A Headmaster Shares his “Secret" to Student Formation
How Peter Crawford, Founding Headmaster of St. Jerome Institute, Created a School for Teachers who Love to Teach
When a student asked Mimi Aujero—“Mrs. Aujero”—if there was a mathematical reason for a pattern the class had noticed while studying probabilities, she didn’t know the answer; she had never thought about it before because she had never needed to think about it. But she recognized in her student’s question a rare teaching opportunity. She decided to run a mathematical experiment. She split the students up and had them work through new problems to see if the same pattern emerged. By the end of class, they had found an answer. It was a successful day of teaching—but not because the students had learned how to solve a particular math problem.
Sometimes, we think math is taking numbers and doing things and getting the right answer. But in reality, all those things we "do" to numbers were discovered by somebody at some point…. [That day,] I think the students got a little sliver of what it's actually like to be a part of a team that collaborates on a difficult and challenging math problem that does not yet have an answer. They were able to experience what real mathematicians, both of antiquity and of today, face on a regular basis.
Aujero is a veteran teacher. After graduating from Catholic University of America, she taught for two years at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles while earning her Masters in Education, and then for seven years at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, DC. In 2019, St. Jerome Institute’s founding headmaster, Peter Crawford, asked Aujero to leave her secure position at Gonzaga—a Jesuit school with a 200-year history—to be a part of SJI’s initial faculty. She enthusiastically accepted based on SJI’s vision for “reinventing” traditional education to meet the challenges of our time. One of the most exciting aspects of SJI’s vision was its plan for developing a faculty of men and women who share a passion for cultivating faith, wonder, and virtue in their students through the high art of teaching.
Aujero is now in her third year of leading the mathematics seminar at SJI. She has a total of 12 years of classroom experience under her belt. And yet, she receives more coaching and support to improve her teaching week-to-week than most first-year teachers at other schools. Why? Because, according to Crawford, a school can only be as excellent as its faculty. And the “secret” to forming student rests in a well-developed faculty. “Teachers are the living lessons for our students,” he explains.
That’s why he spends hours every day helping his teachers improve their craft. Here is a checklist of training activities that he spearheads throughout the year:
___ Weekly classroom observations of each new teacher
___ Bi-weekly classroom observations of each veteran teacher
___ Written feedback following observations
___ Regular meetings with new teachers to discuss feedback
___ Formal review meetings with each teacher every semester
___ Regular modeling of good teaching (teachers observing classes of veteran teachers)
___ 6-week summer training for new teachers
The most important time he spends with his teachers is in the classroom. Unlike at other schools, where classroom observations are formal, rare, and anxiety-inducing, observations at SJI are a normal and regular part of the school day; they are part of what makes SJI a community with a shared culture, where teachers lift each other up in a humbling endeavor of forming souls.
Aujero is grateful for the specific conservations she is able to have with Crawford about her teaching as a result of classroom observations. “It has been extremely helpful to be able to look at a specific situation and have a conversation about what worked and what can be improved on, especially in regards to teaching Socratically,” she says.
SJI is a community that values great teaching, and so it attracts great teachers. Whereas other school leaders complain about having few qualified applicants for open teaching positions, Crawford receives a steady stream of applications from qualified teachers. He has a policy of interviewing at least four qualified candidates for each position—and he has never struggled to make that happen.
In fact, SJI has developed such a strong reputation as a school for teachers who love to teach, that some enthusiastic teachers have applied to join the faculty multiples times. Michael Higgins is one of them.
Higgins has a PhD and Master of Theological Studies from Catholic University of America’s Pontifical John Paul II Institute. He has taught at Georgetown University and Loyola University Maryland. When he applied to SJI, he was teaching theology at the Academy of the Holy Cross in Maryland. He loved exploring life’s most important questions with his students in the classroom, and yet, he longed for “more” from his teaching experience. What he wanted was to teach in a school where the shared culture of the community reinforced the culture of his classroom—where the goal of his peers was to form young people with a passion for doing God’s will (not to embolden them to choose their own identity and destiny).
Last year, Crawford needed to hire a humanities teacher. He made an offer to Higgins, who had never taught literature or history, because Higgins was brilliant, faithfully Catholic, and convicted that the mission and culture of SJI was something he had to be a part of. Higgins accepted, and so began his initiation into what SJI’s faculty considers their “communal work of art.”
