In the Classroom or on the Court, a Focused Passion for Teaching

February 20, 2011
In the Classroom or on the Court, a Focused Passion for Teaching
Sam Potolicchio

It may be at Georgetown University or at the Library of Congress. It may be at a day school in Bethesda, Maryland, or on a basketball court in Washington, D.C. But there is a good chance that, at a given point during a day, Sam Potolicchio is teaching.

A doctoral candidate in American government at Georgetown, Potolicchio, MTS '06 and graduate of HDS's Program in Religious Studies and Education (PRSE), is an assistant visiting professor at Georgetown's School of Continuing Studies' Semester in Washington program, where he teaches courses to undergraduate students from around the world who spend a semester in Washington as interns while also studying at the school.

Potolicchio also serves as a lecturer on American federalism and electoral politics for the Open World Forum, teaches Latin to fifth-graders, and coaches a youth basketball team. Recently, his teaching and efforts to bring different groups together was recognized by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), who honored him as one of eight recipients of the 2011 K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award, in a ceremony at the AACU's annual conference, held in San Francisco.

The award recognizes doctoral level graduate students who "show exemplary promise as future leaders of higher education; who demonstrate a commitment to developing academic and civic responsibility in themselves and others; and whose work reflects a strong emphasis on teaching and learning," according to the AACU's website.

It was while he was a freshman at Georgetown that Potolicchio in effect began his teaching career—as a youth basketball coach in Washington. For seven years his youth team, the "Hoyas," played out of the Jelleff Boys and Girls Club in Washington. This is the first year they are playing not in a league, but rather, against varsity sports teams. The team is simply too good; since Potolicchio took the helm of the squad, they have had six undefeated championship seasons.

"It started as a social experiment," he explained. "I put five kids from inner-city D.C. and five kids from a prep school together just to get them working together, because they never see each other in the course of a day."

His ultimate goal with this team, he said, was to get groups of kids together who do not normally interact, and he thought basketball was an effective, engaging way to do that.

"I didn't play varsity basketball in high school—I was a ski racer—but I just fell in love with that moment when kids have a breakthrough, and they really start to improve and become more confident," he explained.

Before coming to HDS, Potolicchio was thinking about becoming a Catholic priest, having gone through the Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults in college. At the same time, he was also interested in public service.

"Priests cannot run for elected office, but I wanted to study the intersection of theology and politics, because I thought at the time the rhetoric about religion and politics was just overblown," he said. "I wanted to get a better understanding of it, so Harvard was the perfect place to go, because I could study government and religion, and I could work in this special program at HDS in religion and secondary education."

Though he had no classroom teaching experience upon entering the PRSE, Potolicchio was able to lean on his experience as a coach in order to ease the transition. Ultimately, it was during the classes he taught and the training he received through the PRSE that he honed his passion for academic instruction in addition to his fervor for the Xs and Os of coaching.

"The PRSE was the best experience of my life, because that is where I recognized my talent for teaching," he said. "I also had a perfect model in Diane Moore. Her energy and her inspiring example were incredible, and it was also great to be surrounded by other students who were passionate about teaching."

As part of the PRSE—which is temporarily suspended, pending new permanent funding—Potolicchio taught at Belmont High School. It involved one semester of watching a teacher in the classroom and another semester of teaching.

"Sam's enthusiasm for teaching and learning was readily apparent when he came to HDS and only grew stronger throughout his years in the PRSE," said Diane Moore, director of the PRSE and Professor of the Practice in Religious Studies and Education. "It was a pleasure and privilege to watch him hone his tremendous gifts as an educator."

Since leaving HDS and returning to Georgetown, Potolicchio was selected by the Library of Congress to be its lecturer on American federalism and electoral politics for the Open World Forum, where he speaks to post-Soviet Republic dignitaries and to politicians and educators. In mid-December, he returned from an eight-country lecture tour where he lectured to universities all over the former Yugoslavia of his former students.

When I spoke with him, he had just finished teaching at Georgetown and was on his way to his high school alma mater, the Landon School, located in Bethesda, Maryland, to teach Latin to fifth graders. Later in the evening, he would coach his basketball team.

"I think to be a good teacher, you have to be involved in a whole host of different teaching arenas," he explained. "Presenting how to conjugate certain words in Latin also helps me teach the United States political system to a group of post-Soviet Republic dignitaries. It is not just teaching different subjects, it is also teaching different people, different ages, different situations, and it has made me a much better teacher. There is a different type of energy that the fifth graders have than the students have at Georgetown, and each type of energy has its own type of beauty."

—by Jonathan Beasley