Address by Rebecca Proehl, 2012-2013 Professor of the Year
Saint Mary’s College of California

April 18, 2013

Professor Rebecca ProehlThis afternoon I want to share with you the journey that I have taken that has brought me to this point of speaking about Lasallian pedagogy. The immediate stimulus was the faculty dinner when the provost announced that I had been selected the Professor of the Year. If you were sitting near me, you would have first heard me scream. I had no idea that my colleague Dean Elias had conspired with students, faculty, and staff to nominate me for this honor so I was genuinely surprised. You may remember – again if you were sitting near me – that the next thing I said was “Oh no – I have to give a speech.” So for quite a few months, I thought about the various possibilities for my topic. Then Carole Swain asked me if I would be interested in submitting an essay for the Educational Perspectives journal about my experience as a Lasallian educator. I agreed, and it was in the middle of writing that essay that I settled on what I wanted to talk about.

As I think about where to begin my story, I am reminded of the time that I asked the prominent psychologist, Nevitt Sanford, why he started the Wright Institute in Berkeley, where I earned my doctorate, and he said “In order to answer that, I will need to go back to 1932.” He was a Southern gentleman, growing up in Central Virginia 50 miles from my hometown. An elderly man then – in his crumpled white linen suit - he was prone to story-telling. Three hours later and after many diversions, he finally reached the end of his story. Now do not worry: I will not talk for 3 hours. But in order to answer how I came to be a Lasallian educator, we need to go back to 1965, when I was 17.

I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, a very conservative town that was quite racially and socioeconomically segregated. For most of my life, I never strayed far from Lynchburg. The furthest I ever went was to Baltimore when I was in the fourth grade. In between my junior and senior year in high school, I applied to be part of an intentional community (I had no idea what that was) to live in San Antonio, Texas (I had no idea where that was), and to my great surprise, I was one of seven students who were accepted to live and work with a Methodist pastor and his family in the inner city of San Antonio.

When I arrived in San Antonio after many days of travel, it was like a foreign country to me. The language, weather, architecture, people, and terrain could not have been more different than Central Virginia. Throughout the summer, I worked in the inner city with Mexican-American children and adolescents, and during that summer, I was introduced to such things as extreme poverty, crime, adolescent prostitutes, and alcohol and drug abuse. I also learned to love the children with whom I worked, became skilled at communicating without words (My Spanish had a very strong Southern accent), and developed a strong affection for the Mexican people. I also had my first experience of worshipping with people from different national backgrounds and income levels, and I remember thinking that this is what Christianity should be.

My mother kept all the letters that I wrote her that summer. I reread them recently; they were filled with descriptions of my experiences – and they gave me a clue to who I was when I was 17 years old. For instance, after writing six pages about gangs, public housing, impoverished families, I wrote: “I have to go now – I have lots more to tell, but no time. I could write for hours – I can’t wait to get home and talk to our church. I could really make them squirm.” In another, I wrote (now remember I grew up in Lynchburg, VA): “Mom, I wish you and daddy would read Black Like Me. It is just the most wonderful book. I think it is worth the effort and the time. I won’t tell you anything about it because it will be such a shock – the story is true.”  

During that summer, I decided that I wanted to be a social worker. I did in fact work as a social worker in Richmond, VA with delinquent girls; obtained my master’s degree in social work; and worked as a Training Specialist for the State of VA before moving to CA. When I was in my doctoral program, I obtained an internship at Advanced Micro Devices to serve as a facilitator for quality control circles, and I ended up working at AMD for five years. Hidden away in Silicon Valley, however, I was moving further and further away from the summer experience of my 17th year.

I eventually left AMD and began working as an organizational consultant. This line of work ultimately led me to a job at John F. Kennedy University in the School of Management, directing an international MBA program. I became the Associate Dean and then Dean in the School of Management at JFK University. By the time I completed my tenure as Dean, I had worked in the corporate world or with students who worked there for 12 years. Though I enjoyed my employment in the for-profit world, there was something missing in my work life; in fact, I never quite felt at home in that world.

In 1992, my friend Tony Corso – some of you may remember him as a delightful School of Extended Education faculty member– came into my office at JFK late one Friday afternoon when I was really tired of being a dean. I will spare you the details but he encouraged me to apply for an opening at Saint Mary’s in the School of Extended Education. I obviously did and was hired though now I teach in the doctorate in educational leadership program.

