Teaching minds and touching hearts: 5 things we can learn from St John Baptist de la Salle

The achievements of the Lasallian schools in Singapore today can be traced back to the efforts laid down by the Brothers of the Christian Schools. The Lasallian Brothers are a religious order first established by the 17th century French priest John Baptist de la Salle. Now widely regarded as a pioneer in modern education, St De La Salle devoted a large part of his 40-year priesthood to teaching underprivileged young men. His contributions to the elementary education scene in France eventually influenced the rest of the world, through the Brothers who continue his work today.

As a Christian teacher who approached the task of education passionately and methodically, St De La Salle sets a perfect example for educators today. We look at the lessons we can draw from his work and mission.

1. Knowing what matters
John Baptist was born into a wealthy family in Reims, France. His father held a high-ranking position in the royal court, while his mother came from a prominent influential family of wine brewers. After their death, he sold his considerable inheritance and gave the money to the poor in Champagne province, who were suffering from a famine.

St De La Salle’s willingness to give up his earthly possessions echoed the Lord’s exhortation in the Gospel: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mk 10:21) In an environment where academic success and career progression trumps many other worries, it is our mission as educators to remind students of what matters more in life. Rather than put pressure on them to do well in exams, why not discuss ways in which they can contribute back to society after their studies?

2. Recognising the poor
St De La Salle was aware of the many peasants who lived in the country or in town slums, and did not have the means to send their children to school. Because they were illiterate, they could neither move up the social ladder nor learn of God’s word. He became deeply concerned by the children’s financial and spiritual poverty, and pledged to bring up these young people.

As educators, let’s also keep in mind that our students come from many different backgrounds. The differentials in aptitude and attitudes amongst them are largely due to the wide spectrum of family, health and financial situations. Regardless of their circumstance, the young people are calling out for our attention, care and guidance in order to overcome the barriers they face to attain their fullest potential in life.

3. Taking action one step at a time
John Baptist did not change things overnight. Through his first pastoral post as the spiritual director of the Sisters of the Holy Infant Jesus (who ran an orphanage for young girls), he was encouraged to set up a similar institution for boys. Thus, with the help of a lay teacher Adrien Nyel, he founded a school. Following its success, more were spawned in the diocese, and John recruited more teachers to his cause. The Brothers for the Christian Schools was born from this fraternity, and today they number 5,000 across 80 countries and 1,000 institutions.

Upon seeing the severity of the problem, St De La Salle did not allow himself to become deterred or overwhelmed. Instead, he took small steps towards a larger goal. At times, it may be easy to become intimidated by our responsibilities as educators. St De La Salle’s example reminds us to take things one step at a time, address issues systemically, tap on resources made available to us, and leave the seemingly impossible to God.

4. Persistence in learning
Being the eldest child of a well-to-do family, John had the privilege of a quality education. His parents groomed him academically, sending him to study at the College des Bons Enfant, where he received his Master of Arts in 1669. Thereafter, he entered the Seminary of St Sulpice and read theology at the College of Sorbonne. His learning continued even after his priestly ordination in 1678, where he earned a doctorate in theology two years later.

Despite his impressive academic achievements, John remained humble and persisted in his learning journey. When he embarked on his priesthood and education mission, he needed to learn several things previously unfamiliar to him: how to run a school, how to connect to street youth, and how to recruit and manage teachers. Like John, we cannot be complacent with our knowledge. To improve ourselves as effective mentors to students, we must constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to pick up new skills and perspectives.

5. Meeting students where they are
St De La Salle wanted to ensure that students truly understood what they were learning. Against the norm of the times, St De La Salle decided that his institutions would teach subjects in the more widely-spoken French, instead of Latin. The Brothers also grouped students according to their maturity and aptitude, so as to facilitate the process of teaching.

Instead of purely regurgitating information to his students, John Baptist analysed their academic potential and capabilities and refrained from imposing unrealistic demands on them. He met them where they were and taught in a language they could understand. To be effective educators, let us adopt patience and empathic understanding. How can we meet our students at a level where we can better connect with them and make learning more productive and enhanced?

As educators, we may feel jaded and overworked after years in the service. We may lose sight of why we became educators in the first place. But as we celebrate the life and legacy of St De Le Salle, let us relive the joy of our vocation and remember that our words and actions, mundane as they may seem at times, have the potential of touching our students in more ways than one.