or judgment. A bit of that type-A work ethic can’t hurt, either! Those kids are relentless.

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