Maddi Swanson, left, shows some of the books she will use in her kindergarten classroom at St. Cecilia School to second-grade teacher, Crystal Gerken, center, and principal Julia Pick. Maddi’s first year of teaching happens to be in the same classroom where her grandmother, Margaret Swanson, taught for 41 years. ELIZABETH WELLS

News

New St. Cecilia School teacher follows in grandmother’s footsteps in very same classroom

Teaching is often referred to as a calling, and at St. Cecilia School in Omaha that call is being answered across generations.

Maddi Swanson is beginning her first year teaching kindergarten in the very same classroom where her grandmother, Margaret Swanson, taught first grade for 41 years. 

The elder Swanson, who left teaching in 2018 and lost her battle with cancer in 2019, left a legacy at St. Cecilia. She was not only a longtime, popular teacher, but she was a parent and parishioner as well.

While Maddi, who is a member of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Omaha, was close to her grandma, Margaret never told Maddi she should become a teacher or work at St. Cecilia.

Julia Pick, the school’s principal, said she believes, however, the Holy Spirit, and perhaps Margaret, brought Maddi to the school.

“Maddi was the first applicant,” said Pick. “She wrote about her grandma in her email, and I called her right away. She has such an energetic and calm presence.

“Finding the right someone, who’s strong in faith and a good fit for your community is extremely important.”

Pick said she was looking for someone who would enthusiastically embrace the school’s mission of putting children on a path to encounter God and was impressed with how naturally Maddi responded to all her questions about education and her faith.

Maddi also was familiar with the St. Cecilia community because her mother and more than a dozen of her extended family attended the school.

“When I interviewed Maddi, I just felt that God placed her on our path,” said Pick. “The person must be qualified, but I’m also looking for someone who can shine the Holy Spirit out to others.”

Pick has seen this come through in the way Maddi has prepared her classroom for the new school year.

“You walk in and there is no question that Maddi is a Catholic school teacher,” she said. “There are parts of our Catholic faith and identity everywhere.” 

TEACHING BY EXAMPLE

Crystal Gerken, a second-grade teacher at St. Cecilia, who was mentored by Margaret, said she saw Margaret share the same unmistakable Catholic identity.

“People would say teaching is a calling. It certainly was for her. Margaret spent countless hours each summer in her classroom,” said Gerken.

Beyond how Margaret created the physical environment conducive to learning, Gerken marveled at her patience, kindness and genuine ability to care for her students and coworkers.

Margaret told her friends, family, coworkers and students she prayed for them. She taught her first-graders by example, saying a decade of the Rosary with them daily, said Gerken.

And she saw Margaret teach others about Christ simply by showing up.

“She lived the teachings of Jesus in her everyday life,” Gerken said. “That makes evangelization easier for others to believe and follow.”

Margaret also mentored many teachers over the years. They saw her as a teacher and a parent, who volunteered in the school, across the parish and the larger community, explained Gerken.

“That commitment is so important to make a school and community thrive,” she added.

Maddi also experienced her grandmother’s example of love and care. It enhanced their close relationship, she said.

“She was always there for me. She always told me she was praying for me,” Maddi said. “I appreciated that even more when she had cancer. She always prayed for others.”

Maddi calls Margaret a faith-filled woman. “God was at the center of her life, even as she struggled with cancer.”

PRAYERS FOR GUIDANCE

And it was that example of faith and trust in God that helped Maddi during her job search.

“I have always believed that everything in life happens for a reason – that God has everything happen for a purpose,” she said.

When she took a fifth year to graduate due to the COVID pandemic, and later, when not getting responses from potential employers to which she had applied, Maddi experienced doubts.

After praying for guidance, she renewed her job search. The first thing she saw was the St. Cecilia position. She applied immediately.

“After I applied for the job, I felt such an amazing sense of peace,” she said, adding it was no coincidence that things moved quickly after that. Pick contacted her immediately, and the interview followed the next day.

When they offered her the position, Maddi said she was ecstatic. Once she accepted it, suddenly the other schools that appeared to have gone silent called.

“Looking back, I feel it was God and my grandma working to get me a job there,” she said.

She has spent the summer months preparing her classroom. “As I was setting up my classroom, it really hit me that I am here and my grandma was here for so long. This is where I am supposed to be,” she said. “Everything feels so right.” 

Maddi Swanson displays a giant flower rosary, discovered during a deep cleaning of her grandmother’s former classroom in preparation for the new school year. Maddi is excited to share it with her kindergarteners this year. ELIZABETH WELLS

 She did a deep cleaning in the classroom and found items her grandma used. These treasures included a plastic lunch container with “Swanson” written on the top, vintage posters, old records, books with Margaret’s handwritten notes, a giant flower rosary, a couple of lesson plan books, even a 24-pack of Margaret’s long since discontinued favorite Coca-Cola product.

Maddi has hung up the posters and giant flower rosary. She has listened to the old records. She and her mom have taken pictures of the lesson plan books, and the lunch container now reads “Swanson 2.0.”

BIG SHOES TO FILL

Just like the lunch container, Maddi has plans to honor her grandma’s legacy while adding to it in the classroom.

“I don’t plan to fill her shoes because we can’t do that. I want to be the best teacher I can be,” said Maddi. “She was proud and happy for who I was, not what I did.”

Maddi said she struggled as a student and could not wait to finish school. As a young adult, she decided to become a teacher like her grandma and those who encouraged and supported her through her own education.

Pick said Maddi will be working closely with a mentor and fellow teacher, who has taught for decades.

“Her mentor told me she is excited because (Maddi) will probably bring a lot of new ideas,” Pick said. “Nobody in this building pretends to know it all. We all learn from and support each other.”

Gerken remembers learning from Margaret. “She was like a mother to a lot of us teachers,” she said. “Margaret knew the ropes and loved St. Cecilia and our mission – that brought everyone else into it.”

While Maddi will be walking in her grandma’s footsteps, Gerken believes Maddi has her own journey to live, one that has brought her to this place. 

“I’ve only known her as grandma, but some of my friends had her as a teacher and have told me she was amazing and warm to everybody,” Maddi said. “I know that makes really big shoes to fill.

“Nobody’s putting that on me except for myself. I definitely want to make my family, my grandma and her friends proud.”

Maddi also is simply happy to be teaching the grade she loves.

“My goal this year is to help the kids learn, grow in their faith and become good young people with manners,” she said. “I plan to give it my all and have some fun!”