Naperville Central teacher aims to create awareness of faith traditions

Seth Brady imagines his students putting on a cape.

It's years after they've graduated from Naperville Central High School, and even longer since they took his comparative religions class, and they're putting on a cape.

Brady isn't dreaming, but describing an analogy he presents when students enter the class he teaches on faith traditions across the globe.

"I want you to have this comparative religions cape that, when you see some sort of injustice as a person … you fly in there and you use what you know," Brady said.

"You have an obligation to really do that and not just keep this knowledge to yourself, because people are people. You should not, in the United States, have a situation where you are treated poorly because of your religious background."

Brady, 40, has been named a finalist for Teacher of the Year in Illinois. He wants to use the platform to promote an idea he supports, one that will help extend the idea of a global awareness "cape" to students across the state.

Brady and a group of teachers from Naperville Central and Naperville North high schools are developing an optional Global Scholar Certificate that schools could offer to students who complete several globally focused courses, internationally focused community service and a capstone project.

The certificate would help students form a knowledge base of how to conduct themselves in an international context by reflecting on lessons they learn in world language classes and in subjects such as social studies, environmental sciences and communication.

With global awareness as the core concept, the certificate would recognize students who demonstrate an ability to succeed across cultural and national boundaries.

"I think what the Global Scholar Certificate would do would be to coalesce classes around this common concept, allowing people to make those connections between science, social studies, politics and art, and giving them really a congealed skill set that they can take into another context," Brady said.

As Brady waits to see whether he'll gain recognition during a state board of education banquet Saturday, Oct. 25, he's continuing to push for new ways to increase students' global competence, something he began to gain when he was a sophomore at Prospect High School in Mount Prospect.

"This is something that curriculum-wise, schools already have in place, and this is a benefit to students," Brady said about the coursework that would help students earn the Global Scholar Certificate. "This will create a workforce that has skills that are truly versatile."

Amazed by culture

Growing up in the suburbs, Brady got his first global immersions through wrestling. He traveled as a sophomore in high school to Germany and the area then known as Czechoslovakia to compete in wrestling tournaments, and he found the views of other cultures fascinating.

"I was just completely blown away with this idea of another culture because I think it makes you realize what you take as the standard and normal is just one of many ways to live life," Brady said.

"In addition to finding out about this other group, you also learn a tremendous amount about your own self and your own society."

Energized by the experience, he went on to study philosophy and anthropology at the University of Illinois. Later, he received two master's degrees - one in kinesiology from the University of Illinois and another in social sciences with a focus on religion and anthropology from the University of Chicago.

Soon, he was teaching social studies at Naperville Central High School, and he let administrators know he was interested in teaching some of the more specific electives, such as the ones he leads now: comparative religions, world cultures and an occasional section of cultural anthropology.

Teaching awards

As a teacher, Brady thinks he's more similar to his peers at Naperville Central than he is different. Caring about his students, showing personal interest in the subjects he covers, working hard and dedicating himself to the art of teaching make him fit in with peers in "a great district" like Naperville Unit District 203; but they don't make him stand out, he says.

His students, however, say his passion for explaining religious traditions, promoting cultural acceptance and connecting with each individual do make him a standout.

"He's so passionate. I haven't encountered a teacher in all of high school that has as much passion as he does when he teaches," said Baasma Khan of Naperville, a freshman at Benedictine University, who took Brady's world cultures and comparative religions classes while at Naperville Central.

"He really made us more accepting and more aware of new ideas and more able to understand those new ideas."

When Khan recently met a student whose religious background is Jainism, she said she didn't shrug it off, but put on her "comparative religions cape" to learn more.

"I feel like if I didn't take his course I wouldn't have been that interested. But I found myself interested in how it's related to Hinduism and I related it to my own tradition," Khan said. "He's created this mindset that we should be interested and we should actively be searching for new ideas."

When it came time to nominate staff members for Naperville Central's teacher of the year last year, Kathy Linder, instructional coordinator for the social studies department, threw in Brady's name for one simple reason.

"He's remarkable," Linder said. "Simply remarkable as a teacher and a person."

Brady, a father of three who enjoys reading, sculpting, gardening, home improvement and visiting houses of worship, won the recognition at the school level. He then was named teacher of the year at the district and regional levels to be nominated for the statewide award. He doesn't deny the recognition would be a meaningful honor, but he said he "felt a strong obligation to do something beyond just celebrating that award."

The "something" he's chosen is promoting the idea of a Global Scholar Certificate as a way to set Illinois students apart from those in other states, students with whom the locals will be competing for admissions at colleges and universities, and for jobs in a globalizing workplace.

Global IQ

Brady's Global Scholar Certificate idea began to take shape two years ago when he was awarded a Teachers for Global Classrooms fellowship from the U.S. Department of State.

He studied and prepared for a year before taking a summer trip in 2013 to Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country where the faithful practice a type of Islam that varies significantly from the traditions followed in the Saudi Arabia area, Brady said.

After returning from the three-week trip, Brady met with a group of 90 teachers who received the fellowship to discuss how they could bring their expanded global experiences home to students.

Educators in Wisconsin, he discovered, had created a global education achievement certificate, and he liked the idea of using it as a model for a similar program in Illinois. Back in District 203, teachers at Naperville Central and Naperville North jumped on board and have supported Brady in developing it.

The Global Scholar Certificate would require four years of world language, four other globally focused courses such as comparative religions or world cultures, 20 hours of internationally focused community service and a capstone project or reflection piece on cultural media.

Students who complete requirements for the certificate would have it shown as merit on their high school transcript, and they would gain "global people skills," or a sort of "global IQ," Brady said.

"This global intelligence quotient will allow students to collaborate and to compete on a global scale by knowing the world in which they're interacting," he said. "The difference is really being able to reflect on all those connections that you're making across the curriculum."

  Seth Brady, a comparative religions and world cultures teacher at Naperville Central High School, is one of 12 finalists for Illinois Teacher of the Year. He's hoping the potential recognition can advance an idea he has to create a Global Scholar Certificate to help students make connections between globally relevant skills they build in classes such as foreign language, social studies and art. Scott Sanders/
  Seth Brady, a comparative religions and world cultures teacher at Naperville Central High School, uses metaphors and analogies to explain the eightfold path toward nirvana that is part of the Buddhist religious tradition. Brady wants to create a Global Scholar Certificate to help students connect and build up on internationally focused classes and experiences in high school. Scott Sanders/
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