 When I first came to Saint Mary’s, I knew very little about De La Salle, and I had never heard the term Lasallian educator. I was hired for my experience and competence in my area of expertise rather than because I bonded with the Lasallian mission.  I was forty-four years old when I came to SMC with twenty years of experience in training and teaching adults – never having taught in a Catholic or liberal arts institution. And I had never been on the tenure ladder either. I arrived with a set of assumptions that I imagined would serve me well as they had done in my previous teaching. These included viewing my adult students as self-directed learners who knew what they wanted to learn and how to do so, seeing my role primarily as that of a subject-matter expert, and believing in the value of content-based assignments that had direct relevance for my adult students’ work lives. I had established a rather tidy set of boundaries around how I interacted with my students and how I saw my role.

I continued to teach the adults at Saint Mary’s as I had taught in other settings, but I began to think differently about my role during the period when Brother Mel initiated the New Century Report and subsequent discussions. This was the first time that I really remember discussing the Catholic, Lasallian, and Liberal Arts traditions of the College. As I learned more about the Lasallian educator, my pedagogical approach gradually began to change, and in a liberating way, I felt freed from adhering to adult learner principles.

For example, though I still respect the knowledge and skills my students bring to their studies, I no longer view them simply as self-directed learners who are capable of managing their educational experience. I now know that my doctoral students, just as our undergraduate students, can easily fall behind in their studies, become overwhelmed and discouraged, and lose sight of their goals. I also know that students who come from disadvantaged educational backgrounds or who speak English-as-a second language may be greatly challenged by graduate study – though they may be outstanding practitioners. Keeping this in mind, today I consistently reach out to my students to offer encouragement and support, a sympathetic ear, an extra tutorial session, or a session in the library. I know which of my students are in danger of falling through the cracks, and I do all I can to prevent that from happening. I certainly am not always successful but it is not for the lack of trying.

While my teaching practices were changing incrementally, there were two experiences that were transformative: participating in the Lasallian Social Justice Institute in El Paso/Juarez and the International Lasallian University Leadership program in Rome. The LSJI is a one-week immersion program that provides a relational encounter with persons living in poverty. When I was in El Paso and Juarez with the LSJI, I was transported back approximately 40 years to my youthful experiences in San Antonio. The heat, the architecture, the language, the people, and the terrain were surprisingly familiar to me.

During the experience, I was moved when hearing stories of the immigrants who risked so much to come into the United States, and when standing at the chain-linked fence that separates the United States from Mexico, I felt both sadness and anger. One of my most memorable experiences was our visit to a small colonia, called Anapra, where we met Christina Estrada - a local heroine who continues to work tirelessly to help keep children enrolled in school. While sitting in one of the school rooms at her house, I had a very powerful experience of being called to help Christina raise money for the children in this poor border community – and the zeal and passion that I had experienced in San Antonio returned – though by then, I had a greater capacity to do something with my passion.

Imagine my surprise when I recently read one of my San Antonio letters to my parents – again I was 17: “Maybe after I get out of college, I could do this type of work. Maybe since I was able to participate in this program, this just may be my Christian calling to help the Mexicans. I am not sure, but I know I want to help some people in the world.” Many of you know that as a result of my experience, I started the Anapra Education Project, and we have been able to raise $300,000 to pay for registration fees, uniforms, shoes, and books for the children there. This sum is in large part the gift of one generous friend and donor, but many of you in this room have also given $20 to buy a children’s dictionary or $60 a month to pay for a student to stay in high school.

The LSJI experience helped me recognize the power of offering educational experiences that educate the mind but also touch the heart. I have come to realize that graduate education in a Lasallian institution should encompass more than cognitive skills. The Lasallian educator, as I understand it, is concerned with students’ total development including their emotional, spiritual, and physical development. In sharp contrast to my previous teaching experiences with adult professionals, I want my students to be touched by their educational journey, inspired to be advocates for social justice, and willing to be risk-takers for innovation.

As such, my teaching practices have changed dramatically. For example, I use videos and movies that touch the heart, involve students in community-based research projects, and have assignments where students examine educational innovations that address social injustice. It is because of my commitment to the Lasallian mission that I now want my doctoral students to take their skills, knowledge, and personal dedication to develop programs that extend the Lasallian mission into new venues.

