For many in the archdiocese, Catholic education is… A family affair

by Jessica Langdon
jessica.langdon@theleaven.org

Even when the final bell rang announcing summer vacation, school never really ended for Anne Gittinger.

Her mother Susan Gittinger is a teacher, so when break arrived, Anne and her sisters crafted a summer full of their own lessons using their mom’s old textbook guides.

“When my sisters and I were little, that was the big thing to play during the summer,” said Anne.

That’s why she is not at all surprised to find herself today standing at the front of a classroom at Our Lady of Unity School in Kansas City, Kan., sharing her love of English language arts with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

She never seriously thought about pursuing any other career.

Susan Gittinger, on the other hand, now in her 31st year of teaching, had never considered a career in education before college. She loved art, but had settled on journalism — until a walk across campus in the spring of her freshman year changed her entire course.

“It was truly like an inner voice said, ‘Teach,’” she said. “I went down and changed my major that day.”

She teaches fourth-graders at Holy Cross School in Overland Park.

“It’s different every single day,” she said.

She loves that in a Catholic school she can teach science and talk about who created it, and in math, she can teach students about the order of the universe.
Developing a strong faith in students was also important to her daughter.

“I’ve always believed that people should feel small compared to something, because we tend to feel that we’re the biggest and the baddest and the most important, and God has a way of kind of making us feel little again,” said Anne. “That’s a very humbling experience, and I think it’s important — especially in the world that we live in today — that everyone needs to feel small and feel like maybe someone is watching, and their actions do have consequences, good or bad.”

And while Susan says she’s still learning more about the craft of teaching every day herself, she had one key piece of advice when her daughter started teaching full time this school year.

“Just remember, you’ve got to love them,” she said. “I think you’re freer to show that in a Catholic school — that you do care about them, that you do care about the whole person — and there’s someone else that cares about them, too. And you get to talk about Jesus and talk about God every day.”

She suggested to Anne that she pray for her students — not merely as a group, but each by name, every day — an idea the new teacher took to heart.

The Gittingers’ family tree is just one of many within the archdiocese in which multiple members of the same family have branched out into Catholic education.
And the lessons that have come from the family connections have offered rewards for everyone.

Passing on the torch

Honors English students in Patrice Ludwig’s class at Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan., were having an animated discussion about “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini.

A few miles away at Our Lady of Unity School, the reading material was a little less advanced — but the first-grade students in Kathleen Ludwig’s class were equally engaged.

Right now, they’re learning to read, but next year, they’ll be reading to learn, said Kathleen.

These two classes share a special bond, all thanks to the mother (Patrice) and daughter (Kathleen) who teach them.

When Kathleen started her first year as an elementary school teacher this school year, she and Patrice introduced their classes as “reading buddies.”

The Bishop Ward students have visited the Our Lady of Unity students a few times.

Not only did Patrice get to meet all the first-graders she hears so much about from her daughter, the younger students got to know the seniors — adults, in their eyes — who take an interest in them, read with them, and even help them with research projects. At Thanksgiving, for example, the Ward students made costumes for the first-graders.

Both Ludwigs have cherished watching the students connect, as well as the opportunity to see one another in action as teachers.

“My mom’s been just a great example of a caring teacher and a caring person,” said Kathleen. “It’s been really neat for her to be in here and see my class and have my kids meet hers, because she is so special to me, too.”

“I have so much respect for those elementary school teachers,” said Patrice. “There’s no down time. They have to shift gears so quickly. You have to be extremely organized.”

Kathleen studied education with an emphasis in English as a Second Language and was excited to teach in an urban setting. The calendar and other decorations on the walls show both English and Spanish words.

Patrice’s passion for teaching was sparked during her own high school years at Ward, especially by Sister Susan Rieke, SCL, who is now an English professor at the University of Saint Mary in Leavenworth.

“I was just so fascinated by what she knew,” said Patrice, who always loved language and was captivated by her teacher’s explanations of poetry and how words worked together.

Patrice genuinely enjoys her students, and maintains they want to be challenged, whether they’d admit it or not.

She taught before her children came along, but feels on her return to teaching she’s brought with her a better understanding of teenage life from raising her own.

It’s not always easy to be a teenager, she said, and she knows her students have a lot on their plates.

So she shares a lot of her own story with her students, hoping they’ll see that she’s made it through some of the same issues . . . and lived to tell the tale.

Patrice enjoys talking with her students about “God moments” they experience in the classroom. And she is delighted that her daughter is putting their family’s priorities of compassion and service to work in her own career.

“It makes me so happy to sort of pass the torch on to Kathleen, and to know that she has already influenced these kids and will continue to,” she said. “And that’s the God piece of it, sharing that love.”

Kathleen hopes that as her first-graders grow up and reach the age of her mom’s high school seniors, they’ll keep their sense of love and resiliency — the kind where, if they have a bad day, they return the next as if it never happened.

“I just hope that they feel supported here,” said Kathleen. “And I hope that they feel that it’s OK to be who they are.”

