Last week, 50 students in the CUW School of Education had the opportunity to learn from experienced alumni “spies” how to overcome some of the “giants” they may face in the “promised land” of the teaching field.

A lot has been written in recent years about a serious teacher shortage in both Wisconsin and the U.S. at large. One reason for this urgent need is that so many new teachers don’t stick with it. They’re caught off guard by some of the challenges they end up facing and don’t see continuing on as worth the reward.

That’s where Concordia’s Joshua-Caleb Project comes in.

In the Old Testament account in Numbers 13, Joshua and Caleb are two of the spies sent into the Promised Land to scout it out before the people of Israel go in and take possession. Most of the spies come back and report that the people now occupying the land—described in some translations as “giants”—are too big and strong to overcome. The situation seems hopeless. Only Joshua and Caleb recognize that it’s God’s power, now their own, that will ultimately overcome the obstacles ahead.

“So what we do with the Joshua-Caleb Project is we bring in the ‘spies,’ as in Numbers 13, but these ‘spies’ have gone out and seen the land, in this case the classroom,” explained Dr. Brad Alles, associate professor of education, who leads the program at CUW. “It is a land flowing with milk and honey—there are really great things going on in schools, both public and Lutheran—but there are some “giants,” some challenges, as well.”

In other words, the spies are CUW alumni who are now teachers in the field—who return to share their wisdom and experience to give confidence to the students about to enter their own promised land.

Land of the giants

Alles explained that there are three main reasons so many teachers leave the field within the first few years.

“One, they feel isolated, and have trouble connecting with their new peers,” he said. “Two, they feel a lack of administrative support. And three, they have trouble with classroom management and controlling the behavior of students. Those are the three biggest ‘giants’ they’re facing.”

To address these issues, the program includes a variety of sessions. Some include all the student participants, while other breakout sessions target specific fields, including early childhood, elementary ed, secondary ed, and special education. Likewise, alumni teachers are chosen to represent each of those fields.

Even though many of the topics are ones students have been learning about for almost four years, there can be a big difference between classroom theory and real-world application. In sharing their own experiences, the teachers tend to walk away feeling refreshed, as well.

“For me, it helps me reflect on my own teaching, and also think back on what actually is beneficial for these students to know,” said Lindsey Frank (’16), a second-grade teacher at First Immanuel Lutheran School in Cedarburg. “Hopefully that inspires them, and it inspires me by being here. I leave feeling reinvigorated for teaching, and a love of it, all over again.”

“I see myself in the students,” added Marcia Milam, a kindergarten teacher at St. John’s Lutheran School in West Bend, “because that’s where I was once. I’ve had a lot of people who have helped me along the way, so I want to be able to give that back and help them be successful as teachers coming up.”

It’s not just classroom wisdom that gets shared. Students can also learn valuable life insights like tips on how to look for an apartment or things to consider when paying your taxes.

“All those kinds of topics are covered throughout the day,” said Dr. Jim Juergensen, associate professor of education at CUW. “It’s a pretty cool event.”

“It was a great experience,” agreed Erin Viergutz (’24), an early childhood and elementary education major who is currently student teaching. “It was great to meet veteran teachers and learn from them.  I feel like CUW has really prepared me, so I’m not too worried about going into the classroom. But I think that once it gets closer I’ll definitely have a little bit more anxiety about that!”

A legacy of faith

The program’s roots reach back nearly 50 years, to 1975 at Concordia University Nebraska. It took shape and became real during the 1980s, and Concordia University Wisconsin got on board in the mid-1990s. Alles has been leading the program at CUW for about eight years, during which time he’s seen some of his Joshua-Caleb students graduate and then come back as spies.

“That’s exactly what we want,” he said. “They were here, they know exactly where students are at, they’re teaching, and now they’re back to help.”

“I’m really looking forward to sharing some of the classroom management techniques that I learned when I was here,” explained Rachel Myers (’18), a seventh-grade teacher at Richfield Middle School who was back for her first time as a spy, “and how I’ve seen them come to fruition and how I see them actually working in the classroom and helping the students that I teach.”

Scott Boris, a preschool teacher at Zion Lutheran School in Menomonee Falls, has an interesting take on why it’s all so valuable.

“I don’t want to die with all my stuff in my head, that doesn’t help anybody!” Boris said. “This wasn’t happening back when I graduated. We were kind of fed to the wolves and learned the hard way! So it’s good to be able to see the questions students are having, and be able to say, ‘Hey, we’re out there doing that.’

“Because if we don’t support these teachers, they might not stay with it.”

Want in?

Concordia University Wisconsin is a Lutheran higher education community committed to helping students develop in mind, body, and spirit for service to Christ in the Church and the world. Our Education programs focus on optimizing your abilities to serve students, schools, and the community through education. We develop well-rounded educational professionals that can teach and lead in rural and urban communities. With a Christian-centered focus, relevant curriculum, and engaging faculty you can play a meaningful role in the world of education.