Starting a teaching career in 2020 was not for the faint of heart. But the sixth cohort of the Billiken Teacher Corps did just that — and graduated May 19 with a love of teaching intact.
“As many of my professors and coworkers said, ‘If you can teach through these two years, you’re going to be good — it can’t get much more difficult in terms of what you’re having to juggle in the classroom,’” said Thomas Neiers, a theology teacher and campus minister at Bishop DuBourg High School.
The Billiken Teacher Corps is a Saint Louis University program that places new teachers in under-resourced schools around the St. Louis area. Corps members spend two years teaching while earning a master of arts in teaching from SLU and living together in community.
During the 2021-22 school year, 14 teachers served in nine different schools, collectively teaching more than 1,000 students. For the first time, the program included schools in Springfield, Illinois, placing teachers at St. Patrick Catholic School and Sacred Heart-Griffin High School.
Of the seven graduates of cohort 6 (the class of 2022), six plan to stay in Catholic education — four in St. Louis and two elsewhere. The seventh is taking a job in parish youth ministry.
The first five cohorts collectively graduated 29 teachers. As of the 2021-22 school year, 24 still worked in Catholic education; three alumni have switched to non-Catholic schools, and just two have left teaching altogether.
While the first five cohorts had five or six members each, cohorts 6, 7 and the incoming cohort 8 have seven apiece. The program has seen an increased need for teachers in area Catholic schools, and it serves as one means of connecting eager young teachers with opportunities and setting them up for success, said Billiken Teacher Corps program director Angela Moret.
“We’ve definitely had an increase in overall applications the past couple of years,” Moret said. “I think young people are really excited about living in an intentional faith community, serving under-resourced Catholic schools, and then earning their master’s degree with full tuition remission. That’s the perfect trifecta for a young person graduating from college who is passionate about their faith and wants to teach.”
Neiers, a Houston native who earned his undergraduate degrees in history and theology from SLU, teaches freshman theology and serves as one of Bishop DuBourg’s campus ministers, organizing retreats, school liturgies, service opportunities and other ways for students to grow in faith. He likes that his two roles allow him to be a resource for students both inside and outside the classroom, he said.
“I get to know almost every student on campus in some way, shape or form,” Neiers said. “And I think that’s a good way to connect with the students and be one of those consistent presences. They know they can come here to talk to Mr. Neiers if they need to talk with someone.”
Naturally, some of the challenges Neiers faced in his first year teaching were due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Bishop DuBourg held in-person classes from the start of the 2020-21 school year, but some students attended virtually, so he had to adapt lessons to work for both in-person and online classes, for example. However, plenty of the challenges were the normal ones any first-year teacher encounters, like trying out different lesson plans and formats and learning to build relationships with students.
Having the support of his fellow Billiken Teacher Corps members and mentors was a huge help throughout his two years, Neiers said.
“We all live together, so you’re with 13 other teachers, and even though they might teach different subjects and different grade levels, they’re all, in one shape or form, going through what you’re going through,” he said. “I might share ‘I struggled with this,’ and someone can say ‘Oh, have you tried this?’ or ‘I did this with my class.’”
He’s now fulfilled his two-year Billiken Teacher Corps commitment, but Neiers plans to return to his position at Bishop DuBourg in the fall. First and foremost: he simply loves his students and the community he’s found at Bishop DuBourg. He wants to continue to pass on the Catholic faith, acting as a role model for his students in the same way that his own teachers did for him.
“I strive to let (my students) know, hey, I was just like you at some point,” Neiers said. “I’m a practicing Catholic but I’m also dealing with all the things you are in today’s world.”
The Billiken Teacher Corps community of support was equally important to Julie Gates, part of the program’s second cohort. She began her assignment teaching first grade at St. Louis Catholic Academy in August 2016 — and never left.
“The Billiken Teacher Corps was life-changing, really,” Gates said. “Really good support people were put in my corner right away.”
Growing up as the daughter of a teacher in Louisville, Kentucky, Gates earned her undergraduate degree from Centerville College in Danville, Kentucky. During her first year in the classroom, she fell in love with her young students’ enthusiasm for learning.
“I love that I can see seeds of growth every day at my job,” Gates said. “It’s never boring.”
Remaining at the same school for several years has allowed Gates to support her former students as they continue growing academically and personally after leaving her classroom.
“You can form those relationships with their families and their parents at such a young age, that I’m like, ‘I’m in your corner now. I was your first-grade teacher, and I want to see you soar,’” she said.
Gates is now working on her doctoral degree in Catholic School Leadership at SLU. Being part of the mission of Catholic education is a driving motivator in her career, she said.
“At St. Louis Catholic Academy, I see the mission of Catholic education playing out every single day,” she said. “It’s the idea that in Catholic education, we’re going out and evangelizing; we want to reach to all people and give them the education they deserve. These students deserve to have a Catholic education, no matter what background they’re coming from.”
>> Interested in the Billiken Teacher Corps?
Billiken Teacher Corps members are recent college graduates who teach full time in elementary, middle and high schools while earning a master of arts in teaching from Saint Louis University. Throughout the two-year program, members are supported in their teaching by a placement school mentor, a university supervisor and an instructional coach. Cohorts live together in an intentional faith community, participating in weekly spirituality nights, periodic retreats and other community- and faith-building events.
Applications for the 2023-24 school year will open in September and close in January 2023. To learn more about the program and apply, visit www.billikenteachercorps.org.