ACE: Two Catholic School Teachers Who Are Making A Difference

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Today, I’m happy to feature the second in our two part series on the fantastic “ACE” program at the University of Notre Dame. The Alliance for Catholic Education is a true model for service in Christ to others. In this part of our feature, we share our interviews with Maggie Smith and Stacy Wall, two ACE program participants and teachers who are making a difference in our world today.

Q: Please briefly introduce yourself and your family to our readers.

Maggie: My name is Maggie Smith, and I live in South Bend, IN with my family. I grew up in Carmel, IN and attended the University of Dayton for my undergrad degree. My husband Tyler and I met as teachers in the ACE program. We have a lively 9 month old daughter, Kate, who constantly keeps us laughing. I am currently a 4th grade teacher at St. Pius X Catholic school. We are blessed to be a part of a vibrant parish and are surrounded by many ACE friends and their families.

Stacy: My name is Stacy Wall, and I love in Mishawaka with my family. I grew up in Rhode Island, attended Villanova University for my undergrad degree. My husband, Aaron, and I met in the ACE program, where we were both teachers at San Xavier Mission School in Tucson, AZ. Our school was located on the reservation for the Tohono O’odham tribe. In May, we adopted our daughter, Elizabeth, who is now 8 months old. Elizabeth, and the gift of adoption, have been an unbelievable blessings in our lives! I am currently a 4th grade teacher at St. Pius X Catholic School. I have worked at St. Pius for 5 years, and was one of the school’s founding teachers when it opened in 2008.

Q: What inspired you to become a teacher?

Maggie: I have always loved school and learning. I was blessed with many wonderful teachers throughout elementary and high school. I originally thought that I wanted to be a lawyer or work in public policy. I had an internship in college at Dayton’s Fitz Center for Leadership in Community. The university was working on a project with the Dayton area to help get local communities more involved in local elementary schools. I was assigned to be the university’s liaison to an elementary school just outside the our campus. I spent time there several days a week. I got to know the teachers and students. My job was to learn their needs and help connect them to groups at the university that could help them. I fell in love with those students and how dedicated the teachers were. Many of the students had difficult home lives, and face many challenges to their learning. Their teachers were so positive and never gave up. I realized how much of a difference I could make in the lives of kids by becoming a teacher like these ones and the ones I had growing up.

Stacy: I can pinpoint the moment when I wanted to become a teacher to a fall break mission trip during my sophomore year of college. I spent a week in the Bronx, NY, working in a women’s shelter, soup kitchen, and after school program. The students in the after school program had such a profound effect on me, that I returned to school and changed my major the very next week. I was originally declared as a Communication major with the hopes of working in a creative advertising job. Villanova University doesn’t have an education program, so I looked through the list of majors and did a little more research on the Sociology course offerings. I loved every course description and changed my major officially to Sociology, with a minor in Communication. I had hopes of applying to graduate school for education to fulfill my newfound dream of being a teacher.

Q: What attracted you to the ACE program, and what valuable lessons did you take away from your ACE experience?

Maggie: I was made aware of the ACE program through Dayton’s campus ministry office. I began to do some research and found there were several such programs run by Catholic universities across the country. I was interested in the idea of serving in Catholic schools. I attended a Catholic grade school and had many found memories of that experience. I had spent much of high school and college attending and leading retreats and faith sharing groups. I loved the idea of not only getting to teach my students subjects like reading and math, but also getting to share with them about our faith. In addition to working in Catholic schools, I was attracted to living in community. I had come to realize that our faith journey is never one that we travel alone, and knew that if I was going to have the strength to face the daily challenges that come with teaching that I would need people around me with whom I could share the highs and lows.

My ACE experience taught me numerous lessons. It’s hard to think of an aspect of my life that wasn’t somehow transformed by the two years that I spent teaching elementary school in inner-city Washington DC. I learned that God was ultimately in control. Many of my students were well below grade level and had behavioral and emotional problems. I could plan the best lessons, and be a 100% prepared every day, but those plans didn’t matter if they weren’t working for the students. I can remember several occasions when my best laid plans obviously weren’t working, and I had no idea what to do next. The only thing that I could do was pray “Come Holy Spirit” God was always ready to jump in and help, as soon as I would allow Him. This didn’t mean that all of our challenges would disappear, but I would have the strength and patience to keep trying.

Another important aspect of God being in control, was learning to let go of needing to see results immediately. Our ACE house often referenced Oscar Romero’s famous prayer “Prophets of a future not our own” This seemed to fit perfectly with what I faced each day as a teacher. I had to accept that it was my job to work each day with these students to the best of my ability. The end result was up to God. I had to trust that my efforts were just small steps towards His ultimate plan. There are many times when it would have been easy to quit, because the challenges that my students faced were too great for me to solve. When I would remember that it wasn’t my job to solve the problems alone, I would have the peace and confidence to start taking small steps to help my students improve. These are things I have to remind myself of frequently as a teacher, and now as a mother.

