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Diocesan teachers bring zeal and creative learning approaches to welcome students back

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Talking out of turn too much can cost you in the fifth grade at St. Thomas More Cathedral School in Arlington. Literally. Repeat violators are issued fines by classroom police officers, leaving the offenders with less money to spend when it’s time to shop.

It’s all part of the "classroom economy" teacher Malia Busekrus will set in motion again this year to give her charges a taste of the real world. From tech monitor to banker to horticulturist, the students all have jobs that yield a sense of accomplishment as well as twice-monthly paychecks used to pay bills such as classroom fees and fatten their wallets. The sweetest fruit of their labor is reaped at quarterly auctions where students use the fictional currency to bid on a bevy of real prizes donated by classroom parents.

"I’m a huge proponent of freedom and fun in the classroom," she said.

Sparking joy in the classroom is a passion project for administrators and teachers across the diocese.

"It's all about the kids," said Jeannie Wright, a first-grade teacher at St. Joseph School in Herndon. "They come into school each day bringing such joy and positive energy."

Discovering an ant in the classroom once instantly produced 30 budding entomologists, she recalled. Before she could whisk it out of the room, she was peppered with student suggestions on its proper care and feeding. "They are amazing little humans. They see ordinary day-to-day things as small miracles."

Not that she’s one to leave the students’ inspiration to nature alone. She’ll don a queen’s cape and crown when the lesson is "Qu" words or sport a pirate’s patch and trademark "AARRGH, Matey!" to teach about r-controlled vowels. Shrieks of laughter fill her classroom when, instead of writing on loose leaf paper, students practice directly on their desks using special EXPO markers — all while receiving the same instruction.

Learning approaches vary from student to student, yet it’s a challenge that diocesan teachers find they can overcome. 

"God has given each student a special way to learn and it is my job to help them learn in their way," said Kayla Miller, kindergarten teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Vienna. "By first acknowledging that everyone learns differently, you can take the first step toward teaching each student in the best possible way."

Miller said different combinations of group work, learning centers and one-on-one work can help match course material with learning styles. At St. Thomas More, faculty members from adjacent grades meet and review what accommodations may be necessary for incoming students, Busekrus said. "We start our year already knowing that."

"Checklists are helpful," she added. "They always know what’s next. When they finish a test, they go on to the checklist."

For Sara James, language arts and literature teacher at St. Thomas More, the key is to build relationships with students and give them choices in their learning, allowing them to be creative, and displaying their completed work efforts. "I praise them during the process of learning and encourage them to keep trying when they experience difficulty in learning concepts."

"In my English classes, I try to check in frequently with my students so that I can challenge those who are ready to move on or provide continued review for those who need it," said Jeanne Nickles, a seventh and eighth-grade teacher at St. Joseph School in Herndon. "Through extension activities and quick writing conferences, I can keep the students who have mastered the concepts we are learning engaged and challenged."

Teachers said the common goal of instructing students about the Catholic faith is among the most fulfilling aspects of their work. Some even consider it a vocation — their calling from God.

"I can't imagine teaching anywhere else," Wright said. "I get to pray with them, silently in the quiet of our hearts, or singing praise at the top of our lungs. I get to teach them that using God's gifts bestowed upon them is giving glory to God."

From the school-wide morning prayer until dismissal, their classrooms are rooted in the faith.

"The kids love learning about our faith, which is one of the things that I love about teaching," Miller said.

"Especially during the teenage years, I think our students need to see Christ’s forgiveness modeled every day in the classroom," said Nickles. "When we make mistakes, we acknowledge them and ask for forgiveness." 

"It’s not just a religion textbook. It’s the way we speak to one another and the way we relate to each other," Busekrus added.

While the COVID-19 pandemic presents countless challenges, teachers appreciate the blessings it also produced.

Busekrus remembers telling her students, "We’re all we have this year. You will have to learn to love one another in the classroom.

"Learning how to struggle together was good for all of us," she said.

"I realized that my students don’t need me to be a perfect English teacher," said Nickles. "Instead, I need to help them find much-needed moments of joy in their day. I am now focused more on finding moments to laugh and connect with my students." 

And, like nothing else could have, teachers said the pandemic reinforced the value of in-person learning. 

Yvette Luketic, science teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel School in Vienna, is particularly excited to again fully utilize its well-equipped lab, since previously some equipment was inaccessible and a number of students could observe only from their computer screens at home. Growing up, she attended the school, and her five children are grads or students there.

Last year she improvised lessons, such as studying the complex, once-in-a-generation cicadas of Brood X. "By seeing the beauty and intricacy of its lifecycle, we see the wonder our creator has made."  

"My ultimate goal is to teach my students to appreciate the beauty in God’s creation and the intricate relationships between living things," she said, adding that she enjoys the opportunity "to show that science and religion are not in opposition to each other."

"It is clear to me that in-person education is essential," Nickels said. "Proximity fuels learning." 

Schweers can be reached at editorial@catholicherald.com.

Finding inspiration

From educational thought leaders to Scripture, Diocesan teachers said they gain motivation from the written word.

“In a world where you can be anything, be like Jesus.”
-First-grade classroom sign, Our Lady of Good Counsel, Vienna.

“The whole point of Catholic education is to communicate Christ.”
- Sr. Mary Madeline Todd

“Relationships before rigor. Grace before grades. Patience before programs. Love before lessons.”
-Dr. Brad Johnson

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
-Philippians 4:13

“Do your best and God will do the rest.”
-Motto, teacher Sara James of St. Thomas More School

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021