J.C. Santos guides his eighth-graders to be servant leaders now

  • Written by Jean Parietti
  • Published in NW Stories
Phil Santos with students in his classroom. Photo: Stephen Brashear Phil Santos with students in his classroom. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Upstairs at Our Lady of Guadalupe School in Seattle, you might find J.C. Santos’ eighth-graders in the middle of the “Morality Top 40.”

The students bring in secular songs with themes related to morals or values like compassion, self-respect and servant leadership. After having a listen, the class discusses “how those lyrics teach us about morality within our culture,” Santos said.

It’s one of the ways Santos brings his varied interests into the classroom to engage and challenge eighth-graders as they learn more about themselves, their values and ways to make a difference in their communities now.

“Teaching provides an outlet for all this stuff. I can sing in the middle of class if I feel like doing it,” said Santos, 33, who sings in a group, The Starry Crowns, that plays sacred and secular music.

Now in his 10th year at Our Lady of Guadalupe, Santos says he inspires his students by telling them they’re part of the world “and you have a greater calling to serve it. Our church teaches that you need to be a servant leader, a person who serves, an advocate for the poor.”

And he reminds them that they don’t have to be an adult to change the world.

The big picture

Santos has been pondering the big picture for a long time, at least since the sixth grade.

Nearly every day that year, his journals from religion class at St. Benedict School in Seattle included a reflection question. He said the questions made him ask, “What am I ultimately here for, what’s my purpose and how does that tie into my identity?”

“I feel that made me a real thinker about life,” he said. “It really helped me develop an interest in learning about God and how God interacts in my life.”

J.C. Santos and his familyFamily is important to J.C. Santos, left, shown here with his mom, Liz Santos; dad, Ed Santos; sister-in-law, Aimee Cabrera Santos; and brother, Mario Santos. The photo was taken at Seattle’s Dr. Jose Rizal Park, where J.C.’s late uncle, local artist and professor Val Laigo, constructed a mural titled East is West. Photo: Ed Santos

He spent his youth in Seattle and Edmonds, where church was a big part of life for the Santos family — parents Ed and Liz and sons Mario and J.C. (short for Juan Carlos). “I think a lot of that has to do with being Filipino,” Santos said. His father came to the U.S. from the Philippines and his mother has Filipino roots. Even after moving to Edmonds, the family remained parishioners at St. Benedict Parish.

Santos credits his father with giving him “all the opportunities to experience and learn about the faith,” as well as instilling the desire and responsibility to serve others, stepping up wherever there’s a need.

He has a close connection with his mother — impacted, he believes, by her three life-threatening hospitalizations, the first when he was in fifth grade — that has given him insight on his relationship with God and taught him the importance of human relationships.

“I firmly believe that we experience God in the relationships that we have with other people,” Santos said.

The Santos family remains close. When J.C. moved to Our Lady of Guadalupe’s High Point neighborhood, his parents soon moved nearby, followed by his newly married brother and sister-in-law, who last year welcomed their first child, Miguel.

“We’re all within five minutes of each other,” Santos said. “I see them almost every day, if not to chat, to eat.”

While close to his family, Santos has become more tied to his adopted community. He started a twice-weekly basketball night for school parents that also is open to the neighborhood. And he joined Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, where he has shared his musical talents as a choir member and cantor.

“He is just a remarkable teacher, a remarkable human being and a remarkable parishioner,” said Father Jack Walmesley, Our Lady of Guadalupe’s pastor.

‘Being a seeker of God’

Besides his parents, Santos points to a handful of people who have served as inspiration for the teacher he is today.

At O’Dea High School, religion teacher Tom Schutte got his attention by dressing as Moses and incorporating contemporary music in class.

At Seattle University, professor Jodi Kelly made an impact by coming to her “theology of the person” class with energy and a passion for “being a seeker of God,” Santos said.

Santos earned bachelor’s degrees in journalism and humanities at Seattle U and set out to be a journalist. He was a weekend news assistant at The Seattle Times before being offered a full-time job at Northwest Cable News — for a shift starting at 2 a.m. “That was a deterrent,” Santos said, laughing.

Then Santos had a gut feeling — what about teaching? He enjoyed working with youth and had found volunteer work at schools rewarding. He decided to go all out for it, and earned his master’s degree in teaching at Seattle U.

After teaching his own English lesson during an internship at Shorewood High School, Santos realized, “I really love this, and this is what I want to do for the rest of my life in one way or another.”

J.C. Santos in his classroomJ.C. Santos in his classroom. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Learning with the kids

In the classroom, Santos weaves together his passion for God, music, sports, writing, travel and life.

He is focused on teaching beyond the textbook and the school walls, and looks for unusual ways to teach his classes — sixth-grade religion and social studies; seventh-grade social studies and literature; and eighth-grade religion and language arts.

“I had a fantastic mentor in Kristin,” Santos said of Kristin Dixon, longtime principal at Our Lady of Guadalupe who now is an assistant superintendent in the archdiocesan Office for Catholic Schools.

The result is that Santos is “creative, upbeat and knows how to make learning fun,” said eighth-grader Matthew Morin. “He’s very interactive,” added classmate Dorothy Servin.

Parent Melissa Lane said it’s obvious that Santos is passionate about teaching. “J.C. brings a level of compassion and just general caring about each student,” said Lane, whose daughter, Riley, is a sixth-grader at the school and whose son, Jake, is now a sophomore at O’Dea High School — thanks to the influence of Santos.

Principal Donna Ramos said Santos has a “unique ability to relate to middle-school students. J.C. is such a person of faith, and that comes through in everything he does with the students,” she added.

Religion is one of Santos’ favorite subjects to teach, and he learns along with the kids.

“When they have a challenging question, sometimes it’s something that I’m challenged about, too,” he said. “It’s this moment in the class where I tell them where I’m at with it and that I’m still working to seek truth in that matter. Because that’s really what faith is.”

When Santos became the eighth-grade teacher five years ago (after five years of teaching seventh grade), it meant taking the reins of the Juan Diego Project. The yearlong, individual project combines study, reflection and service, focusing on an issue the eighth-grader cares deeply about, such as homelessness or restoration of the nearby Duwamish River.

The project has become Santos’ “baby,” reinvigorating what he does as a teacher. “I feel like every year I’ve grown so much,” Santos said. “The kids have been extremely inspiring to me, to see what they’re capable of.”

Leading up to high school, the eighth-grade year is an important one, so Santos helps his students explore their identities and values. “You have to understand who you are if you’re going to have a sense of how you’re going to make an impact in the world,” he explained.

He talks about how their decisions impact their relationships with God and others, as well as their legacy. “It gives them a bigger scope, the meaning of their life,” he said.

At the core is the Christian call to service. Whether they one day become social workers, bio-engineers, Fortune 500 leaders, doctors or teachers, he tells them, “I never want you to forget that in some facet of your life, you need to contribute to the betterment of your community, or your society. That’s what we’re here for.”

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Northwest Catholic - January/February 2015