Guiding Light

October 01, 1993 5 min read

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

For those who 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,’' says Mayfield, an active Roman Catholic. “You begin to learn everything is not going to be solved overnight.’'

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 use their faith 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 teachers a professional and spiritual support system.

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, national coordinator of U.S. Teachers’ Teams. All she wants to do, Whitehead says, is “model Christ’s love’’ for children.

The international organization was founded by the Rev. Michel Duclerq, a French priest who established the first Teachers’ Team in Paris in 1942. The movement has spread to other nations in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The idea was first brought to the United States by the Rev. Stephen Wood, a missioner who had worked with teams in Latin America.

In this country today, the movement consists of a national team, which functions as a kind of steering committee, and 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 local teams in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Wisconsin. 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.

This past July, Whitehead, Mayfield, Father Wood, and other Teachers’ Teams leaders met in a Catholic church in Tempe, Ariz., to discuss national business. The meeting was to have been held in Los Angeles, as part of the fourth annual Teachers’ Teams national conference, but the forum had to be canceled because not enough people signed up. So the all-day session in Tempe was not only a time to conduct business but also a time to reflect on the future of the movement.

After much discussion, the leaders decided that the organization has focused too much on building a national structure and not enough on cultivating and nurturing local Teachers’ Teams with personal contacts and frequent follow-ups. “For Teachers’ Teams to survive and grow, it has to be strong locally,’' says Mario Lupica, a Tempe teacher who is the organization’s national secretarytreasurer.

Recruitment has proved problematic. Some public school teachers are wary of Teachers’ Teams because of the constitutional mandate to keep church and state separate. One 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 has limited 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 donations and grants.

In addition, the national group is seeking to formally affiliate with the National Catholic Educational Association, which could provide administrative and membership support. The two organizations are hammering out the details of an agreement, which the NCEA board is expected to vote on in December.

While team organizations in other countries lobby for teachers, that is not part of their mission in the United States. That kind of advocacy role is filled, in most places, by teachers’ unions. In the United States, Father Woods says, “the only thing nobody is doing is the spiritual side [of teaching].’'

Local team meetings center on prayer, reflection, and action-- embodied in the movement’s slogan “see, judge, act.’' One of the issues local teams have acted on is low morale among teachers. Whitehead, who teaches high school mathematics, recalls a 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. When they saw one of the teachers, they offered a pat on the back. At the end of the month-long project, 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 troublesome students.

Colleen Becker, who is involved in both the national organization and a Phoenix-area team, says participation can “keep you from giving up, keep you from focusing on the kids as the problem, and [help you] recognize that the kids are victims.’' Becker, who teaches in a large South Phoenix high school in a poor area rife with gangs and violence, adds that that perspective can help a teacher show the students “that 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 Mayfield, who leads her own local group in Inglewood, Calif., a team 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 Mayfield calls it, of a support group. The Christian dimension in the group makes for a special dynamic. “I think that the Christian base brings you together,’' the teacher says.

Even though Mayfield is prevented by law from espousing her religious beliefs in her classroom, she finds she is able to bring the Christian element into her teaching with “a touch or a smile’’ or by reading a story that shows children the value of respecting one another.

“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.’'--Millicent Lawton

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Guiding Light