Local Schools

Baptized by fire: Newbie teachers start careers in year of pandemic

Doug Spencer, a 20-year military veteran, went back to school at Emporia State University to pursue a teaching career. His first job is at Hayden High School in Topeka, where he will also help coach baseball, football and wrestling. PHOTO COURTESY OF DOUG SPENCER

by Moira Cullings
moira.cullings@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Hoping for the best but prepared for the worst.

That’s how Catholic school teachers and staff are starting out the school year here in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

First-year teachers, of course, face a double helping of unknowns as the school year begins.

They will be trying to balance the new responsibilities of forming the young minds of their students along with implementing and enforcing meticulous new ways of keeping them healthy.

‘Plan for change, not perfection’

Grace Sammoury, an English Language Arts teacher at St. Benedict School in Atchison, graduated from Benedictine College in December 2019. She hadn’t planned on teaching until she heard about the job opportunity at St. Benedict.

Now, Sammoury looks forward to teaching eighth-grade English and religion, as well as preparing her students for confirmation.

St. Benedict began its school year on Aug. 19 and its teachers are working hard to implement all social distancing protocols.

“The quote we’ve been living by is: ‘Plan for change, not perfection,’” said Sammoury.

Grace Sammoury, a first-year English Language Arts teacher at St. Benedict School in Atchison, organizes a board in her classroom. St. Benedict began its school year on Aug. 19.

Like many schools, St. Benedict is prepared for a hybrid plan of in-person and remote learning, as well as complete remote learning, depending on how the situation with COVID-19 develops.

Although this has called for increased preparedness and tedious protocols, Sammoury has been able to lean on the St. Benedict community for help.

“We don’t know what the rest of the year is going to look like,” she said. “We don’t even know what the first week of school is going to look like.

“The only thing we can do is do our best to prepare our classrooms and prepare our hearts to bring these students in and see them with Christ-like eyes. Beyond that, everything is out of our control.”

‘A crash course in flexibility’

Daniel Fortino, a fellow Benedictine graduate, is starting off his professional career as a seventh-grade mathematics teacher at Curé of Ars School in Leawood.

He received a taste of the versatility the pandemic has demanded while student teaching at St. James Academy in Lenexa earlier this spring before schools were shut down.

“The whole thing was a crash course in flexibility,” said Fortino.

Curé will open its doors to students on Sept. 9 after a summer of building a new wing for the middle school.

Like most teachers, Fortino has had to create lesson plans with social distancing measures in mind.

Daniel Fortino is starting off his teaching career as a mathematics teacher at Curé of Ars School in Leawood. He received a taste of the flexibility the pandemic demanded while student teaching at St. James Academy, Lenexa.

“Especially in math class, collaborative learning activities where [students] have to work together aren’t always compatible with the necessity to remain a certain distance apart,” said Fortino.

“I’ve had to spend a good amount of time over the summer thinking about how I’m going to structure certain classes or certain activities such that students are still able to collaborate with one another,” he added.

Fortino looks forward to helping students who are on the cusp of change deal also with the ramifications of the pandemic.

“Middle school’s known for being a time of great change in a lot of young people’s lives,” he said. “I’m also going through a major life transition — finishing college [and] entering my career.

“This is something that my students and I get to share this year. We’re both experiencing major life changes amid a global pandemic.”

‘Going with the flow’

After 20 years of military service and two deployments in Iraq, Doug Spencer went back to school at Emporia State University to pursue a teaching career.

He accepted a position teaching art at Hayden High School in Topeka, where he will also help coach baseball, football and wrestling.

Spencer was able to teach during his time in the military and is eager to continue doing so at Hayden, despite the uncertainty surrounding the school year.

“I’m just going with the flow and preparing things for different options, whether it be a hybrid schedule or a full online schedule, as well as the traditional [in-person] class schedule,” he said.

Hayden had two half days of school Aug. 25 and 26 before its first full day Aug. 27. During the first week, students learned about the variations of in-person, hybrid and remote learning that might come into play throughout the school year.

As an art teacher, Spencer faces additional questions like how the students will utilize art supplies safely, how sanitation measures will work and what remote learning might look like for his classes.

Although he isn’t Catholic, Spencer is Christian and grateful for the values and foundation of faith that abounds at Hayden.

“The community has been super warm and very welcoming,” he said. “Students need more of that type of energy and moral support in their lives, especially in these times of uncertainty.”

Looking ahead, all three of these new teachers are excited to play a positive role in their students’ lives during an extraordinary time.

“This pandemic,” said Fortino, “will constitute my generation’s ‘Where were you when . . .?’ question.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to proudly say that I was teaching, and I was giving what I could so that kids might know a little more than they did yesterday.”

About the author

Moira Cullings

Moira Cullings

Moira attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park and Benedictine College in Atchison. She majored in marketing, minored in psychology and played center midfield for the women’s soccer team. Moira joined The Leaven staff as a feature writer and social media editor in September 2015. After moving to Denver in 2018, Moira resumed her full-time position at The Leaven a year and a half later and continues to write and manage the website and social media channels. Her favorite assignment was traveling to the Holy Land to take photos for a group pilgrimage in 2019.

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