Joan Peterson

By Jennifer Wake

Answering the Call

In the ’60s, teaching was considered a calling — a proud vocation respected by society and peers. For Saint Mary’s Professor Joan Peterson, who began teaching English at Clayton Valley High School in 1970, teaching simply fit. Seventeen years later, she found a new calling to use her experience to mentor new teachers.

“I had a lot of ideas about teaching,” says Peterson, who joined Saint Mary’s School of Education in 1991. As a single-subject professor and credentialing program supervisor, Peterson observes and guides secondary student teachers earning their credentials, and believes teachers today face a daunting task.

“Teachers need to be strong in their subject, but also need a fierce heart and backbone to deal with a society that ultimately doesn’t respect them,” she says. “They need to love what they are doing, feel total commitment and be very good at it to break down perceptions.”

She approaches her own teaching, workshops and research with the same passion and
grit. Earning her doctorate in curriculum and instruction from USF in 1994, Peterson
chose a grim and heart-wrenching topic for her study concentration: the Holocaust.
Peterson wryly calls her research “a real cocktail party conversation stopper,” but she
has found solace in poring over books, newspapers and poetry about the Holocaust.

“I’m interested in the way writers, especially those who are not Jewish, have responded
to the event … what words they have chosen to express mourning, outrage and despair,” Peterson says.

In a recent January Term course on the Holocaust, Peterson asked students to look silently at posters, photographs and artwork from survivors.

“The Holocaust demands silence; demands a place where words fail,” Peterson says. “I wanted them to ask their own questions, to learn what creative artists responding to the Holocaust teach us about how we know a thing — about evil, about forgiveness and revenge, about memory and forgetfulness. Anti-Semitic racism came out of the non-Jewish world, and that world bears responsibility as well as vigilance for future attitudes.”

Peterson, who lives in Concord with her husband, has been awarded two fellowships to study the Holocaust, won the annual Bilha Sperling Holocaust Education Award, and was recognized for her contributions to Holocaust education by the Holocaust Remembrance Committee of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. In 2003, she received the O. DeSales Perez Award for Excellence in Collegiate Seminar.

As a researcher and professor, as a supervisor and mentor to student teachers, Peterson has enlightened many on the topics of genocide, racism and anti-Semitism. And through her workshops, including “Questions that Hang in the Aftermath of the Holocaust,” and paper presentations such as “Creatures of Eve: The Female Teacher in Fiction,” she helps future teachers find their way through the misperceptions of the profession and discover ways to effectively discuss societal crises, such as genocide, in the classroom.

“We all bear some responsibility for educating well,” she says, noting that people become better teachers not only from their graduate courses, but from their undergraduate and even high school experiences.

“We are all part of a circle where every part of schooling influences every other part.
(Teachers) must be ‘true believers’ because they may never know who they influence or touch.”