April 2014: Jake Haagenson


Jake with a student at recess

Service Site: The De La Salle School, Freeport, NY

College: Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

What do you do?

I teach 7th grade religion, 5th grade reading, and I facilitate our foreign language program.

Give an example of a time when you knew you were making a difference.

While a Lasallian Volunteer, there have been times that I have found it difficult to identify exactly where I have made a difference. In reflecting on my discouragement, I started to realize that it is easy to misunderstand service as a transaction completed by two clearly defined roles: a person of privilege offering service, and a person in need receiving service. This perception is often accompanied by the expectation that service will progress as a series of good deeds that must culminate with a dramatic change in the life of the needy, and strong sense of vindication in the person serving. This image of service understands the person serving to have the tools to fix the person in need. However, I’m beginning to think that service does not produce a linear progress in one and satisfaction in the other, but instead is a human relationship that highlights strengths and weaknesses in both. This has been my experience with Robert, a sixth grader who lost his mother at the age of seven.

Robert has difficulty with self-esteem and is sometimes disruptive in class. One morning he was told to leave his social studies class, and I was asked to talk with him about what was wrong. I felt helpless as he sat at my desk, and I tried to think of a way to fix his problem. Eventually, I apologized saying that I couldn’t imagine experiencing his loss and tried to express sympathy. After we talked for a while Robert returned to class and–I found out later–wrote a letter to his social studies teacher explaining his appreciation for our conversation. Hearing this, I felt a sense of gratification and presumed that I had made a lasting difference. So, I was discouraged when, a week later, Robert was again disruptive and self-critical. I’ve learned that setbacks cannot be understood as a negation of meaningful moment but must be understood as part of Robert’s struggle and development. Though Robert’s problems are ongoing and require help beyond what I can offer, our conversation has opened up a relationship in which he feels he can share his struggles with someone who cares about him. As the faculty at The De La Salle School works to get Robert appropriate help, we can offer a caring presence that he can trust and rely on to work through his pain. Instead of viewing service as a exchange where one person offers a clear solution to fix another, it can be helpful to communicate to that person that you are willing to struggle through the ups and downs, making a commitment towards a solution together. Though struggling with someone to find answers does not offer the satisfaction of definite progress, it can make a difference in the person’s life.

jake1Was there a moment where you felt accepted by your students?

One of our current eighth graders, Jay, is exceptionally bright, excelling among his peers in national standardized testing and showing a precocious intellectual curiosity not only in the classroom, but towards the world around him. However, because he is bright, Jay’s aptitude often exceeds the rigor of his classes. Rather than seeking out personal challenges in his first three years at The De La Salle School, Jay had developed lackadaisical study habits, which were compounded by a difficult displacement resulting from Hurricane Sandy, and the developing awareness of what it means to grow up without a father. Jay was vocal about his preference to get by rather than improve. This year the teachers at The De LaSalle School have made a priority to encourage Jay to adopt a stronger sense of personal motivation, emphasizing his long term potential as a student. As the year has gone on, I have spent time each morning before school talking with Jay about our shared interest in reading, which has opened a channel of discussion regarding his future as a student and the optimal use of his skills. At the encouragement of his teachers, Jay took the entrance exam to Regis, a premier New York City Catholic high school that offers gratuitous tuition for students who can merit admission. Jay tested into the next round of candidacy and our faculty communicated the importance of this opportunity to Jay, preparing him with practice interviews, writing letters of recommendation, and reaching out to contacts at Regis. I continued to try to show Jay that this opportunity afforded him with a goal that both he and the people who cared about him wanted to attain. As the weeks followed, Jay began to put more effort into his work and involve himself in extracurricular activities. On the day that Jay was accepted to Regis, he came to school, obviously proud of an academic accomplishment that he had achieved by hard work, and told me that I was one of the first people he wanted to tell about his success.

jake3What have you discovered about poverty from your work?

My time serving at a school that depends entirely on the generosity of benefactors rather than tuition has given me a proximity to poverty that my privileged upbringing and education had not. However, rather than elucidating the cause or even a single definition of poverty, my time at De LaSalle has imparted a sense of the complexity of poverty and its iterations. Still, in trying to be sensitive to the challenge of poverty in our community, I have become very aware of two things. First, that poverty is an impediment with which I did not have to contend during my own education, and second, that poverty is something that is beyond our students’ control, but is a serious threat to their academic progress. By being mindful that the advantages that were commonplace in my childhood are frequently unavailable to our students, I can modify my approach to teaching to accommodate limitations that are outside of our students control and try to supply them with the skills necessary to succeed at higher levels of education.

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

If you are interested in learning about and participating in the education of the underprivileged, living in a Christian Brothers community can offer a unique experience of a home life that is intentionally supportive of your ministry and is populated by educators with years of experience and commensurate wisdom regarding education. So, even though living as a part of a group of men who are not your relatives, but are drawn together by a religious commitment of service, is admittedly peculiar, it is this peculiarity that is one of the greatest benefits of the Lasallian Volunteer experience. My work is affirmed and supported by those I live with, and I often turn to them for advice regarding my personal development and my development as an educator.

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