By Abby Ng
A classroom full of sixth grade students with bright eyes and open notebooks wait for a prompt from their English teacher as they prepare to write personal essays.
“What social issues do you care about?” Catherine Nelson, College of Education ’14, asks her class at St. Augustine Preparatory Academy on the South Side of Milwaukee.
Hands raise high and students mention climate change and bullying. If Nelson answered the question, she would probably say urban education.
Elizabeth Swarczewski, fifth grade teacher at St. Martini Lutheran School and another College of Education graduate, would likely have the same response.
“It’s easy to generalize and say education is terrible in Milwaukee, but once people actually come and visit [our schools] and see the good that is actually happening, their eyes will be open to more than just that the city is struggling,” Swarczewski said. “In many ways it is and there’s a lot that we can do to make it better, but it starts with each of our schools.”
Nelson’s and Swarczewski’s passions for teaching in central city Milwaukee began at Marquette University when they participated in service learning with the Milwaukee Women’s Center.
“There’s no better place to start your teaching and service experiences than in the city where you go to school,” Swarczewski said.
As volunteers in the childcare center, Nelson and Swarczewski began building relationships with the children, including many that had experienced trauma. It was a moment of realization for Nelson.
“I felt like there was more that I wanted to do with teaching,” she said.
That motivation continued to grow as Nelson and Swarczewski moved into their field placements and started working with the Center for Urban Teaching. After growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, visiting Milwaukee Public Schools was their first exposure to urban education.
“Observing and even helping in those schools really drew me to [urban teaching] because I felt like these were places where students and families really had the need for high quality teachers who love what they do,” Swarczewski said. “Without that I wouldn’t have felt drawn to being in central city Milwaukee.”
Nelson and Swarczewski graduated knowing they wanted to stay in the city, and now, six years later, they have no plans on leaving.
“If I leave, who’s going to [teach]?” Nelson said. “We need consistency, we need people to work together, and there will be change made.”
Although everyday is full of joys and challenges, Swarczewski said there is nowhere else she would rather be.
“My daily work is like going home to my second family,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like a job to me.”
On especially difficult days, Nelson and Swarczewski lean on their faith to keep themselves, their students and the schools’ families strong. Both educators were raised Catholic and knew they wanted to incorporate their religion in their work. In moments of stress, they pray.
“We’re both very dedicated to urban teaching and our kids are coming from situations that I’ve never experienced. I can’t even imagine how else [besides praying] that I would be able to handle certain situations in the best way I can,” Nelson said.
One of the daily challenges of urban teaching can be navigating racial differences, but they have found that being intentional is key.
“Sometimes I wonder how they’re going to take what I’m saying because I might look different or have different experiences, but I do more listening,” Nelson said.
Swarczewski added, “Segregation is not something we can necessarily fix because it’s such a systemic issue, but I can notice that as an issue and say, ‘How am I playing a role in bettering the community, at least the community that I am called to serve in?’”
In the same way Nelson and Swarczewski felt called to teach in Milwaukee, they said they hope more graduates will choose to be educators in the city.
People who have gone through well-known education programs in Wisconsin are uniquely prepared to be teachers, Swarczewski said, and she welcomes them to be part of “a movement toward leveling the playing field and giving high quality educational opportunities to all students no matter what their zip code is.”
Nelson and Swarczewski encourage anyone, not just teachers, to get involved.
“It’s up to the whole city to care about our kids,” Nelson said. “Even if you’re not working at a school, you can still volunteer and give to a school in need. Do something. Kids are the future of Milwaukee.”