For Rebecca Sieg, it’s not cliché to say that Catholic schools are an extension of family.
“I honestly look forward to spending my day with the students and the faculty. They’re family to me,” said Sieg, principal of St. Francis Xavier School in Gettysburg.
On Wednesday of Catholic Schools Week, her day at the Adams County school extended well beyond the dismissal bell. And while that isn’t out of the norm for teachers and administrators, after-school hours on this day were quite different.
In a show of support and gratitude, the PTO at St. Francis Xavier School hosted a teacher appreciation event on February 2 at Xavier Center, transforming the multi-purpose room into a festive atmosphere with a Mexican-food bar, gift bags, a host of desserts and music.
It was an opportunity for the teachers to unwind, socialize and talk with each other about more than textbooks, lesson plans and Covid protocols.
And it was one of several expressions of appreciation the PTO extended to the faculty during Catholic Schools Week, along with breakfast sweets, lunch and other tokens of gratitude,
“This is one small way we can say thank you to our teachers, and show them how much we appreciate them,” said Heather Sadrowski, vice president of the PTO. “It’s our way of saying, ‘Thank you for being the mothers and fathers and leaders and friends to our children when they’re outside of our homes.’”
In schools across the Diocese, there were similar scenes during Catholic Schools Week, January 30-February 5, as parents, students and administrators found ways to say thank you to their teachers for their efforts in going the extra mile to keep schools clean, safe and open in the face of the pandemic.
Donning a Delone Catholic High School t-shirt that read “To be a team, you must be a family,” Sieg joined her staff for the appreciation dinner, and expressed gratitude for all Catholic school teachers.
“All of our faculty members throughout the Diocese should be commended for what they’ve done to keep our schools open and able to continue in-person education,” she said. “They have always done whatever they felt was necessary to not only allow the kids to be successful academically, but mentally and spiritually healthy as well. These are things that will make our kids better people in the long run. This is what we’re about as Catholic schools.”
‘All Heroes’ at Lourdes
No one’s wearing capes or flying through the halls at Our Lady of Lourdes Regional School in Coal Township, but there’s a certain spirit of heroism at the PreK-12 school, where teachers and administrators are eagerly met by students saying hello, showing off art projects or sharing their latest accomplishments.
The school atmosphere feels as normal and lively as a pre-Covid day: students standing for lunchtime prayers said over the loudspeaker, pre-kindergarteners enjoying Legos and stuffed animals during break time, middle schoolers tossing basketballs in gym class, and senior high Biomed students discussing epidemiology and pathogens in their lab.
The bustle of the school day doesn’t happen on its own. And these days, in addition to the usual lesson planning and coordination of schedules, it requires attentiveness to students learning remotely, adherence to protocols and a willingness to go the extra mile for students and fellow faculty members
This is true not only at Lourdes, but in classrooms, hallways, cafeterias and gymnasiums in all of the Diocese’s 35 schools.
“I think our faculty is wonderful to begin with, but with what they have been called to do through this pandemic, they’re all heroes. They have done everything they can to make things as normal as possible for these kids,” said Sister Mary Anne Bednar, IHM, high school principal at Lourdes. “The first priority is keeping the kids safe in the classroom before they even start teaching.”
“We’re here to educate the whole child, and I think our schools have done a great job of that, especially in these two years. From the start of the pandemic, our teachers were heroic in starting up right away with virtual teaching, [and] we have continued to offer in-person learning. We’ve done our best to keep the doors open,” she said. “The kids want to be here, and they need to be here. They need a sense of rhythm and routine. They need to be playing basketball, enjoying school activities and interacting with their peers. We’ve been blessed in what we’ve been able to do as far as maintain the normalcy of school.”
Sister Mary Anne credits that to the faculty and staff, who have taken on extra responsibilities to ensure the school day hums along as usual for students.
“They became Google certified to teach online. They’re keeping up with the students who are at home and making sure they’re tuned into the classroom, and that’s more than just turning on a computer screen,” she said. “They’re also very good about filling in for each other and stepping up to cover if a teacher is absent to ensure students continue to get the education they need. They have gone way above and beyond, and I’m so grateful for all our faculty.”
Sister Maureen Donati, IHM, elementary school principal, has been on the receiving end of those “extra miles.” When she was out for a period of time to care for her sister who had surgery, Sister Maureen found no shortage of teachers offering to help in her absence.