SJI practices a distinct pedagogical approach within the Socratic tradition. Crawford explains:
That our teaching approach is Socratic means that we practice a manner of teaching through questions that allows the students to be active participants of their own education, within a community of learners, in a posture of wonder before the deep realities they are engaging.
While there are deep philosophical reasons for teaching in this way, we also take the very practical skills and know-how of this approach seriously. We believe, for instance, that teaching primarily through the mode of asking permits students to actively wrestle with their studies.
Higgins had only ever taught didactically, providing instruction by lecturing. He had little to no experience using questions to lead students through their studies. But Higgins had all the qualities of a great Socratic teacher: he had expertise in a critical area and was humble, passionate, and eager to engage his students.
Crawford invested a considerable amount of time with Higgins during his first few months at SJI. In addition to observing his classes and providing weekly feedback, he met with him regularly (often every day) to discuss specific texts and help him develop questions for upcoming classes. He also modeled good teaching by having Higgins observe his classes.
Higgins credits Crawford's efforts with making him a better teacher. He explains:
Peter's feedback is always concrete, specific, and immensely helpful. My classes always benefit when I modify things in keeping with his suggestions.
In addition, watching Peter teach has been very instructive, and has shaped my own posture in the classroom. When I'm in the midst of a conversation in class and I have to make a decision—whether or not to intervene, which question to ask, which tone to strike, or so on—I often find myself asking, "What would Peter do?"
As headmaster, Crawford considers himself to be a teacher of teachers. It’s a role he takes seriously. He believes that his greatest value to the school is his hiring and training of teachers who contribute to the culture of friendship and faith that has become the hallmark of the SJI experience. His goal is to hire men and women who are better than he is in key areas and who share his passion for forming souls united to God’s will. He points to his faculty as proof that he has been “wildly successful” in accomplishing this goal, noting that his colleagues do what they do every day because they love their students and want to win souls for Christ. He adds, “As impressive as each of our teachers is individually, they form an even more impressive community that is a true witness for our students.”
Crawford has been mentoring other teachers since nearly the beginning of his teaching career 14 years ago. The many hours he has spent observing other teachers and providing feedback and coaching has helped him fine-tune his approach. It has made him a better teacher and headmaster.
One lesson he has learned is that teachers need to overcome the false dichotomy between love and order. True love challenges students. Teachers need to be clear and firm about their expectations, using language and a tone that communicates love. It is wholly inappropriate for a teacher to lose his or her temper or use words intended to demean a student. In fact, if a teacher reaches a point of being tempted to make this kind of mistake, it means the responsibility to discipline has been put too much on the teacher. Part of the headmaster’s job is to make clear that students engaging in defiant or disrespectful behavior belong in the headmaster’s office, not the classroom.
Another lesson he has learned is that teachers should set a goal of having every student participate during every class—because active engagement facilitates greater understanding and enjoyment of the material being studied. Through Crawford’s modeling and coaching, SJI’s teachers have become adept at using five pedagogical techniques to encourage greater participation from students, including:
Drawing in students by asking three levels of questions—factual, narrative understanding, and philosophical—to build up interest and understanding.
Allowing some questions to go unanswered while moving on to deeper questions.
Being aware that some levels of questions are more appropriate for certain students—and matching up questions and students accordingly.
Cold calling on students who are reluctant to raise their hands.
Becoming comfortable with silence. (Teenagers are economic creatures. They will remain silent if teachers offer to do the work for them by filling in awkward silences with a response.)
Crawford’s support of his teachers has helped SJI become one of the Washington, DC area’s most sought-after Catholic schools. That’s why plans for SJI’s growth—enrollment is expected to triple in the coming years—include incorporating more veteran teachers in the observation and coaching of new teachers. Crawford is excited for this next step. Helping teachers develop their craft has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of his job. It is also the part of his job that is often neglected by school leaders. While he understands the many demands on a school leader's time, he believes that investing upfront in teacher training is ultimately a time-saver because it strengthens all aspects of a school and avoids problems that would otherwise arise. "The secret to forming a beautiful student culture," he shares, "is to form a beautiful faculty culture."