Local Schools

Faith and science, a winning combination

Bishop Miege teacher honored for teaching people, not subjects

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

ROELAND PARK — After 62 years in the classroom, Sister Martina Rockers, OSU, knows that getting called to the principal’s office isn’t always a good thing.

And so last December, when Miege principal Stan Herbic called her down to the administrative office, she admits to having felt more than a little trepidation.

“I was coming down the hall and he was standing there, and I thought, ‘What didn’t I turn in?’” she recalled.

“And when he said, ‘Step into Dr. Joe’s office, Sister,’ I thought, ‘Did somebody die?’” she added.

No one had died.

On the contrary, Herbic and Bishop Miege president Dr. Joe Passantino had just been notified that Sister Martina was to receive the most prestigious award a Catholic educator can be honored with: the National Catholic Education Association’s Catholic Secondary Education Award.

According to Gary Meyer, of the NCEA’s Secondary Schools Department, the association recognizes only five or six secondary school educators a year, who have made a significant contribution to Catholic education at the local, diocesan, state, or national level.

Sister Martina was nominated by Herbic and guidance counselor Elaine Schmidtberger, with the enthusiastic support of Passantino. She is quite possibly the only secondary school educator in the history of the archdiocese to be so honored.

“When you think of distinguished service for Catholic secondary education,” Herbic said, “that describes Sister perfectly.”

She began her own elementary education in a one-room country school in Scipio. She then attended a public middle school run by Ursuline Sisters — the order she would eventually join.

At the Ursuline Academy High School in Paola, the young woman discovered her first true loves — math and science. She started her teaching career in northeast Johnson County at the tender age of 19.

But it was not until she was hired on as an instructor for the very first school year of the new Bishop Miege High School that she found a new home — one where she has remained for 50 years.

Biology has always been Sister Martina’s favorite subject, so she’s delighted to be teaching AP Honors Biology at Miege this spring. She claims to find both the motivation and reward for teaching in “the glimmer in a kid’s eye when he grasps something.”

That feeling of discovery — of suddenly grasping some essential truth of the physical world that had heretofore evaded you — is one Sister Martina knows firsthand.

“I can still remember [doing master’s work] at Notre Dame,” she said, “and we isolated the DNA.

“I was reminiscing with one of my students about that and she said, ‘Sister, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody as excited as you were when you came back in ’62 and put that diagram of DNA up there on the board.’ There was nothing in the textbook about it, and I was so excited!”

The key to successful teaching, Sister Martina said, is to be a good listener and encourage questions.

“It’s not until the students question and then make it a part of themselves that they really learn,” she said. “And then I think one of the best ways to learn is to go ahead and explain it to someone else. That’s why at Miege we have some kids here who are great at tutoring.”

In Sister Martina’s classroom, sharing the world of science with her students has never gotten in the way of sharing with them her Catholic faith.

“At the beginning of class, I ask for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I always pray that we have an understanding of the subject that we’re going to be studying and that it will lead us in our journey to know God better,” she said.

She finds the progression from science to faith quite natural.

“Their minds are open to an understanding of this world,” she said, “and then that moves them into an understanding of things of faith.”

Her deep faith is also the key to her vitality. At 81 years old, Sister Martina is still going strong. But her life’s philosophy is simple.

“This is the way I begin my week — on Sunday morning, I have an hour of adoration [before the Blessed Sacrament] from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m.,” she said. “I never think about how old I am. I’m willing to take things as they come, and things aren’t always going to be pleasant.

“But with prayer and a lot of just letting the Holy Spirit inspire you, life happens.”

In addition to teaching, she loves to garden, oversee Bishop Miege’s student council, and help out at the school in any other way she can. She’s known throughout the community for her hard work and dedication.

“She is dedicated to serving the students in whatever capacity with whatever duties or responsibilities she has,” said Passantino. “She gets so delighted when our students accomplish something — whether it’s the student council, someone in her classroom, someone else in the school — even if it’s alumni.”

Sister Martina has a remarkable memory for her former students and often still refers to them as “kids,” although she claims not to think of them as such.

“They are young men and women now,” she explained, then adds with a wry chuckle — “retired in most cases.” Likewise, former students remember her, sometimes returning to Bishop Miege to visit and thank her for the inspiration and guidance she gave them. “She delights in the success of graduates from decades earlier, which is just so nice to see,” said Passantino. “And it’s nice to see the admiration that the graduates, the young people as she calls them, have for her — respect and admiration that’s lasted the test of time.” Second only to encouraging students to question, Sister Marina thinks it’s important for a teacher to encourage them to dream.

“There was this one boy that I had in class,” she recalled, “and I could tell he was just fascinated by genetics, and I said, ‘What would you like to do someday?’

“And he said, ‘Something in genetics — maybe even be a genetic counselor.’ And I said, ‘That’s a great dream to have.’ He’s still in the process — sometimes they just have to be encouraged along the way.”

That ability to identify, then encourage aspiring students, said Meyer, is one of the main reasons Sister Martina was selected to receive this award.

“Sister Martina’s lifelong commitment to the fields of math and science is to be commended,’ said Meyer. “More importantly, however, she has never forgotten that it’s the student sitting right in front of her that is most important. In her own words, ‘I’ve never forgotten that it’s a person that I’m teaching, not a subject.’ Her student-centered approach to teaching — regardless of the subject matter — is one of the reasons we are honoring her.”

The award will be presented during the NCEA’s national convention in Indianapolis on March 25-28. Sister Martina will attend the convention along with Passantino, Herbic, and longtime friend Mary Perrini, who is Miege’s campus ministry and Christian social service program director.

Compared to other educators, even past awardees, Meyer said that Sister Martina is the exception, not the rule.

“As a church, we have been blessed with men and women who devote their life to serving God, their community and others,” he said. “Sister Martina is one of these women.

“As a member of the Ursuline community, she has given selflessly of spirit, heart and mind, and as a result we are pleased to be able to honor her with this national award.”

Sister Martina is thrilled with the award and the great honor she is being given, but accolades aren’t her style. Work is.

“I’ve enjoyed teaching for 62 years,” she said.

All she wants is the chance to make it 63.

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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