Graduate Theological Union

Teaching “Lower Ed”: Junior High, High School, and Community College

lower ed

Ask a GTU student what they hope to do when they graduate. Or ask some alums how they’re spending their days. If your guess is that their work, or their dream, is teaching in higher education, you may be surprised. Some have found their true calling — and true success — in helping to shape young minds in junior high through community college.

Jeffrey Buhl (M.A. ’01) has taught sixth, seventh, and eighth grades in both Christian and private school settings. “I thought I would teach in higher education, but I found my calling teaching English and Literature to kids who are 11, 12, 13, and 14 years-old. It’s a marvelous way to live,” he says.

“I’ve never felt so fulfilled. I believe being a teacher to these kids is who God intends me to be.”

— Jeffrey Buhl, (M.A. ’01)

Michael Sepidoza Campos, a Ph.D. candidate in Interdisciplinary Studies, counts among his goals the hope to return to Guam and resume work in secondary Catholic education. “It’s my ideal world,” he says. “It’s where my gifts fit.”
Patricia Shannon (Ph.D. ’07) teaches philosophy, religious studies, and humanities at Chabot Community College in Hayward, California. She says, “It was always my goal to teach at a community college. I believe it’s the way to make the biggest difference.”

English is not the first language for two-thirds of Shannon’s students. Ninety percent are not prepared for college math or English, and most work more than 15 hours per week in addition to attending school. Being at a community college gives her students the option to transfer to a 4-year college and has a major impact on their earning power: “It makes the difference between whether they can only get a day labor job or a steady job,” she says.

 Patricia Shannon

 Patricia Shannon

“Teaching philosophy and religion is particularly difficult because the students lack a common cultural reference point, but it also can be very rich.” Shannon uses dialogue in small groups, journal writing, and film to bridge the divides — this year she has shown the films Bladerunner and Mindwalk. “When they see that a film about Kant and Descartes is relevant, when you can see the light go on, it’s simply wonderful,” she says.

Campos describes learning as the “unfolding of a person,” and sees a special opportunity in teaching high school students. He says, “What I love about high school is that students at that age stand at the cusp of adulthood, with an emergent sense of self and responsibility. In this regard, the work of teaching is fundamentally ministerial, a gesture of accompaniment.” Campos taught theology in Catholic high schools for 7 years before coming to the GTU to explore the ways sexuality, ethnicity, political contexts, and economies influence how one teaches religion. “I hope my own explorations will encourage my future students to dig deeper into their own questions as well.”

Shannon, Campos, and Buhl all see their work as being about relationships. “I am not always the authority,” says Buhl. “My students and I are engaged in something together, and it is always the relationship that makes it work. Eleven to 14-yearolds can be a challenging age group, but when you get a letter from a former student saying you were the most influential person in her life, it means I’ve done something right. I’ve never felt so fulfilled. I believe being a teacher to these kids is who God intends me to be.”

Shannon recently got an email from a student she taught four years ago, who is now taking a double major in rhetoric and theater at UC Berkeley. “You taught me how to take a theory apart,” the student wrote.

“That’s success,” says Shannon.