Stacy: I will also never forget when I “stumbled” upon the ACE program. It was the summer before my senior year, and I was doing some research on my college’s post-graduate volunteer opportunities webpage. I had never heard of the ACE program, but clicked on the link to learn more about the program. Learning that ACE could provide me the opportunity to become a teacher with a degree from Notre Dame, nonetheless, while being tuition-free?? Never mind that it was a Catholic program that was rooted in community service. It felt like a match made in heaven! Unlike some other teacher-training programs, ACE is also grounded in community. In college, I was a part of many strong, faith-filled community, so the idea that we would be living with fellow teachers was another attractive part of the program. The program provided so much beneficial structure, from intensive summers of classes, well-organized retreat weekends, paired walks and dinners with any of the many support staff, visits to our sites, and academic and spiritual support. All of these components allowed for two years of extreme personal, professional, and spiritual growth.

My experience at San Xavier Mission School changed me as a person; it rocked my view of the world. I feel like I learned more lessons in my two years in Tucson than in my six subsequent years of teaching. I have such a profound appreciation for various cultural differences, particularly for Native American cultures. I continue to weave my experience in Tucson into my 4th grade classroom when I teach about early settlers, or even just to paint a broader picture of life outside of Indiana for my students. The poverty, substance-abuse, and breakdown of the family that I witnessed amongst the families of my 3rd graders was disturbing at times, but also extremely humbling. I am forever grateful for the opportunities I had growing up, that I currently have as a teacher at St. Pius, and that my daughter will have growing up in our community. It was (and continues to be) easy to ask “why them?” I wanted nothing more than to “save” my students from their hardships, but knew that was not my job. I was charged with the responsibility to LOVE them, to PRAY for them, and to TEACH them (and often in that order when my job border-lined on social worker more than teacher). I still look upon my experience in Tucson as a challenge in faith. There would be days when I felt so emotionally exhausted that I did not think I could get out of bed to teach the next day. God provided, and worked through me to carry those kids another day. When I think back on some of the challenges that happened over the two years, I wonder how I made it through as a barely 22-year old grad student. From the first day I stepped foot into a classroom, I felt that teaching was my vocation, that God was truly using me as His instrument to teach His children. It was that sense of purpose and His grace that were most instrument in my “survival/success.”

Q: As a teacher, please describe your role and your goals for your work.

Maggie: I am a fourth grade teacher at St. Pius X Catholic School. I have 29 students and teach all subjects to them. I have a wonderful partner teacher, who was also an ACE teacher. We plan all instruction together for the two fourth grade classes. Teaching is a profession full of goals. We have seemingly endless goals for each subject, and it can be overwhelming at times. As a Catholic school teacher, though, I feel called to work towards more than just those academic goals. Ultimately, my goal is to help my students become the people that God has called them to be. I want them to know how much God loves them, and how much the world needs them to do His work.

Professionally, my goal is to constantly improve. There are always ways in which I can better meet the needs of my students. I am constantly reflecting on my lessons and teaching techniques to try and come up with better help each student improve.

Stacy: I second Maggie’s response– she summed it up perfectly! It’s scary how similar we are! 🙂

Q: What are some of the challenges of being both an educational professional and a mom? How do you balance your work, family and faith commitments?

Maggie: I am quickly learning that there are many challenges to being a working mom. There are never enough hours in the day. I am blessed to have daycare at my school. Being able to have my daughter come to school with me each morning, and visit her during the day is priceless. For most of my life as a teacher, I worked for hours into the evening on schoolwork. I didn’t mind because I love what I do and want to give my students my best. As a mom now, I find myself conflicted in these evening hours. I want to spend time with my daughter, but still want to give my best to my students. I think all working moms have this evening guilt. If I’m doing work for school, I feel like I should be spending more time with my daughter, laundry, dinner etc. If I’m doing housework or playing with my daughter there’s a small voice thinking of all of the things I need to do for school. It’s hard to be 100% focused on either, and so I end up feeling like I’m not doing either my “mom” duties or my “teacher” duties well.

I’m not sure any working mom really has the whole “balance” thing down perfectly, and I am still struggling with that in my first year as a working mother. It has become very clear to me that I can’t “do it all”. Being honest about this has helped me be more selective in the additional responsibilities to which I commit. I also try to be kind to myself. I am going to get behind with grading or have a messy kitchen at times. That has to be ok.

