April 25, 2014

‘I want my students to get to heaven’

Teacher’s emphasis on ‘modeling’ leads to archdiocese’s highest honor for educator

Matt Hollowell’s focus on connecting the Catholic faith to the classes he teaches and the groups he leads is one of the reasons the math and physics teacher at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis was chosen as this year’s Saint Theodora Guérin Excellence in Education Award recipient. Here he poses with one of the groups he leads—members of the school’s A Promise to Keep group. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Matt Hollowell’s focus on connecting the Catholic faith to the classes he teaches and the groups he leads is one of the reasons the math and physics teacher at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis was chosen as this year’s Saint Theodora Guérin Excellence in Education Award recipient. Here he poses with one of the groups he leads—members of the school’s A Promise to Keep group. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: Three members of the archdiocese have been honored with prestigious awards in Catholic education. Msgr. Paul Koetter of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis has received the 2014 Distinguished Pastor Award from the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA), while Lisa Vogel of St. Mary School in North Vernon has received the 2014 Distinguished Teacher Award. Matt Hollowell of Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis has received the Saint Theodora Excellence in Education Award, the highest honor for a Catholic educator in the archdiocese.)
 

By John Shaughnessy

Matt Hollowell stood in front of his first period classroom, struggling to find the words to help his students—and himself—deal with the heartbreak of one of the most shocking mass killings at a school in the United States.

Less than 24 hours earlier, a lone gunman walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012, and killed 20 students and six adult staff members before shooting himself.

As a math and physics teacher at Cardinal Ritter Jr./Sr. High School in Indianapolis, Hollowell always starts his classes with some kind of prayer, but he felt at a loss of what to say or pray that morning until, he believes, God provided the words for him.

“I told my students that as sad as the events were that took place just the day before, the thing that comforts me is that the battle between good and evil had already been fought and won 2,000 years ago when Jesus allowed himself to be crucified,” Hollowell recalls.

“From that moment on, there will never be any doubt that good is the ultimate victor. I then concluded my brief reflection by reading one of the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus.”

From that heartbreaking day came one of the most rewarding teaching experiences for Hollowell—this year’s recipient of the Saint Theodora Guérin Excellence in Education Award, the highest honor for a Catholic educator in the archdiocese. (Related: Finalists for teaching honor come from throughout the archdiocese)

“Five months later, on the last day of school, I came back in my room, once all the students had left for home, to find a card sitting on my desk,” he says.

“Upon opening the card, I read an extremely thoughtful thank-you note from a student who was in that first period class. The student concluded her note by writing, ‘I will never forget the lesson you taught us by saying that evil was defeated by good over 2,000 years ago when Jesus died on the cross. Thank you for sharing that with us. It made everything so much better for me that day.’ ”

‘God was calling me to do more’

That ever-present desire to connect faith to his classes and the lives of his students has become a trademark of Hollowell’s teaching.

That emphasis is on display in the only two posters that the 33-year-old Hollowell features in his classroom. One showcases an image of Albert Einstein and this saying from the famous scientist: “I want to know God’s thoughts. The rest are details.”

The other poster, right near the classroom door, shows a picture of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and this quote from her: “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.”

“You have the most brilliant physicist to walk on the Earth and the most holy person in my lifetime, and both of them are pointing to God,” Hollowell says. “Faith and science are not in conflict with each other. They are harmonious. That’s the way the Catholic Church looks at it.”

While his favorite part of teaching is starting each class in prayer, Hollowell says his approach extends beyond offering a “Hail Mary” or an “Our Father.”

“I slowly began to realize that I had a great opportunity to evangelize and that perhaps God was calling me to do more. After nine years of teaching, my classroom prayer routine has evolved into a short reflection on a Catholic topic that is either relevant in the news or something that I feel would be appropriate for the day.”

In his physics class, he views the topic of “Galileo versus the Catholic Church” as a great way to look at science and religion.

When he teaches about ellipses in his pre-calculus class, he shows his students the architecture of St. Peter’s Square—which is actually an ellipse, he says. He also uses that math lesson as an opportunity to let his students know this Vatican City site is “the epicenter of Catholicism since St. Peter is buried below the altar in the basilica.”

“We have a lot of students who aren’t Catholic,” Hollowell says, sharing one reason for his approach. “That can be a moment of great teaching and great evangelization for those students.”

Lighting the fire

Hollowell’s ability as a teacher also shines in terms of academic success.

After the 2011-12 school year, he noticed that the algebra end-of-course assessment scores for the school’s eighth-grade students were at a “pass rate” of 33 percent and a “pass-plus rate” of 6 percent.

So he took over the class and changed the curriculum for the 2012-13 school year—a year in which the “pass rate” soared to 100 percent and the “pass-plus rate” dramatically improved to 59 percent.

“The level of dedication to his job is unbelievable,” wrote Jo Hoy, principal of Cardinal Ritter, in nominating Hollowell for the Saint Theodora Excellence in Education Award.

“Matt understands that success comes from practice. He incorporates so many best practices, from games to groups to oral presentations. He provides a myriad of opportunities for students to experience success. We need teachers who want to light the fire educationally in our youth.”

Colleagues also see the difference he makes to students outside the classroom.

“As head of our Pro-Life Club, he organizes prayer services and 40 Days for Life events,” notes Andrew Cain, another math teacher at Cardinal Ritter.

“Every year, Matt spends a week away from his family to help our seniors grow spiritually and personally on the Christian Awakening Retreat. He has traveled with our students to Colorado for Summer Field Studies, to Mississippi on a service trip after Hurricane Katrina, and to Washington for the March for Life.”

‘Absolutely in love with what I do’

Hollowell views all those efforts as part of the most important strategy of teaching at any level—modeling.

He saw that approach used by his parents, Joe and Diane Hollowell, with their 11 children. He and his wife, Kari, also use that approach with their two small children (they are expecting a third child in June.) And Hollowell makes modeling his focus as an educator.

“Quality Catholic education is made up of teachers and faculty members who at all times are modeling for our students,” says Hollowell, a member of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Beech Grove.

He wants to teach his students respect for others, so he models that quality in his classroom. He wants his students to actively participate in school Masses, so he sings and responds to the prayers of the Mass. He wants his students to have a relationship with the Blessed Mother, so he talks about the mysteries of the rosary in his classes.

“Most importantly, I want my students to get to heaven, so I model my own quest for heaven by taking part in the sacrament of reconciliation when it’s offered at school,” he says. “God himself used modeling over 2,000 years ago when he sent Jesus to us as a model for how to live, pray and suffer. A quality Catholic education should provide students with daily opportunities to encounter the perfect model of human life.”

While he focuses on presenting Christ as the perfect model of human life, Hollowell shares with his students that he is far from perfect, including in his faith.

“I have no problem sharing my struggles with them, and to tie it into what the Church is teaching.”

In teaching, Hollowell has found his calling.

“I’m walking proof of what it means to have a vocation. To be nine years in this profession and to be absolutely in love with what I do, it’s my vocation for sure. This is what God wants me to do.” †

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