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Focus On: Support Groups Help Catholic Teachers In Public Schools

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TEMPE, ARIZ.--Pam Mayfield can tell you right off the bat which one of her colleagues at the Los Angeles public elementary school where she teaches doesn't seem to have any guiding faith in her life.

"Every day is a drudgery for her,'' Ms. Mayfield, an active Roman Catholic, says of the teacher who comes to mind.

"At eight o'clock in the morning, she's tired.''

What's worse, the woman's low morale is contagious. "You talk to her, and you start to get tired!'' says Ms. Mayfield, whose cheery, rapid-fire speech makes weariness or low spirits seem impossible.

For those who do have religious faith, she continues, it is much easier to retain hope about making it through the hoops and over the hurdles of public school teaching.

"With faith you get tolerance,'' Ms. Mayfield says. "You begin to learn everything is not going to be solved overnight.''

Ms. Mayfield speaks from experience. She is one of the national leaders of an organization that seeks to help Catholics who teach in the public schools draw on their faith in addressing their daily tasks in the classroom.

Known as Teachers' Teams, the group represents the fledgling American branch of a decades-old international movement. The aim is to give Catholic public school teachers a support system for reflection on educational challenges and for spiritual growth.

The teams, which date in the United States from 1988, are open to teachers of any religious persuasion who view teaching not just as a job, but as a ministry, a calling.

While the organization's mission statement asserts that members believe in fostering the moral and religious development of students, team members say they are well aware of the need to keep religious instruction out of the public schools.

"We're not trying to teach people religion by any means,'' says Sharon Whitehead, the national coordinator of U.S. Teachers' Teams.

Instead, she says, "Be that child Muslim, or Jew, or Christian, I want to model Christ's love for that child.''

From France to California

The international organization was founded by the Rev. Michel Duclerq, a French priest who established the first Teachers' Teams in Paris in 1942.

The movement has spread to other European nations and to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Teams also met secretly in the former East Germany and have formed recently in the former Czechoslovakia and in Romania.

The teams were started in this country in California by a Maryknoll missioner, the Rev. Stephen Wood, who had worked with Latin American teams.

In addition to a national team that functions as a kind of steering committee, the movement consists of local teams that are founded and led by teachers who recruit members from a particular school or parish or from among their friends.

Currently, there are at least 10 teams in California, Arizona, Illinois, New York, Florida, and Wisconsin, says Ms. Whitehead.

The small groups typically meet once a month--in a private home or other convenient place, sometimes even on school grounds--with perhaps eight to 12 people attending.

The organization's focus on small, local groups parallels the movement in the Catholic Church away from complete reliance on traditional parishes in favor of small, grassroots faith communities run largely by lay people.

Looking for 'New Blood'

In a meeting room of a Catholic church off one of the wide, shadeless boulevards of this Phoenix suburb, Ms. Whitehead, Ms. Mayfield, Father Wood, and other current or former members of the national Teachers' Team gathered amid the breathtaking heat of the last day of July.

The meeting was to have been held in Los Angeles, as part of the fourth annual Teachers' Teams national conference. But the conference had been canceled because not enough people signed up to attend.

So the all-day session here was not only a time to conduct business but also to reflect on the history and future of the movement and what had gone awry to force the conference cancellation.

Organizational problems got a lot of attention--dwindling numbers of active members and strategies for attracting "new blood,'' as one participant puts it.

After much discussion, the leaders decide that the organization has focused too much on building a national structure and not enough on cultivating and nurturing the local teams with personal contacts and frequent follow-ups.

One of this year's goals quickly becomes doing just that.

"For Teachers' Teams to survive and grow, it has to be strong locally,'' Mario Lupica, a Tempe teacher who is the national secretary-treasurer, tells the group.

He believes one reason the Los Angeles gathering did not generate enough interest among members is "there's just not enough strong local groups.''

