February 20, 2009

'Anything God wants me to do': Teachers’ heroics show how Saint Theodora winners affect children’s lives and faith

Eight teachers, Suzi Abell, Marsha Austin, Kathryn Jacobi, Sandi Kirchner, Donna Lathrop, Connie Schmidt, Jacque Singleton and Jackie Swihart, from across the archdiocese were recently recognized as winners of the Saint Theodora Excellence in Education Award. Above, Sandi Kirchner of St. Mary School in North Vernon teaches her third-grade students. On the day before she received her award, she stopped a car that veered out-of-control near the school. (Submitted photo)

Eight teachers, Suzi Abell, Marsha Austin, Kathryn Jacobi, Sandi Kirchner, Donna Lathrop, Connie Schmidt, Jacque Singleton and Jackie Swihart, from across the archdiocese were recently recognized as winners of the Saint Theodora Excellence in Education Award. Above, Sandi Kirchner of St. Mary School in North Vernon teaches her third-grade students. On the day before she received her award, she stopped a car that veered out-of-control near the school. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Sandi Kirchner sensed the danger immediately.

As the veteran teacher helped to monitor the after-school pick-up line of cars outside St. Mary School in North Vernon on Feb. 10, she saw a car veering out of control, heading toward the spot where a boy in the first grade was talking to her about his grandparents’ dog.

Seeing the car’s driver slumped over the wheel and a little girl inside the car, Kirchner pushed the boy to safety. She also pushed every other thought from her mind, including the thrill of knowing that in less than 24 hours she was scheduled to receive one of her greatest honors as a teacher—an award that was being given to just eight teachers in the archdiocese for the 2008-09 school year.

As the car bounced off the curb in front of Kirchner, it ricocheted toward the center of a busy street. Kirchner ran toward the car, opened the front passenger door, jumped inside the car and stretched her left foot toward the brake—stopping the car without anyone getting hurt.

“I don’t know how I got the car stopped. It was the grace of God,” Kirchner said the next day at a luncheon in Indianapolis where she was honored as one of the Saint Theodora Excellence in Education Award winners.

“The woman who was driving the car had a seizure. Some of my co-workers came, we got the little girl out, and we called 911 and they took over. I stood there thinking how precious life is, and how quickly it can change.”

The blessing is that no one was hurt. Even the driver of the car “is back home and doing fine,” said the school’s principal, Franciscan Sister Joanita Koors.

“It’s one of those grace moments when you felt God and the angels were there,” the principal said. “Sandi immediately knew what to do. She’s one of those teachers who always seem to know what to do in the spur of the moment.”

Asked if being a hero is in her job description, the teacher of 25 years replied with a smile, “Anything God wants me to do.”

That attitude reflects Kirchner and the seven other teachers who were recognized for their dedication to their students and to Catholic education.

While helping to physically save lives isn’t a usual concern for Catholic school teachers, helping to shape children’s lives and their faith is. And the eight teachers who were honored at a luncheon hosted by Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein excel in that commitment.

The mission of Catholic schools “is to provide our children with a top-notch academic education and to fill them with the hope that will always keep them open to God’s will for them,” the archbishop noted in saluting the award winners.

Here is a snapshot look at each of the eight honored teachers:

Suzi Abell, art teacher at St. Joan of Arc School in Indianapolis

Suzi AbellAsk Suzi Abell to name her main influence in becoming a teacher and she mentions her mother: “As I was growing up, I constantly saw how she transformed the lives of so many of her learners. I knew I wanted to be just like her and to give back for the gifts that I had been given in my education.”

At St. Joan of Arc School, Abell teaches art, serves as director of curriculum and leads development efforts, including the annual “Growing with the Arts” event—an event where students’ art creations have been sold to raise funds for the art program, band instruments and a new playground.

“My goal is not for all of my students to grow up and be artists, but it is for them to grow up and be successful [with] the gifts God has given them,” Abell says. “It is our responsibility to help them find and acknowledge those gifts.”


Marsha Austin, a second-grade teacher at St. Pius X School in Indianapolis

Marsha AustinA parent who nominated Marsha Austin for the Saint Theodora Award wrote, “As Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me.’ Marsha brings our children to Jesus by her love of Christ, her faith, her gentleness and her strength. She considers each of her students to be a little bit of heaven on earth.”

In her 17th year as a Catholic school teacher, Austin is also known as a leader in using technology in her classroom and helping other teachers use technology to assist their students.

“I try very hard to create an environment where the children are excited about learning within a safe classroom,” Austin notes. “I want my students to walk into my room with an eagerness and respect for learning and each other. Once I capture their energy, I try to offer the children an array of teaching approaches. By offering many different opportunities, I try to give every child what they need to succeed.”


Kathryn Jacobi, English teacher at Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School in Clarksville

Kathryn JacobiKathryn Jacobi isn’t shy about challenging her students. When she was asked what advice she would give to new teachers, Jacobi answered that they should not underestimate their students.