The second experience that deeply affected me was my participation in the Rome program. It is an intensive two-week immersion program for faculty leaders from around the globe concentrating on Lasallian history and Catholic spirituality. During my time in Rome, I spent many hours reading about De La Salle, becoming fascinated with how the Lasallian mission has been embodied in schools throughout the world. I felt privileged to hear the participants from such places as Bethlehem, Philippines, and Columbia discuss their educational programs and the challenges they face in living the Lasallian mission in their countries. It was a wonderful experience to bond with educators throughout the world who have similar values and educational aspirations for their students as I.

As a result of my experiences, I now understand and have come to believe that I have been called to this vocation as educator. I agree that, “To teach in a Lasallian school should be viewed, not just as a means of livelihood, a profession, but above all a vocation…” (p. 99). As such, Lasallian teachers take their responsibilities for their students and their development quite seriously, always recognizing each student’s individuality and intrinsic dignity.

And the nature of the student-teacher relationship is different as well. I knew that the members of the order that De La Salle founded were called brothers, but I never gave much thought to the term. In Rome, I learned that he intentionally used the term “brother” rather than “master” (the term used for educators at that time), and he stressed that teachers must accompany their students on their educational journey. De La Salle chose this term to “characterize the kind of educational relationship of teacher to student that he envisioned, that of firmness and gentleness of a big brother to a younger brother” (Mouton, 2011, n.p.). I am fond of the image of being like a big sister to my students – it requires a deeper relationship and a deeper commitment to them. Being like an older brother or sister is certainly more demanding than being a distant faculty member, but the relationship is ever so much more gratifying.

Interestingly, though I am more connected to my students than I was in my previous teaching, I also am a more rigorous instructor, challenging students to reach beyond what they believe they are capable. I have been inspired by the educational approach of many Lasallian schools especially in developing countries that only admit the neediest students while still maintaining high academic standards. This approach brings together quite nicely two quite distinct parts of me: the person who always feels drawn to the underdog and the one who pushes her students just a bit harder than they want. For example, while the Ed.D. Program admits students who are strong academically, many still have doubts about their ability to successfully complete a doctoral program especially the dissertation. Taking a lesson from the Lasallians, I do all I can to set a high bar and motivate my students to reach that bar. I often receive feedback from them, stating they appreciated the high standards that I hold (though they may not have enjoyed it at the time). Of course, this means that I must do my part to support the students to achieve their best work. My feedback and analysis of their work must be in-depth and extensive while still communicating that I believe they can accomplish the highest levels of educational quality.

Additionally I must interact with the students so they are not intimidated, but are energized to increase their level of commitment. I must admit that I am not always successful at this because I am at times frustrated by what I perceive as a lack of effort. But there are enough success stories to motivate me to continue to challenge and support my students. For instance, one of my students wrote:

"Without a doubt, the proudest moment of my academic career (now spanning 26 years of formal schooling) was when I received an A- on a major paper in one of Professor Proehl's classes. When I received the email confirming my grade on the assignment, I was at my niece's soccer game. Surely, the rest of the fans in the stands were wondering why this tall guy suddenly stood up and put his hands in the air, victorious, especially when nothing particularly interesting was happening on the field at the time. But I knew, of course, that I had just scored one of the most important goals of my life."

In closing, I came to Saint Mary’s College because of its reputation for academic quality, I was afforded an opportunity to teach adult students, the campus itself was beautiful, the College was well-established, and I desperately wanted to leave my other position. None of the reasons had anything to do with the Catholic or Lasallian nature of the College. Over time, I have long forgotten my other job, the emphasis on academic quality has become second nature, and I am not even aware at times of the beautiful campus. What has emerged as the constant in my work at Saint Mary’s has been my evolution as a Lasallian educator.

My journey has not been a linear one; there have been many ups and downs. I have experienced disappointments when I have not acted in accord with my personal standards or when College decisions were made that did not seem aligned with espoused Lasallian values. I often become frustrated with my faculty colleagues and they with me, discouraged by my students’ performance, or stymied by bureaucratic constraints. But what does inspire and encourage me is my ongoing commitment to the Lasallian mission and my deep aspiration that my students will be transformed by their experience at Saint Mary’s – much as I have been transformed.

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