The Leaven profiles seven Catholic educators who are making a difference
by Sheila Myers
Special to the Leaven
There are few finer examples of folks taking to heart the message of the Faith Initiative here in the archdiocese than our Catholic school teachers and administrators.
So it is appropriate that “Faith: Love It, Learn It, Live It” became the theme of this year’s Catholic Schools Week, Jan.27-Feb. 2.
Join us in the following pages for quick trip around the archdiocese, where you’ll meet some dedicated professionals who have devoted their careers to bringing kids to Christ — and couldn’t be happier.
A great joy in his heart
School: Most Pure Heart of Mary School, Topeka
Inspiration: St. Philip Neri and various pastors he has known
With his ever-present sense of humor, it’s no surprise Eric White draws inspiration from St. Philip Neri, who is known for showing the humorous side of holiness.
“Every day is a gift from God and I believe he wants us to enjoy it,” White said.
When students at Most Pure Heart of Mary come to his office during the day, instead of serious discipline, White works on lifting their spirits.
“I try to discuss the situation in a prayerful context with them so the kids can go back to their classroom and have a ‘better’ rest of the day,” he said.
He tries to act as if Christ is right there beside him.
“If we aren’t modeling what we teach, then we are teaching something else,” said White.
Now in his third year as principal of Most Pure Heart School, White wants to help students utilize their God-given gifts to “grow the young church.”
Although White went to public schools growing up, he did attend CCD classes and remembers staying up late so his grandmother could teach him prayers.
After college, he worked in a grocery store at night and was a substitute teacher during the day until he finally took a full-time job teaching seventh- and eighth-graders at Holy Trinity School in Paola.
He went on to become principal of Holy Trinity for 10 years. But when his youngest son was born visually impaired, White and his wife decided to move to Topeka and Most Pure Heart of Mary School.
“Considering where [my son’s] needs — and our family’s — might best be met was very much a large part of that discernment process,” said White.
Evan, 6, will start kindergarten next year and receive special services through Topeka public schools. What Evan lacks in visual ability, he makes up for in charisma.
“He thinks he’s an 11-year-old football player,” said White. “I don’t think his exceptionality is going to slow him down a whole lot.”
As the principal of a Catholic school, White sees his biggest challenge as stretching resources to keep a Catholic education affordable and academically competitive.
“[Faith] is why our families and parishes invest in our schools,” White said. “But we also have to compete with public schools in academics. We can’t perform lower in the academic area because we provide the faith. Parents look at that.”
Spirit of Service
School: Bishop Ward High School, Kansas City, Kan.
Position: Theology teacher and campus ministry team member
Inspiration: St. Ignatius Loyola
In 2011, a nervous college grad left family and friends behind in Arlington, Va., and arrived in the Midwest.
Celia Fox had accepted a service assignment through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps to teach at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan.
“My first day of school was the first day for the kids,” said Fox. “But I embraced it and learned as I went.”
Although the first few months were scary — and Fox still experiences periods of homesickness — she can’t imagine being anyplace else.
“It’s totally, 100 percent where God wants me to be,” she said. “I fell in love with the school, I love the mission here, and I love the people I work with.”
An admirer of Jesuit spirituality, Fox draws inspiration from St. Ignatius Loyola.
“I like the Jesuit idea of finding God in all things,” she said.
Fox originally planned to return to Virginia at the end of her assignment, but she grew attached to the school and its diverse, hard-working students.
“They are just so appreciative to be in a caring school like this,” said Fox. “The teachers here are very concerned for all the students, and we really watch out for them. It’s a caring community. You can tell that as soon as you come into the building.”
When Ward president Father Michael Hermes offered Fox a permanent position, she took him up on the offer. She now teaches theology and works with the campus ministry team. She loves that Bishop Ward is a Christ-centered community committed to nurturing the mind, body and soul of its students.
“I think I’d have a hard time working in a school where I wasn’t allowed to talk about my faith or my students’ faith,” she said.
Coming from a “privileged” background, Fox believes God is calling her to give back. She doesn’t feel her background keeps her from relating to her students.
“All [of my students] have goals and dreams,” she said. “They want families. They want to be working in jobs. They want to be able to support their families. . . . I know they have these hopes for their future. It makes me very hopeful for them, too.”
Wonder at God’s handiwork
School: St. Thomas Aquinas High School, Overland Park
Position: Physics teacher
Inspiration: St. Thomas Aquinas
John Tompkins left a 30-year career in engineering business development to become a physics teacher. Now, his students are his clients.
“Imagine going to work on Monday, and you need to see 105 clients and make sure every one of their needs is taken care of,” he said. “My goal is that every student gets individualized instruction based on their learning style.”