“I can’t tell you the number of teachers who jumped in to take on the things that I usually organize. They took things and ran with it, like our Book Fair and the bus schedules,” she said. “We are a family here. The amount of prayers and support for one another is just amazing.”
Recognizing that all of the extra miles the teachers are going to can lead to burn-out, it’s critical for principals to be mindful of faculty morale, Sister Maureen said.
“First and most importantly, we keep our doors open to them all the time,” she stressed. “We try to do little extras, like lunch or breakfast, or even just acknowledging the great job they’re doing and showing our appreciation. Saying ‘Thank you’ can be the simplest and yet most important thing.”
“It’s easy to get burned out, and we encourage them to take time for themselves, because someone here will always step in for them. They need to hear that it’s ok to take care of themselves,” Sister Maureen said.
“I love our teachers. They work so hard, and their dedication to our kids is amazing,” she said. “Everything they do is ultimately for the students. Seeing their love and dedication is edifying to me. I’ve always felt that way, but seeing it now these past two years, it’s so much more pronounced.”
Branching Out at Corpus Christi
A Catholic school teacher takes on various roles inside the classroom and out, in-person and remotely. Add the various extra duties of the health and safety protocols concerning the pandemic, and a full plate of tasks and responsibilities can easily spill over.
At Corpus Christi School in Chambersburg, principal Loretta Witkowski said the faculty didn’t raise a white flag when it came to those additional needs. In fact, they branched out to become more involved in education.
“They all step up to take on added duties, which we all know is part of being a Catholic school teacher. But most of our staff has taken on a role on a committee, whether it’s the home and school committee or the athletic association, or the performing arts. They did so not because they were asked to, but because they want to be involved with the students outside of school,” she said.
When off-site field trips were paused, teachers brought outside experiences in from local organizations. Others became STEM certified. One teacher volunteered her summer hours to paint murals, maps, a hopscotch and other recess games on the new playground. And Corpus Christi’s newest teacher dresses in character most days, to help bring history to life.
“The staff here has always brought their lessons to life and gone the extra mile in their classrooms to create a good learning experience for the students. That takes time, planning and resources that, a lot of times, are done on their own,” Witkowski said. “On top of them continuing to provide the same educational experiences to the students, they were doing sanitizing, hand-washing and numerous other things that were added to their plate.”
“They never complained,” she added. “From the get-go, everyone wanted to be here in school. It was just something we got in the habit of doing to make sure our school could continue to be open for students.”
Second-grade teacher Beth Lechleitner received her STEM certification during the course of the pandemic, and currently offers a coding club and Lego STEM club for students – in addition to serving as chair of the social studies department.
“I pushed myself to learn more about using technology such as Zoom and Seesaw to interact with my students,” Lechleitner said. “During 2020 when we were virtual, I offered time to my students just to talk if they wanted, just to keep a connection going with them. I also set up family nights once a week for everyone to get together on Zoom and have some fun doing bingo, show and tell, and a scavenger hunt.”
“Catholic school teachers took on demands from the changes that came about from Covid, put their students first, and did everything they could to keep students learning virtually and in the classroom,” she said. “I found that I could still pray with my students and let them know that I care about them, even when we were virtual early in the pandemic.”
Spiritual and moral support have been critical for teachers, too. Witkowski, a former teacher, said she tried to anticipate concerns about burn-out and morale. Last year, she offered each faculty member a planned day off, and served as substitute in their classes so they could enjoy a three-day weekend.
In addition, the school created a relaxing and tranquil space for teachers, complete with a massage chair, peaceful fountain and phone-charging stations. The room offers them a place to take a break and recharge during the school day.
“Last year, it was hard to be separated from the other teachers in our building,” Lechleitner said of the social-distancing requirements. “We didn’t get to interact much with each other. The teachers did offer support and morale boosts to each other. We tried to share ideas about what was working for us in our classrooms. Also, receiving positive messages from parents had a big impact for me. I am so thankful that things are opening back up and students are starting to be able to enjoy more activities at school again.”
It’s that spirit that has ensured our Catholic schools have remained open for in-person learning, clubs and activities since the fall of 2020.
“No matter how many times I tell them that I appreciate them, they’ll never know how much I truly do,” Witkowski said of the faculty. “The expressions of thanks, appreciation and love they’ve received from our families are well deserved.”