“They will perform to your highest expectations,” says Jacobi, who has taught at Our Lady of Providence since 1991.

The veteran teacher also advises, “Don’t expect accolades from adolescents. But that’s not why you’re doing this anyway. You may never know the full scope of your influence. All you can do is hope that you’ve made a difference to someone at some time.”

Jacobi tries to make a difference through the works of literature she chooses for her students to read.

“I can bring in ideas such as empathy, social justice, fairness and any other value that reflects the kind of life Christ wants us to live.”


Sandi Kirchner, third-grade teacher at St. Mary School in North Vernon

Sandi KirchnerAfter she stopped the car that veered out of control near the school, Sandi Kirchner was told by one admirer that she should add “superhero” to her resume.

Kirchner downplayed the compliment, yet a look at her 25-year career at St. Mary School and Parish shows there’s not much she hasn’t done to serve students and the Church: teacher, volleyball coach, extraordinary minister of holy Communion, parish festival chairperson, member of St. Vincent de Paul Society, kickball tournament chairperson and bingo volunteer.

And that’s just a partial list.

Still, she believes her greatest strength is as a teacher who gets to develop the faith of her students. Each week, she has her students write in their “Dear God” journals—“addressing their thoughts to God on a given subject.”

“I get to be part of my students’ faith lives,” she says. “I get to be their teacher when they learn about how God loves them. I am so lucky.”


Donna Lathrop, master teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Indianapolis

Donna LathropEvery teacher develops an approach that defines the way they teach and treat students. In nearly 30 years of teaching in Catholic schools, Donna Lathrop has chosen an approach toward students that begins with a simple goal: love.

“Love them,” she says. “When you care about someone, you want what is best for them. So it is with teachers and students. Those teachers who care will do whatever it takes to see their students succeed. Each one of us is a special gift from God with different needs—physically, mentally and spiritually. In my role as an educator, I must recognize those differences, and match instruction and practice to student needs for each child to be successful.”

Lathrop uses a similar approach in mentoring younger teachers, says Cara Swinefurth, the principal of Our Lady of Lourdes School.

Swinefurth says “Donna does not push from the back, but rather walks with a person with her arm around her shoulder.”


Connie Schmidt, middle school language arts teacher at St. Barnabas School in Indianapolis

Connie SchmidtConnie Schmidt calls her students “sugarplums.”

The veteran teacher of 32 years also calls upon such historical figures as Anne Frank and Rosa Parks to make an impact on her students.

“My main focus is for my students to become kinder and more empathetic Christians,” she says. “I use literature to let them walk in others’ shoes. In my Holocaust and civil rights units, my students learn the positive power of being an ‘upstander’ who takes action to help, and the negative impact of being a ‘bystander’ who does nothing.”

Of the eight award winners, Schmidt was chosen to represent the archdiocese at the National Catholic Educational Association’s annual convention in Anaheim, Calif., on April 14-16. She is thrilled to make the trip, but she is most proud of the journeys that take place in her classroom.

“God is in all that is said, done and learned in Room 104,” she says.


Jacque Singleton, first-grade teacher at St. Anthony of Padua School in Clarksville

Jacque SingletonOne of the nice connections among this year’s award winners is that one of the honored teachers is a former student of another award winner.

Jacque Singleton is a graduate of Our Lady of Providence Jr./Sr. High School, where Kathryn Jacobi was one of her English teachers.

“I am honored and humbled that I would even be considered for the same award as Mrs. Jacobi,” Singleton says.

Still, the person who most influenced her in becoming a teacher is her mother.

“She has always been a ready resource when I need advice, and she volunteers in my classroom now that she has retired,” Singleton says. “I can only hope to earn as much respect and touch as many lives in my career as she has in hers.”

She is already leaving her mark, says the principal of St. Anthony School.

“It makes me proud to know that she is a product of the Catholic schools and that she returned to teach at her school,” says Sheila Noon, the principal.


Jackie Swihart, art teacher at St. Malachy School in Brownsburg

Jackie SwihartWhen students enter her art class, Jackie Swihart wants them to be open to possibilities.

“I approach each class with the idea that students will awaken to a love of art, themselves and God,” she says. “I want my students to use the talents that God has given them to the fullest.”

Her ability to connect with children of different abilities is one of her gifts, says a St. Malachy parent who nominated Swihart for the teacher award.

“I have one son who is not a stellar art student and one who thrived in an environment of hands-on artistic expression,” Wendy Becher notes. “Jackie took both under her wing, supporting their God-given abilities and expecting their personal best, not only as art students but as young Catholic gentlemen.”

Swihart acknowledges her own gift from God and how she tries to use it.

“I am an artist but, more importantly, I am a teacher. Not just any teacher, but a Catholic school teacher.” †

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