It’s a tall order, but Tompkins must be doing something right. He recently learned that 99 percent of Aquinas students met the state standards in science.
While the results are affirming, Tompkins encourages his students to avoid getting caught up in the race for points and awards, and instead focus on the love of knowledge.
“As you know, we live in a points-based society,” said Tompkins. “If you go for the love of knowledge, the points will come.”
The school’s namesake promoted that love of knowledge and Tompkins takes every opportunity to share the saint’s philosophy with his students, peppering his classroom with St. Thomas Aquinas’ quotes.
Ponder this one: “Wonder is the desire of knowledge.”
The Catholic Church has a rich history with science through the saints and, as a Catholic school science teacher, Tompkins shares that history with his students.
“When we study motion, we can talk about Galileo and what took place with the discovery of how the planets move,” Tompkins said.
Besides Galileo, there’s St. Thomas’ teacher, St. Albert the Great, the patron saint of natural sciences. And Tompkins notes that several dozen craters on the moon were named for Jesuit priests.
Tompkins collaborates with his engineering contacts at Kansas State and Rockhurst University to make sure his course work is relevant to the real world and to ensure his students will be successful if they decide to pursue a career in the sciences.
It helps that the school’s mission statement says nothing about points or awards. Rather, the school’s mission is to help students realize their spiritual, physical, social and intellectual potential guided by Catholic values.
“‘Potential’ is a physics word,” he said. “It means the capacity to do work, or energy. I reflect every day on whether our classroom community is working in those four areas.”
Strength in adversity
School: Sacred Heart School, Ottawa
Position: Kindergarten teacher
Inspiration: St. Jude; Sister Thomasine Stoecklein, ASC, her professor at Kansas Newman College, Wichita
If Lisa McSwain’s life story were made into a movie, it would be a tear-jerker.
She lost her siblings and her parents, and two of her three children were born very ill. Yet, she looks back on her life and considers herself lucky.
“All these things happened, but I’ve had all these good people around me,” said McSwain. “God counteracted every bad thing with a good thing.”
McSwain’s heartache and loss began in high school, when her older sister was killed in a car accident. But she doesn’t let it define her.
Instead, her faith has pulled her through.
“The best thing is to turn it over and then stand back and try to see where God wants you to go,” she said.
She feels God’s hand has been in her life since the beginning, when she was adopted into a German Catholic home in Colwich through Catholic Social Services, though her birth mother wasn’t Catholic.
After her sister’s death in high school, McSwain attended Kansas Newman College (Newman University) in Wichita. It was there that Sister Thomasine Stoecklein, ASC, declared that McSwain would be a teacher.
“I said, ‘I am?’ and [Sister Thomasine] said, ‘Yes, you are!’”
“I never looked back,” said McSwain.
The next two decades brought McSwain great joy and great pain. The two sons who were born ill had miraculous recoveries. But her father and her other sister both died from cancer. McSwain’s mother passed away three years ago.
“All that heartache took a toll on [Mom],” she said.
But McSwain is not completely alone. She has a grandchild and she has formed a good relationship with her birth mother.
“I can’t make any sense out of my life and all the things that have happened if I don’t believe that God’s hand is in it and that he’s in charge,” McSwain said.
Now in her second year at Sacred Heart, she tells her kindergarten students that God doesn’t promise life will be easy. But with his help, we can endure anything.
“I really stress with the kids how much God loves us, and he shows us that [love] everywhere we look,” she said. “We talk about these tools and the people God gives us to keep us on the path to heaven.”
Enthusiasm for life
School: St. James Academy, Lenexa
Position: Assistant principal and athletic director
Inspiration: St. Francis of Assisi, his Rockhurst High School basketball coaches
God gave Mark Huppe a boundless zest for life.
The 59-year-old St. James Academy assistant principal and athletic director survives on just five hours of sleep each night. He rises before dawn, exercises and attends Mass.
“I’ve never had a problem with motivation,” he said.
As a young boy growing up in Mission, he rose early Sunday mornings to attend 6:30 Mass at St. Pius X Church . . . without his parents.
Huppe has enjoyed every school where he’s worked during his 35-year career in Catholic education. But he’s happiest sharing his love of life and faith with kids as a coach.
“Some of the best religious testimonials that I’ve ever experienced have taken place on a basketball court, in a locker room, on a football field or a baseball field,” Huppe said. “Because you see student athletes in a different realm.”
Sports combined with faith can provide great life lessons for kids.
“Usually, you can handle a defeat or a big victory a lot better in the context of your Catholic faith and with the big picture of why we’re here on earth,” he said.
