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Ireton teacher honored for her leadership in tech, evangelization

First slide

Terri Kelly realized she loved computer science the minute she started coding. Discovering she loved teaching it to high schoolers came decades later. Receiving the National Catholic Education Association’s 2020 Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award affirmed to Kelly, a teacher at Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria, that she’s where she’s meant to be.


“It was very validating and eye-opening because I didn’t know the impact I was having,” said Kelly. “It was God’s way of telling me he wants me to be a teacher, that this is what I was supposed to be doing.”


It all began at her own high school. At the end of Kelly’s freshman year, her Algebra 1 class finished the course work early. “That never happens,” said Kelly. So the teacher let the students write code on the school’s two new computers. “I fell in love with it. Two weeks and I decided right then that that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. “There’s a euphoria you get when you can create something and have it work. I can spend hours working on it and I don’t even realize how much time has gone by.”


She studied computer science at Northeastern University in Boston, then attended graduate school at University of California San Diego. “My master’s work was in neural networks. What we did was the beginning of facial recognition, back in 1989,” said Kelly. She then spent five years serving in the U.S. Army, including six months in Somalia working with the United Nations.


She met her husband, Mark, at Fort Gordon in Georgia, and left the military after having their daughter, Kristie. They also had a son, Kevin. She homeschooled her children for many years and as they got older, she began to teach other children in their homeschooling cooperative. After her son began attending St. Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, Kelly got a job teaching math at St. John Academy in McLean. After two years, a computer science position opened up at Ireton.


Kelly arrived at Ireton around the time the school was making a push to give students more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) opportunities. Since she started in 2015, the school has added classes on topics such as mobile apps and cybersecurity, and renovated the science labs, among other parts of the building. “Technology at BI over the past few years has exploded,” she said. “The Holy Spirit put me there at the right time.”


Extracurricular STEM opportunities have grown, too. HackBI, the annual Ireton “hackathon,” began because Kelly encouraged an Ireton student she previously had taught in the homeschooling co-op to attend a hackathon at a neighboring school. “I sent him and his friends and they came back and said, ‘Mrs. Kelly we have to run one of these.’ They were so excited, and that’s how the hackathon was born,” she said. Kelly also moderates the Coding Club, Girls Who Code and the CyberPatriot team, an Air Force Association program that hosts educational competitions for youths.


Kelly loves the blossoming STEM focus at Ireton, but she also appreciates the chances she has to share her faith. She was reminded of several of those instances after reading the letters submitted to the NCEA for the award. “A student wrote about how they had been struggling and I suggested that we go to Mass once a week together and that had a huge impact on them,” she said. Father Edward J. Bresnahan, former chaplain, wrote about how he walked into one of Kelly’s classes after the school shooting in Florida and saw her lead a class discussion about why God allows these tragedies.


Though she was baptized Catholic, Kelly spent many years away from church. She understands firsthand how it can be difficult to believe in God. “I’m super real with the kids. I don’t shrink back from the questions that I’ve had in the past,” she said. “If they have questions, they need to not be afraid of them. What they need to do is not ignore them. They need to research and read and talk and pray because God is real. I am convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt but if that if you are serious about seeking after him, you will end up in the Catholic Church.”


Kelly also believes that having a strong faith will help the young computer scientists face the complex moral questions that are bound to arise in their future careers. “Tech isn’t going away, and we need ethically responsible, well-formed individuals to make decision about what happens with technology in our country,” she said.


This year, she joined 26 other educators from around the country who received the Lead. Learn. Proclaim. Award, though she was the only one from the Arlington Diocese. She attributes her success to the Ireton community. “It’s not perfect, but there are so many people there that are really amazing. The computer science department is so supportive and the administration — they’ve let me do everything I’ve asked to do,” she said. “I don’t think I’m the only one who deserves this. There are many other teachers at Ireton and throughout the diocese who are out there every day sharing their faith.” 


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2020