Claire Johnson

Site: St. Frances Academy – Baltimore, MD

College: University of Notre Dame

What do you do?

  • Teach Physical Science and Biology to
    high school freshmen and sophomores
  • Assistant Tennis Coach
  • Co-Advisor for NHS

Have you noticed any signs of success in your work? What are they?

In my job it is easy to get discouraged. The days are long and there is always work to be done. The kids don’t always listen and don’t seem to care too much about what I’m trying to teach. So everyday my challenge is to not only get the kids to pay attention, but also to get them engaged. A few weeks ago I had a week where it felt like I had a small break though. In Physical Science we were talking about Newton’s Laws of Motion and why it is important to wear seatbelts. Rather than just talk about it, we did a week-long project to illustrate it. The students worked in pairs to build a car out of Styrofoam cups and plastic straws that would hold a plastic egg. The goal was to build a car that would roll down a ramp and crash into a wall at the end. When it crashed into the wall, the egg must stay in the car. Each student would race against another car, so their car had to be fast, but also safe. The only rule was the egg could not be attached to the car in any way.

The kids spent a couple of days building their cars and testing them on the ramps. Then on Friday we had a ‘Race Day.’ We set up brackets in each class to determine who would race one other. I rearranged and decorated my room and made 1st and 2nd place ribbons for the winners. I was so nervous for Race Day because there was less structure than usual and things could get chaotic. But my fears weren’t necessary. The kids came in and were so excited to see the room rearranged. They put the finishing touches on their cars and the races started. Some cars were great – they rolled quickly down the ramp and protected their eggs. Other cars didn’t quite work as well – they didn’t fit on the ramp or didn’t roll very well. But it didn’t matter because everyone was having fun. The kids were excited to be doing something out of the ordinary and to see how something they had built actually worked. The kids who won wore their ribbons all day long. Those that didn’t win tried to get ribbons from the winners or an extra one from me so they could wear one too.

Building racecars was a chance for my kids and me to do something different – to use our heads and our hands and put science into action. I don’t know how many kids will remember Newton’s Laws of Motion because of their racecars, but I do hope they remember their science class as interesting and exciting. And I hope they had fun because I sure had a blast.

How has your involvement with the Brothers affected you?

Living with the Brothers has been one of the best parts of this year for me. I have an extremely supportive community that I love coming home to. At dinner each night we tell our stories from the day and talk about everything from Iowa and the weather to baseball and the Theory of Relativity. The Brothers are always there to offer advice or share a laugh. I have also had the privilege of meeting many other Brothers from all over the country at Christmas parties, anniversary celebrations and casual dinners. What I have come away with from all of these conversations is how big these guys’ hearts are. They have lived countless places and taught thousands of students, yet there is always room for more – more volunteers to move in, more classes to take on, more stories to share.

One of the Brothers I live with had to spend a couple of days in the hospital this fall. When we went to visit him, two of his former students were there also, telling story after story about their days in high school with Br. Greg as their teacher. I was struck by the impact Br. Greg must have had on these guys for them to come visit him in the hospital 30 years later and vividly remember events from his classroom.

Also this fall I met a Brother who was a Biology Professor at a nearby university. When he found out that I also taught Biology, he immediately asked if there was anything we needed in our department because he could probably donate some things. I had only been at school a couple of weeks and told him I would ask around. I got caught up in teaching and forgot about our conversation, but I saw this Brother at another function a few weeks later. He mentioned again that he had extra equipment he would be more than willing to donate. This time I followed through and within weeks we had 10 fully functioning microscopes to use in the lab. I was floored – here I was a brand new volunteer who this Brother had only met briefly and he made such an effort to do this for me and my students.

A few weeks ago some of my community members and I were staying at another community to watch our school’s basketball team compete in a tournament. We had some free time, so I started reading a book the Brother’s had at their house. I didn’t have a chance to finish it while I was there, so I asked if I could borrow it and mail it back when I was done. The Brothers said, “Keep it, we’ve all read it. We don’t need it any more.” To me, a gesture as small as that shows how generous the Brothers are. They give and give and when you think they couldn’t possible have any more to give, they give more. It’s incredibly admirable and inspiring. Seeing their dedication on a daily basis makes me want to work even harder at my job because I’ve got big shoes to fill.

What would you say to one of your students/mothers/clients/guests who came to you discouraged about a particularly troubling problem?

I would listen. I don’t have all the answers, but I do care. I would do what I’m here to do and that is be present and patient and open my heart. If one of my students came to me with a problem, it would show that they trusted me and I would do whatever I could to continue to build that trust. In a lot of cases, the best thing I could do would be to remain a consistent part of their life. I would try and show them I cared by being there. Everyday.

What might you say to your supervisor who appeared negative about the recent behavior of the person just above who had recently confided in you?

I would ask her to take a step back and pause for a moment. It is easy for all of us to get caught up in the stress of our jobs and not look past the day-to-day responsibilities. However, we have to remember why we’re here in the first place and that is to serve others. If my principal was upset about a student who was troubled by a problem, I would ask her to say a prayer for that student. I think in that quiet moment with God she would be able to see this student as a child who is really struggling rather than just one more kid who was breaking the rules.

What would you say to a friend from home who questioned why you chose to live with the Brothers?

I would say don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. The Brothers are incredible men who I have learned so much from. They are humble and wise and funny and caring. It’s incredible living with people who have dedicated their lives to serving others. Their selflessness rubs off on you and it creates an atmosphere of love. They are life-long teachers who are a constant source of inspiration. Plus we’ve spent some great times bonding over an afternoon of golf or a night of baseball.

Why would you recommend the LV program to a college senior considering volunteering?

Volunteering is hard work. You give of yourself like you never have before and it can be frustrating and disappointing, but at the same time it is so fulfilling. When I was looking at various programs, there was nothing more important than knowing that with the LVs I had an incredible support system to rely on. I am surrounded by people who I can complain to on my bad days and also who I can celebrate with on the good days. The staff, your fellow volunteers, the alumni and, most profoundly, the Brothers are all there day in and day out willing you to succeed and giving you that little push when you need it most.

For example, one of the Brothers I lived with knew we were studying chemistry in class, so he made a copy of a Periodic Table Word Search he had in an old book that I could use in class.

On Valentine’s Day volunteers from another community sent a card just to say hello and see how things were going.

One of the staff members was in town visiting and willingly helped me tape together cardboard boxes so my students could make a large periodic table for the classroom.

There’s just support everywhere.

Why would you recommend a contribution to the LV Program from a prospective donor?

The Lasallian Volunteer program is doing amazing things. The first thing that drew me to the program was the support that was built in from day one. However, since becoming part of the program the thing that strikes me most is their vision. The Brothers, the staff and the volunteers are all working together and all looking forward. Not only are the individuals at each site constantly looking for ways to make things better for their students and clients, but they are also trying to find ways to do their own jobs better. There is also a sense of looking farther into the future and of people seeking out ways to better live the Lasallian Mission. I joined the program thinking I would teach high school for a year or two and that would be it, but that’s not the case. I’ve become a Lasallian for life and I’m not the only one. There were many, many before me and there will be many to come – people searching for ways to serve others and dedicating their lives to making it happen. To me, that’s worth investing in.

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