Recruitment, for example, has proved problematic, the leaders agree. Some public school teachers are wary of Teachers' Teams because of the constitutional mandate to keep church and state separate, Mr. Lupica says.

One Teachers' Teams member was called on the carpet by her principal when she attempted to recruit members by placing flyers in faculty mailboxes. Another was confronted when he tried to raise money by selling on campus T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan "Teachers Have Spirit'' along with children's faces and a dove.

Lack of money also limits the group's outreach efforts. But the organization hopes to solve some of its financial woes by instituting dues and incorporating as a nonprofit organization so it can receive more donations and grants.

Inquiries Pour In

The national group is also seeking to formally affiliate with the National Catholic Educational Association, which could provide administrative and membership support.

The two parties are hammering out the details of an agreement, and the N.C.E.A. board is expected to vote on the proposal in December.

But despite such difficulties--and with help from a 500-subscriber Teams newsletter and media attention--requests for information and queries about how to start a local team come in regularly from nearly every state, including Alaska and Hawaii, Ms. Whitehead says.

This summer, she even received a letter from a teacher with a U.S. Defense Department school in Japan.

At the meeting here, talk turns to what the local teams can offer public school teachers.

Father Wood, who brought the movement to the United States, reminds the group that Teachers' Teams in this country do not lobby for basic rights or skills training, as do teams in other countries. That kind of advocacy role is filled by the teachers' unions, he says.

In the United States, he comments, "The only thing nobody is doing is the spiritual side'' of teaching.

Ms. Whitehead, the national coordinator, says later that the philosophy of Teachers' Teams strives to fulfill the mandate of the Second Vatican Council--the 1962-65 gathering called to spark a church renewal--to be the "church in the world.''

Local team meetings center on prayer, reflection, and action--embodied in the movement's slogan "see, judge, act.'' Local teams have acted on such problems as low morale among teachers.

Ms. Whitehead, who teaches high school mathematics, recalls the time several years ago when her Phoenix-area team wanted to do something about teachers' low self-esteem.

So they started putting anonymous, complimentary notes in the mailboxes of dispirited teachers at school and praying for them. Or when they saw one of the teachers, they offered a pat on the back.

At the end of the monthlong project, Ms. Whitehead remembers, one of the colleagues she had left notes for happened to remark on what a good month it had been.

But more often, team participants say, teachers want to discuss, in a nonjudgmental atmosphere, how they can work better with a troublesome student.

Colleen Becker, who participates in both the national team and a Phoenix-area team, says that Teachers' Teams can "keep you from giving up, keep you from focusing on the kids as the problem, [and recognize] that the kids are victims.''

'Not Anything' Like It

Ms. Becker, who teaches in a large South Phoenix high school in a poor area rife with gangs and violence, adds that perspective can help a teacher show the students "there is good for them in life; that if they believe, if they have faith, that life won't always be chaos.''

For some teachers, says Ms. Mayfield, who leads her own local team in Inglewood, Calif., a Teachers' Teams meeting "is the only place they can be truthful'' about professional challenges.

"Here's a place you can talk about problems and truly get answers from people who are going through the same things you are going through,'' she says. "There's not anything like that for teachers.''

But Teachers' Teams goes beyond the personal attention, or "stroke'' as Ms. Mayfield says, of a support group.

Although some of her team members are not Catholic, the Christian dimension in the group makes for a special dynamic.

"I think that the Christian base brings you together,'' she says. "We all believe Jesus existed and that ... where two or more gather, He's here.''

And Ms. Mayfield, who teaches 1st grade in an inner-city school, says she is able to bring that Christian element into the classroom with "simply a touch or a smile'' or by reading a story that helps instill the value of respecting others.

"As a Christian, you know how every day is important,'' she says. "If you don't teach, if you don't give of yourself, those children are going to suffer.''

Information about U.S. Teachers' Teams is available from Sharon Whitehead, National Coordinator, 2215 West Emelita Ave., Mesa, Ariz. 85202; telephone (602) 833-2094.

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