May 25, 2018

The defining equation of a math teacher’s life: making a difference

The smiles shared by Bishop Chatard High School senior Kevin McNelis and math teacher Ruth Roell reflect the connections she has made with students in her 43 years of teaching at the archdiocesan high school for the Indianapolis North Deanery. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

The smiles shared by Bishop Chatard High School senior Kevin McNelis and math teacher Ruth Roell reflect the connections she has made with students in her 43 years of teaching at the archdiocesan high school for the Indianapolis North Deanery. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

It’s a challenge designed to make you think of someone who has made a major difference in your life—and then to thank that person in a letter.

That challenge was presented to the seniors on the boys basketball team at Bishop Chatard High School in Indianapolis, seniors who were asked to write a thank you to the teacher who has most influenced them.

For Kevin McNelis, it may have been his easiest choice in a senior year filled with decisions. He immediately focused on Ruth Roell, who has been teaching math for 43 years at the archdiocesan high school for the Indianapolis North Deanery.

“She had such an impact on me in such a short time,” Kevin says about Roell, his honors pre-calculus teacher who is retiring. “Part of being a teacher is being able to teach the subject, and part is the relationships. She knew how to teach all different kids, plus she took the time to know each student personally. We became good friends.”

Now consider this insight from Deacon Rick Wagner, Bishop Chatard’s vice president for mission and ministry, who has known Roell in a range of roles through the years: as a student, as a fellow teacher, as the parent of two of her students, as her principal, as a friend.

“No matter what role I’ve known her in, she’s a loving, caring individual who is always focused on the student,” Deacon Wagner says. “She’s here before school helping a student, and after school with a student. And when I go on retreats, I hear what students say about her, and how important she is to them. She has an incredible faith, and she’s so grounded in what God has called her to do.”

Such comments would bring tears to Roell’s eyes if she heard them, especially since she is already emotional thinking about leaving the only place she has taught in her 43-year career.

Her tears begin to flow when she is asked about the best part of teaching in the same Catholic school for so long.

“It’s the community, all the wonderful people—students, parents, families, co-workers. It’s a supportive community and a faith community, and it makes you realize how important it is to live out your faith and be there for people. Equally important is all the times I saw students develop their confidence in their math skills. When the light bulb goes on, that’s the best part.”

For her, teaching math has always been part of the equation of making sense of the world, of making a difference in people’s lives.

“One of the things I value in life is the security of knowing there is an answer. I love the patterns of seeing how things come together.”

For 43 years, her life patterns have been tied to a Catholic school, including the pattern of her family. It’s where she shared the high school experience with her three children, Jeanette, Kathy and Alex. It’s where one of her favorite moments unfolded when her husband Alan and their children surprised her with a birthday cake when she turned 50.

“The cake was in blue and white [Chatard’s colors], and the icing was a trigonometric problem that worked out to 50. It was my favorite birthday cake ever.”

The patterns of her life also lead to her favorite quote, from the Book of Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all ways, acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prv 3:5-6).

“I’ve learned I don’t know everything,” Roell says. “So I need to trust in the one who does know everything and who does know human nature. I need to trust in him.”

She’s also felt the need to share her faith with students during their spiritual retreats.

“I would tell them about times in my life when God was present, and how Christ can be a light in their world—how they could depend on him.

“The other way I’ve tried to show it is the way I live. I try to be supportive and encouraging of the kids. I try to live in a Christian way. I try to live in the most peaceful way I can.”

Another key pattern of her life is reflected in the poster at the front of her classroom, the one with the message, “Life is all about making mistakes and learning from them.”

“Some students won’t try because they’re afraid of failing,” she says. “In math especially, you have to fail a lot before you discover what is right.”

Roell discovered long ago that one of her favorite parts about teaching is that “you can grow and adapt along the way and help the students do that, too.”

She also discovered the two goals she had for teaching her students: “I want them to have confidence in what they’re doing. And by the end of the year, I want them to know I cared about them.”

Roell has succeeded on both counts, says Kevin McNelis.

“I feel bad for my little brother and the younger kids who aren’t going to have the experience of having her as a teacher,” Kevin says.

More tributes and thank yous will undoubtedly come as Roell retires on May 25. As for her, she says she’s ready to begin a new chapter of her life that she hopes will include volunteering, traveling with her husband, spending more time with her grandchildren, and even learning archery.

Still, she has a deep appreciation for these 43 years—and for the school that became a home for her.

“It’s been such a big part of my life.” †

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