‘Never say never’
The Shriver and DeNegri families know a lot about working hard, sacrificing for Catholic education, and realizing the spiritual rewards involved.

For David and Jane Shriver, if theirs wasn’t a match made in heaven, it was at least one made in Catholic schools.

Jane, principal of Prince of Peace School in Olathe for the past decade, knew she wanted to teach as early as third grade.

Inspired by Coach Gennaro Mirocke — among many significant influences — at St. Joseph High School in Shawnee, David also knew early that teaching would be his path.

He taught first for 10 years at his alma mater and is now in his 26th year at St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Overland Park, where he teaches economics, coaches tennis, and is director of technology.

Although David and Jane were a few years apart in age, they knew one another through their siblings. They eventually married and raised four children.
Despite having two devoted educators as parents, their oldest daughter Courtney DeNegri always vowed that teaching wasn’t for her.

Now in her first year of teaching sixth grade at Curé of Ars School in Leawood, she has an important message for her class: “Never say never.”

A stalling economy after graduation and a disappointing start in interior design steered Courtney in a new direction.

“I decided that my calling was to be the teacher that I’d always said I was never going to be,” she said.

And she loves it.

Growing up in a family of educators certainly prepares a new teacher for what to expect.

“She knew what happened morning to evening,” said David. “She had fewer surprises going in than a lot of people would.”

Talking about faith at home was just something they did as a family, and now through faith formation programs, the Shrivers often continue those conversations. And Courtney has started building that tradition in her own family with her husband and two-year-old daughter.

“Catholic school teachers care a lot about their kids and about their faith,” said Jane. “I think that has been a strength throughout. It’s not just about teaching the stuff. It’s about understanding the child and helping that child to grow as a person.”

This family is impressed with the family feel at — and among — the Catholic schools in the area. Different branches of the same family often attend different schools, and it’s fun to make connections, as well as to see former students now grown with children of their own in Catholic schools.

“I think that early on when we opened here, the families I got exposed to really helped me with my family and my kids because of what they did — how they raised their kids and how they treated them,” said David.
Some of their own children were even named after students.

All in the (Hayden) family

The family ties that bind Hayden Catholic High School in Topeka are so evident that the story of five parent/child staff member sets was featured in an issue of the Wildcat Tales newsletter.

“When we say Hayden is a family, we really mean it!” said Mark Madsen, principal of the high school.

The family connections include Chris Cooper and his mother Margaret Cooper, who both work in the cafeteria.

Janet Schumacher works in the office, and daughter Athena Sutton teaches art.
Theology teacher Janet Leiker has taught at Hayden for close to two decades and was joined by son Joe, who — after working for several years with the track and girls basketball teams — came on board to teach English and Spanish.

Karen Scheopner spent many years as a Catholic school science teacher before heading to Hayden to teach anatomy and physiology and to work as the school’s librarian.

“Hayden High School has so many things going for it, it helps me to strengthen my faith to be surrounded by other spiritual Catholics all the time; the students are all so involved and fun to be around,” she told Wildcat Tales.

Her daughter, Samantha Donald, also joined the science department at Hayden, excited to make an impact — like her mother — on students’ learning.

The mother-daughter teaching connection also came to Hayden through Judy Cucciniello and daughter Elizabeth Meredith.

Cucciniello has been teaching there for more than 20 years and believes in the excellent education Catholic schools offer.

Her love for education rubbed off on her daughter.

“My mother is my hero,” said Meredith in the article. “She has always been my hero, so I do think she influenced my interest in science and teaching. I can’t really say that I know what made me want to be a teacher, because I have wanted to be one since my earliest memories. . . . I think the world is an amazing place full of beautiful mysteries, and it’s all ours to discover!”

“We are definitely pleased to have so many families committed to helping us with our mission,” said Madsen.

Family ties

But it’s not always from the top down that important insights flow.

Annie Tompkins, a guidance counselor at Bishop Ward, of course finds a great resource and guide in her dad, John Tompkins, who has taught physics at St. Thomas Aquinas for the past several years.

But Annie has learned a great deal from another relative heavily involved in education — her sister, Julie Tompkins, who is a senior at Aquinas.

Even in the 14 years since Annie graduated from Aquinas, much has changed. Take technology, for example. While cellphones are incredibly handy, Annie remembers her own friends calling her home phone when she was in high school — and her parents connecting with her friends through those conversations.
Annie has sat in on one of Julie’s theology of the body classes. Julie, in turn, has sat in on a class her sister taught, and Annie is Julie’s confirmation sponsor.
And, as siblings will do, Julie gives honest feedback as Annie prepares lessons for her students.

Thanks to her close relationship with Julie, said Annie, “I know what it’s like to be a teenager in 2014.”

Julie has also helped Annie learn to connect with every student, a mission she takes seriously as she helps each Ward student grow in faith and prepare for college.

Annie has joined the company of archdiocesan teachers who helped shape her own faith.

“It just shows the great love in Catholic schools in the archdiocese,” she said.

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