Person-centered education: Reflections from Day One of the Colloquium

June 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

It’s come full circle. Yesterday I walked into the damp, hot humidity of St. Louis, MO and felt immediately at home.

This week I am at Saint Louis University (SLU) for the Jesuit Secondary Education Association (JSEA) Colloquium. SLU was my home for four wonderful years as an undergraduate student (class of 2004). It is good to be back.

Last night was the opening session for the 500-plus attendees. It consisted of some socializing, dinner, and a few short speeches from Fr. Lawrence Biondi, S.J., President of SLU; Fr. Paul Stark, S.J., SLU’s Vice President of Mission and Ministry; Fr. Jim Stoeger, S.J., President of the JSEA; and Bill Hobbs, Vice President of the JSEA. Representatives from the St. Louis Jesuit high schools put on an excellent welcome video for all the colloquium participants.

One of the compelling features of the recent commencement series is that, reading them, I feel like I’ve taught at the different schools represented. When I hear my colleagues talk about the grad at grad and magis, when I hear them talk about going to El Salvador or on other immersion trips, I know exactly what they are talking about. And when students read these commencement addresses, they too feel a kinship. Though my students at Xavier Prep in Palm Desert have never met teachers from Boston College High School or Bellarmine Prep in San Jose, the shared language and mission provide a familial link.

Photo by Matt Emerson

The view of campus at daybreak. Photo by Matt Emerson

I noticed this last night. I had dinner with faculty and administration from Rockhurst High School in Kansas City; Brebeuf Jesuit in Indianapolis; Regis High School in New York City; Dallas Jesuit High School; St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland; and DeSmet Jesuit in St. Louis. Within seconds, we had fallen into our common language and experiences. One of my table companions said, “These events are like coming to see your cousins.” The language of the Graduate at Graduation, magis, and A.M.D.G., the recognition that learning should be about transformation, faith, and excellence in all things, bonded us effortlessly.

This is not to say that the schools are copies of each other. Bill Hobbs showed a video clip last night of Pope Francis urging Jesuit educators to know their time, place, and circumstance, essentially to teach with an adequate appreciation for context and the signs of the times. I sensed this, too, from my table. Within the commonalities there are differences.

For example, at dinner I learned that one midwestern Jesuit high school is doing away with substitute teachers for seniors. When a teacher misses class for a retreat, sporting event or another reason, the seniors will be given either in-class work or be told to use their time however they see fit. The idea is to give them more freedom and responsibility so that they aren’t worn out. One principal said, “We [meaning faculty] would revolt if we had their schedule.” Another teacher, also from the midwest, mentioned that his school carves out time for its sophomores to leave campus for the afternoon for their individual service projects. Although I know many schools do something like that, I don’t think I’ve known of a school that gives such freedom to sophomores.

Bill Hobbs, the Vice President of the JSEA, offered a few remarks last night, and one of the themes he hit upon was the “apostolic dimension” of our schools, the idea that somehow all of us are in the process of being sent somewhere, especially our students. Borrowing from an often-repeated quotation of Fr. Greg Boyle, Hobbs stressed that an Ignatian institution is not primarily a place “you’ve come to; it’s the place you go from.”

That was the most moving part of the night for me. It reminded me that we are, as a people of faith, and as educators in faith, always on the move. Like Mary and Joseph during Jesus’ infancy; like the apostles, like St. Ignatius, St. Francis Xavier and so many other heroes in our tradition, we are called always to keep our eyes on the horizon. We are called not to settle, but to unsettle. We are called to build but as a means to move forward. Our schools are base camps.

Another theme I drew from last night’s conversations: Ignatian education is not so much student-centered as it is person-centered. To say that we focus on students doesn’t seem adequate. The word student still connotes primarily academic formation, a fixation on grades, test scores, and college acceptances. But the way my colleagues in Jesuit education talk, and the way that our schools emphasize soul formation, I realized last night that we start from the broader category of the person and move from there. We teach unique persons, persons made in the image and likeness of God; the persons who are also students, athletes, actors, dancers, musicians and more.


I must be on my way for Day 2. I hope to report back later today or tomorrow morning. Thanks for reading.

Posted by Matt Emerson.


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