Prayer before and after a game or practice helps student athletes stay focused on what’s important, said Huppe. After all, success isn’t defined by what’s on the scoreboard. But the excessive pressure put on student athletes today makes it difficult for them to remember that.
Huppe takes every advantage to help students put things in perspective with faith. He also stresses attitude, effort and teamwork.
“There’s just a closeness and a bonding a lot of teams can get,” he said. “It’s always an overwhelming feeling when you see young people grow in their faith and have success on the athletic field.”
Even though Huppe and his wife Maureen have worked in Catholic schools their entire careers and sent all seven of their children through Catholic grade and high schools, he never gets tired of talking about his faith.
“I think the big picture of me working for the church and being able to talk openly about my faith,” he said, “to talk openly about [the] Catholic worldview, is a big part of why I enjoy coming to work every day.”
Trust in God
School: Atchison Catholic Elementary Schools
Inspiration: Mother Teresa; Benedictine Sisters
“Lead Me, Lord” is Diane Leibsch’s favorite hymn.
She sang it every day for a month before accepting the position as principal of Atchison Catholic Elementary Schools (ACES) in 2010.
“It was a real soul-searching experience for me before I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a try,’” she said.
Leibsch had already retired after 32 years teaching middle grades in Atchison public schools, but empty-nest syndrome and a desire for change led her to take a position teaching primary grades in Nortonville.
“I learned more in those four years I was there than ever before,” said Leibsch.
When the principal position opened up at ACES, her peers encouraged her to apply, but Leibsch doubted her abilities. After a month of discernment and prayer — and singing “Lead Me, Lord” during her round-trip commute to Nortonville — she realized God was leading her to ACES all along.
“That’s why he sent me to Nortonville,” she said, “to get that primary experience so that I would really understand K-8 development.”
Leibsch is no stranger to Catholic education. She attended Benedictine College in Atchison, and her three children attended ACES before going on to Catholic high schools.
“I was committed to their Catholic education and to Catholic education in the community,” said Leibsch. “I always said that I wanted to give back and I really thought I would return to teach at ACES.”
Leibsch often taps the network of resources she developed after nearly 40 years in public schools.
“That was my selling point when I was interviewed,” she said. “I know the whole community, and I really feel like I know who my best contacts are as I need things. And it has paid off very well.”
Though she misses classroom teaching, she still has “teachable moments” with her students.
She said the biggest advantage of the Catholic school environment is the ability to pray openly with students and staff. The only time she prayed with her students in public school was on 9/11.
“But here, we do it all the time,” said Leibsch. “When students come in for a behavioral conference, I will often ask them to pray with me, especially when they’re leaving the conference. We’ll take the opportunity to allow God to help us make better choices.”
Search for truth
School: Xavier Elementary School, Leavenworth
Position: 7th- and 8th-grade religion, social studies and math teacher
Inspiration: St. Joseph
In 2009, Andrew Straub was on his hands and knees crawling through two feet of snow up an Austrian mountain, exhausted and too proud to turn back, when he had an epiphany.
“I wanted to be a teacher,” said Straub. At the time, he was a student majoring in business at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.
Straub’s discovery came about the same time he decided to rejoin the Catholic Church.
Baptized and confirmed a Catholic, Straub and his entire family left the faith when Straub was in middle school. He attended Maranatha Academy, a nondenominational Christian school in Shawnee.
His parents rejoined the church, but it took Andrew a little longer. A class on Catholic marriage and the church’s stand on contraception and abortion convinced him.
“The thought was planted in my head that if the Protestants were wrong about this, what else were they wrong about?” he said.
Straub’s faith journey as a teenager helps him understand the questions his middle school students at Xavier Elementary School in Leavenworth have about their faith.
Some of his students are faith-filled Catholics, some are agnostics or Protestant, and a few are “waiting for the day they get their car keys and are out of the house so they can do whatever they want.”
It’s an age of both blossoming and independence, that’s for sure.
“They are beginning to think about their faith,” said Straub, “so it’s exciting. It’s a good time for them to learn theology.”
His eighth-grade students are learning about the saints to help them pick a namesake for confirmation.
“When we started out, a lot of them picked silly names without a lot of reason,” he said. “But now, almost all of them picked a saint because of what that saint did and how it inspired them.”
Besides theology, Straub teaches social studies and math. He has fun teaching social studies, but he considers his most important role to be getting students excited about their faith.
“A lot of the questions students ask are the questions I asked,” Straub said. “Why do Catholics do this? It just didn’t make sense.
They’d sound crazy.
“But if you spend some time trying to learn your faith, you’ll end up loving it.”