Stacy: This has been an extreme year of growth for me as a working mom. I used to go in at 6:30am and work until 5:30pm, only to put in more hours after dinner. Keeping this pace is obviously impossible as a working mother. We are blessed to have an on-site daycare, so our daughter is lovingly cared for by mothers whose children we teach in school. We drop Elizabeth off at 7am, I visit her daily on my lunch break, and I pick her up at 4pm when day care ends. For a few weeks, I was trying to do work when I would get home from work, attempting to keep up the pace I used to because I honestly didn’t know any other way (old habits die hard!). I was having a particularly difficult time balancing work and home, so I sat down with my principal to get her advice and “blessing” to eliminate some of my over-achieving ways. I’ll never forget what Elaine Holmes, our principal, said: “You took on the role of mother and caring for a precious child, but you never took anything off the plate.” It was that comment that prompted me to rethink the way I structure my mornings and evenings.

I take Elizabeth to day care 2-3 days of the week, and my husband takes her the other days. When it is not my turn to take her, I head into school by 6:30am, just like the “old days.” While I can’t make this happen daily, I find peace of mind knowing that I have 2-3 mornings when I can chip away at the endless to do-list. I have also learned to simply stop trying to work when we get home at 4:15. I have learned to simply be in the moment, enjoy the 3 hours of playtime I have with Elizabeth before she goes to bed. After 7pm, I take care of the house items—cleaning the kitchen, laundry… maybe…. but always preparing Elizabeth’s diaper bag and making lunches for the next day. I have also needed to be okay with not opening my school bag in the evening. There are evenings when I am simply to tired, or that I would much rather watch a funny television show with my husband. While the to-do list doesn’t go away when this happens, I now know that my family and their well-being is always my first priority.

There are many times– basically weekly– when I feel that my faith, family, and school commitments are out of balance. It is only been 8 short months since I’ve have the role of mother, and only 4 months as that of working mother. I try to acknowledge how far I have come since September, remind myself what my goals are for all aspects of my life (that I’m not going to accomplish them overnight), and thank God that tomorrow is a new day. One of the blessings of being a teacher at my school is the focus on family life. My students and their families see me with my family at Sunday Mass. I like to think that if I was feeling torn between grading a stack of papers or spending time with my family, they would encourage me to spend time with my family because family time is mutually important to them.

Q: What advice would you give to a mom, or for that matter anyone, who is considering a career in education?

Maggie: Be ready for a wonderful ride. The world of education is exciting, constantly moving, hilarious and exhausting all at the same time. There will be hours and days when you feel like you’re a total failure, but each day is a brand new beginning.

Stacy: Be patient, flexible, and kind to yourself. It is a gift to be charged such awesome responsibility. The school year is intense, but each day is full of excitement, laughs, and a new adventure. Set your priorities, and stay true to them, especially when that to-do list continues to grow. There will be times when balancing teaching and motherhood seems too much to handle, but know that the daily challenges make you a more compassionate teacher and a more appreciative mother.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give to parents of elementary school students that would help you as a teacher and their students as well?

Maggie: I think that establishing a nightly homework routine can be huge for students. This time could be used completing homework assignments, reading, or playing educational games. Kids love to have constant routines. You’ll be able to get a feel for what your child is doing in school and have some quality bonding time too. I know most households are very busy in the evenings, so make it work for your family. Practicing math facts or having your child read out loud to you in the car between practices and meetings can work just as well. Kids are much more likely to put forth their best effort in school when they know that their parents are interested and connected to what’s going on in their classroom.

Stacy: I second everything that Maggie wrote! I think that making family time, or simply time at home is critical as well. Many students are carted to and from places every afternoon and evening, whether for their own extra-curriculars or those of siblings. I know for myself that quality home time after a long day at school is so important to feel ready for the next day. I think that students need it even more than adults!

Read Part 1 of our feature on the Alliance for Catholic Education

For more information on the ACE Service through Teaching program visit ACE.nd.edu

Copyright 2013 Lisa M. Hendey

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About Author

Lisa M. Hendey is the founder and editor of CatholicMom.com and the bestselling author of the Chime Travelers children's fiction series, The Grace of Yes, The Handbook for Catholic Moms and A Book of Saints for Catholic Moms. As a board member and frequent host on KNXT Catholic Television, Lisa has produced and hosted multiple programs and has appeared on EWTN and CatholicTV. Hendey hosted “Catholic Moments” on Radio Maria and is the technology contributor for EWTN’s SonRise Morning Show. Lisa's articles have appeared in Catholic Digest, National Catholic Register, and Our Sunday Visitor. Hendey travels internationally giving workshops on faith, family, and Catholic technology and communications topics. She was selected as an Elizabeth Egan Journalism Fellow, attended the Vatican Bloggers Meeting, the “Bishops and Bloggers” meeting and has written internationally on the work of Catholic Relief Services and Unbound. Hendey lives with her family in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Visit Lisa at www.LisaHendey.com for information on her speaking schedule or to invite her to visit your group, parish or organization.

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