Faculty Like Family in Gettysburg
It’s no secret that teachers step into more roles than what their lesson plans call for. On any given day, they can serve as car-line greeters, lunch and recess moderators, leaders of extra-curricular activities, Eucharistic Ministers for school Masses, coaches and field-trip coordinators.
Covid protocols, simultaneous in-person and remote learners, and staffing shortages have demanded even more from educators since the start of the pandemic.
Catholic school communities say they could never thank the faculty members enough for all they have done and continue to do for the education, health and safety of students.
“The number one thing is the teachers were willing to do whatever was necessary to keep themselves, the students and their families safe and healthy,” said Rebecca Sieg, principal of St. Francis Xavier School in Gettysburg.
“They have gone from being teachers to being nurses, custodians, counselors – things that they weren’t trained for but roles they willingly stepped into,” she said. “They have never questioned me once about anything I have asked them to do. They’ve given up their class prep time to help in another person’s classroom or to cover lunchtime because we don’t have substitutes. They have sacrificed so much.”
“I thank them all the time, but I don’t think they’ll ever fully grasp how much their efforts are appreciated,” said Sieg.
For their part, teachers say they wouldn’t have been able to get through the demanding days without the support of their administration, parents and one another.
“We could not have done all these things without each other, without a supportive faculty. Days when we’re all dragging, we rely on each other for support,” said Jen Fleming, second-grade teacher at St. Francis Xavier.
“It’s like a loving family, getting through things together,” said Sherry Grenchik, who teaches eighth grade, religion and language arts.
In November of 2020, Grenchik contracted Covid. During her absence, fellow teachers stepped in to help take care of her students, and Grenchik herself.
“Our faculty is so close that we have a sense of when help is needed, even if it’s not specifically asked for,” she said. “When I was out with Covid, they were all texting to check up on me. I know I could have called any of them if I needed something. I was texting a fellow faculty member and I said, ‘The only thing I crave is chicken noodle soup from Panera.’ An hour later, the doorbell rang, and there was the soup on my porch.’”
“When one of us is down, we all gather together to lift each other up, whether in our classrooms or in our personal lives,” said Kim Reiner, administrative assistant, who previously taught at St. Francis Xavier. “When faculty members are out, the rest of us jump in to teach. We all just chip in to make it work.”
They also take the lead from their principal.
“She’s amazing,” kindergarten teacher Mandy Willard said of Sieg. “She does a great job keeping it all together, being available to us, offering us time if we needed it. And she works hard too: covering classes, helping at lunch, cleaning the floors, whatever needs to be done.”
“I feel lucky to have been here at this school especially during Covid because these people here are my family. We rally each other,” Willard said.
During Catholic Schools Week, they were grateful for the morale boost given by the PTO, especially the after-school social.
“It’s an opportunity to be together, and enjoy some food and conversation that has nothing to do with what lessons they taught today, what lesson plans they’re doing next, or who can cover them for lunch duty,” said Sieg, who pointed out that the faculty frequently gather after school to socialize. “We are people outside of the classroom, and the gatherings have helped strengthen our bonds. I know who I’m coming to school with. These teachers are my family.”
“Throughout these past two years especially, we’ve put our complete trust in God, that He would provide us with the strength and the patience we needed to get through this. In that, He has brought us closer together as an entire school community,” she said.
PTO members said the teachers’ love for Catholic education and for their students is evident in the things they do day-in and day-out.
“Their love for the students is so evident. You know they truly care for them and their spiritual, mental and physical health. You can see it in many of the little ways, and the daily things,” said Alicia Mentzer, who appreciated the organization and cleanliness she saw first-hand in Willard’s kindergarten class.
“I want to thank the faculty for putting our children first and being responsible for their spiritual, mental and physical growth and development,” Mentzer said. “They do an excellent job in forming our children in a very well-rounded way, and it’s very evident they love each child just as God loves them.”
Jaime Synnamon’s sixth-grade daughter was a remote learner last year because of family health issues. Synnamon said the teachers did everything possible to ensure she was included in all aspects of the classroom.
“The teachers went above and beyond to make her feel like she was still part of things. If there were class parties, they would send home the party treats, and that obviously took planning. If they did a special activity, they worked to include her and made her feel like she was there. We also had some loss in our family, and the teachers constantly checked in on her and asked if she needed to talk,” she said.
“They treat our children as if they were their children. As a parent, I can’t ask for anything more than that,” she added.
(Learn more about Catholic schools in the Diocese at www.gocatholicschools.org.)
(Photos by Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness