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A recent encounter with a young bank teller reminded me of what an enigma I am. I have put my stipend check each month in this same bank for over two years. I’ll explain stipend later, for I do realize that is an ambiguous term for many. This young man has often received my deposit. Because I go into the bank after work, I am usually wearing my Brother’s uniform, which consists of a simple black shirt and special Brother’s collar to distinguish us from priests. So this young man said to me recently: “Are you a priest or rabbi?” When I explained that I was neither, I realized that “Brother” explained nothing for him. I presume he’s not Catholic, but I also know that many Catholics do not understand what a Brother is.

I am not writing this essay as a form of proselytizing or a subtle way to draw you into mysticism. I am, like many of you, heavily involved in education. In fact, education is my passion. And that is what I want to address here – my passion – not spirituality or professional justification for my vocation. So follows my attempt to make teachers aware of the almost invisible Teaching Brother, in this case the Brothers of the Christian Schools.

Like so many of you, I go to school every day. My particular gig is Resurrection Catholic School, where I serve as assistant principal and Religious Education Coordinator. I also teach two religion classes a day to the first and second graders. I, like you, do lesson plans, attend faculty meetings, and deal with delightful and difficult parents and students. I go to professional development conferences and work on committees.

I try to head home everyday around 4 PM (not always possible!). That is when things look different from other teachers. I go home, not to a family, but to five other Brothers, all involved in some way at Christian Brothers High School, where I live. Yes, there is a house for Teaching Brothers at the high school, for that school is sponsored by the Brothers of the Christian Schools, the Religious Order I belong to. Some of you may know us as the Christian Brothers, our “nickname.” I come home in time for Evening Prayer and afterward a soda (sometimes a beer or cocktail) with the Brothers. Then we have supper together and share our day, our concerns, our frustrations, and even our faith. Like many of you, I grade papers and do lesson plans at night. I go to bed early and rise early.

I have been teaching for about twenty-five years. I began working in the field before I joined the Brothers. My first teaching job was in Barranquilla, Colombia. That was a rich experience that confirmed my love for teaching. However, I also met a few Teaching Brothers there and was attracted to their lifestyle. Upon my return to the United States, I found a job in a parish doing religious instruction. It was very rewarding, but I became concerned about the alarming number of African American youth in the parish who were dropping out of school.

I had decided that the best way to help would be possibly through Catholic education. At the same time, I met the Christian Brothers, and, at the age of forty, knew what I would do with the rest of my life. I joined the Christian Brothers and have never regretted it, though I can’t say it wasn’t challenging at times. Now, at the age of 61, I know that challenges make us grow and make me a better Brother and teacher.

The Brothers are a powerful support system. I also find confirmation of my vocation in prayer. Most of our students are proud to be “Brother’s boys,” or, now that we are in some co-ed schools, “Brother’s girls.” That doesn’t sound very good, but I think you know what I mean. We call ours Lasallian education because of our origins and how we have kept in touch with the original inspiration.

A Brother is a Catholic man who dedicates himself to some work, which he believes best uses his talents and helps others. We are celibate, but not priests. Our mission as Christian Brothers is strictly educational, though sometimes that takes place in a parish. We believe that education is one of the most crucial needs in our time and has been for centuries. We have been around since 1680, when a French priest John Baptist De La Salle (now a canonized saint) began to address the needs of poor French boys, whom no one in French society cared much about. He felt that education was key to their even having a future. He believed that he must form future teachers, who would need to be as passionate about education as he. Thus, the small group of dedicated men he started eventually evolved into the Brothers of the Christian Schools.

Though few in number (about 5000 Christian Brothers worldwide), we have had a great impact on education. We strive to live a simple lifestyle (receiving a small stipend for personal needs rather than our salary, which is pooled for the Brothers’ household needs), and to “go wherever we are sent.” Thankfully, the modern version of that last phrase means dialoguing with the religious superior about our present or next assignment. Brothers study hard and generally find support in three things – prayer, one another (community life), and keeping the passion for education alive.

My point is this: You share in this vocation, perhaps in a different form, if you are involved in education. My hope is that we can be there for our students and their parents and for one another. Certainly, we don’t want to remain an enigma, but reach many through the wonderful vocation of teaching. May that passion be alive in you or, at least, reignited!

One Response to WHAT IS A TEACHING BROTHER? by Bro. Alan Parham FSC

  1. bbbeard says:

    Brother Alan: It was good to read your thoughts. Although I am not a Catholic, I taught mechanical engineering at Christian Brothers University in Memphis for 11 years. I left CBU in favor of resuming my career in aerospace engineering a few years ago, but I have many fond memories of teaching. Most of all I love hearing from my students. I graduated perhaps a hundred mechanical engineers. Five of them work with me in Huntsville, AL, where we support the space and missile defense programs. Best of luck with your lifelong learning!