What was your first mission?

My first ministry was teaching. I taught for thirty-seven years. I taught third and fourth grade in Fall River, MA. Then I went to Plattsburgh, NY, and I taught first grade (I went from fourth grade to first grade; I thought I was going to go crazy!) But I loved it. They came in knowing nothing and you could see them develop with reading and math; it was amazing. Then I went to New Haven, CT, for thirteen years. After that, I went back to Massachusetts. I taught first, second, third, and fourth grade during those years. The largest group I ever had was forty second-graders in one classroom.

That’s a lot of students! What did you do about the kids who weren’t so enthused to be there?

At that age, kids want to learn. Sometimes they can’t. Sometimes they have something blocking that desire for learning. But they want to. They want to.

Something might be blocking that desire—maybe they’re too young to go through a certain thing at a certain time and they’re being forced into it. Maybe they’re saying they don’t want to do it because they think it’s too hard for them. Many things can block kids and turn them against learning.

But I think everybody wants to learn.

In many kids’ lives, there’s never a quiet time. Even at home, many times, kids didn’t know who was going to be home when they went home. Or they were staying after school for long periods of time.

All of this can interfere with the learning process; it can be psychological. You can work one-on-one with a child until they see the light –and you can see it flashing on in their brains—to bring that love of learning back. But, the older they get, the more compounded the problems become. So, many older children say they don’t want to learn because they’ve had so many things compound them that they can’t see the joy in it anymore.

It’s a lot easier, especially for a teenager, to say ‘I don’t want to do that. That’s no fun. I’m bored.’ than to actually learn. And, the truth is, you can’t make a child learn if they don’t want to. But I really believe that they all want to.

What are things that made you successful as a teacher?

I think I had a good sense of humor. When I was able to be normal and natural with children, I loved teaching and it was very easy. But, when you were disciplining, it was stressful. To me, being able to be natural in the classroom was… I couldn’t ask for anything better. I would laugh; the kids would laugh. And then we would stop and get to work.

I was always there very early, because I wanted to feel prepared. If you felt prepared, they felt prepared. Kids who came in late or felt rushed were already a step behind other kids, and the same goes for the teacher. If you get in late and you’re going through your books while kids are already there, you’re going to lose them.

I’m also very organized, so I was always prepared with plenty to do.

There’s a bit of being always prepared. Be yourself. Have a sense of humor.

Talk naturally. Increase their vocabulary; don’t decrease your own.

Sister Catherine Walsh

What was your first mission?

My first mission was Deal, NJ, which I really loved. I was supposed to go to Scarsdale, NY and we had big trunks. (I was in full habit.) At that time, you packed your trunk and they shipped it wherever you were going to go.

The day before Labor Day, I had been helping out at the seashore, and Mother Leo Vincent had sent for me. She told me that my placement was changed. I was not going to Scarsdale as I was previously told; I was going to the shore area. So, my trunk’s in Scarsdale, New York, but I went to Deal, New Jersey, the next morning. I got there, and the Superior said, “You’re going to have the fourth grade.” I took a deep breath (I was trained as a junior high teacher) but I said, “That’s alright; I can do fourth grade.” I set up the whole fourth grade classroom.

The next day, she said, “No, you’re going to have the seventh grade. The seventh grade teacher just quit.” And she said, “Here’s the problem: the seventh grade class is very bad. Three teachers have quit because of them.”

Well, were they really that bad?

They were terrorists.

So this was an exceptionally bad class?

That’s what she said. And they couldn’t change classes—that’s how she was going to punish them. The sixth, seventh, and eighth grade were supposed to change classes and different teachers taught different subjects; I was going to do social studies. But she wasn’t going to let them change. So now I’m self-contained with fifty-five bad seventh graders. And I have to teach everything. Every single thing.

How were they?

The first day of class, they were very rambunctious. And I just said to them, “Okay. Let me explain to you what’s going to happen. We can have a good time, but you’re going to pay attention to me. Or you’re going to write out what I was going to teach.”

So, every time they got disruptive, I just put the assignment on the board, and, if we were going to do chapter one in social studies, they had to write chapter one out, every single thing. It only took me a week. If they didn’t want to do something, all I had to do was pick up the chalk and that was end of it. And we had fun; we had a good time. They were good kids; it’s just that the inmates were running the asylum.

When I taught poetry, I used all of the songs of the time. I would mix Simon and Garfunkel with Emily Dickinson, and we just played with that and saw how the poetry was the same and different.

Why did you use pop music to teach?

Because the students were into it. That’s what they knew and understood. Then you share their love of whatever that piece of music is and you say now let’s look at this; this is music to somebody else’s ears but its’ not been put to that kind of music. This song tells a story but what story does this poem tell? You begin with what people know.

There’s a nice story that comes out of that: Sister Margaret Anderson came up to me years later and she said, ‘I have a friend who had you in seventh grade in Deal, NJ. She said she remembers you because she remembers that you taught her a love of poetry by using Simon and Garfunkel.’

This woman now teaches English at the community college. Well, one day, she’s on line next to another woman who teaches at the community college. So one girl says, ‘How did you get into English?’ and the other answers, ‘I got into English because my seventh grade teacher taught us poetry with Simon and Garfunkel.’ The other girl said, ‘Well that’s funny; I got into English because of my seventh grade teacher who taught me in Bishop Dunn.”

They both had me in seventh grade.

Sister Philomena McCartney

Did you always know that you wanted to be a teacher?

When I was thinking of entering the convent, the brochures they sent me were pictures of nuns kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament. I thought I was going up [to the convent] to be with the Lord all the time! I didn’t think I was going to be teaching. I entered the Dominican Sisters on Saturday, September 8th. On Monday morning, I was sent out to teach second-graders.

When you go into the convent, you go in to follow the will of God. On my third day in the convent, I went into a second grade classroom with seventy children and I said, “This is your will for me??”

It was a shock.

Did you immediately like it?

Well, I’m sure that, if I did not like teaching, I would have been miserable. I wasn’t. Always my dependence has been on the Holy Spirit: you never missed mass on Sunday, you went to the rosary, you went to all the devotions, and you just let the Holy Spirit direct your life.

I did it day by day. Here I am on my eleventh year as a principal at Visitation Academy. When I entered the convent, I didn’t think I was going to be teaching. But, teaching turned out to be my greatest gift that I didn’t know I had.

Cover image: Flickr: Michael 1952