Ss. Peter and Paul middle school teachers team up, leading by example
February 4, 2022
The Catholic Voice salutes archdiocesan Catholic schools and those operated by religious orders as we observe Catholic Schools Week Jan. 30 through Feb. 5. With the theme “Catholic Schools: Faith, Excellence, Service,” the nationwide effort recognizes and celebrates the achievements of our Catholic schools and the valuable contributions they provide to young people, as well as our Church, communities and country.
This article is the fifth of several published to highlight some of the people and programs that make Catholic education special.
“… complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.” – St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, 2:2
Jacob Roth, a middle school social studies teacher at Ss. Peter and Paul School in Omaha, is in his first year of teaching.
Teaching middle school students has its challenges, but Roth seems undaunted.
“Every day is an adventure,” he said, “and that makes it amazing.”
With 33 years of teaching experience under her belt, resource teacher Jackie Buchta knows the ins-and-outs of teaching students at that age: the difficulties, opportunities, blessings and rewards.
“Teaching middle school students is never dull!” Buchta admits.
Roth and Buchta offer unique, distinct experiences, skills and insights to their students. But the teachers also share many beliefs, ideas and goals as part of a six-member middle school teaching team at Ss. Peter and Paul.
Regardless of the subjects they teach, their shared purpose as Catholic school teachers is to help form hearts and minds for Christ.
The six teachers – Buchta, Roth, Donna Zigler, Roseanne Williby, Tina Riggs and Melissa Zierke – collaborate and rely on each other. They discuss successes and frustrations, strategize and pray together, all to help prepare their students for high school and plant seeds of faith that the teachers know might not bloom until years later.
Teamwork in schools is both common and necessary, said Tracey Kovar, assistant superintendent of Catholic Schools in the archdiocese.
“Collaboration is an expectation within schools because we are ‘better together,’” Kovar said.
MODELS OF FAITH
The middle school teaching team at Ss. Peter and Paul exemplify that team approach and stand out as models of faith, said Andrew Bauer, the school’s principal.
“There’s tons of wonderful Catholic educators throughout the archdiocese,” Bauer said, “but it does strike me as somewhat unique that we’ve got a group of teachers who are very involved in their faith. The middle school teachers are truly a team.”
For example, Zierke, a religion teacher, often heads to eucharistic adoration after work, even after a long day at school, Bauer said. She’s active in the pro-life movement and worked as an intern for National Right to Life, developing a kindergarten through 12th grade pro-life curriculum.
Zierke shares her zeal with her students and introduces them to eucharistic adoration, where they learn to pray quietly with the Lord.
Williby, a science teacher and former Catholic school administrator, is involved at her parish, St. Vincent de Paul in Omaha, as a captain of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and as a prayer line member, lector, usher and eucharistic adorer. She’s also a member of the Legion of Mary and a student in the Encounter School of Ministry, a new program in the archdiocese which teaches, equips and activates adults as disciples of Christ.
Williby has created PowerPoint presentations on topics such as Purgatory, the Year of St. Joseph, St. Michael the Archangel and Our Lady of La Salette, which she offers along with short reflections and prayer before class.
“The more we concern ourselves with the thoughts of God, his Blessed Virgin Mary, Scripture and stories of God’s angels and saints, the more we grow in union with God,” Williby said.
A FORMATIVE TIME
Others on the middle school team at Ss. Peter and Paul have similar commitments to their faith that directly or indirectly affect their students, Bauer said.
“They’re teachers who not only are living out their faith,” he said, “but they’re also bringing it to the students on a daily basis. And the wonderful thing, the blessing, about having such a faith-filled team in middle school is that that’s really a time when students need it.
“We’re really blessed here at Saints Peter and Paul, not only to have all the teachers who are faith-filled, but to have a middle school team that can be examples of living out their faith to our students,” the principal said.
As educators, cultivating their own relationship with God is important, the teachers said.
“I think when we have a strong relationship with God we are able to help students on their path to having a relationship with God and living a Christ-centered life,” said Riggs, a language arts teacher.
“When we follow the teachings of Christ,” she said, “we are able to lead by example and teach our students how to serve God, serve others and have a positive impact on their community.”
“This is a time in our students’ lives when they are still trying to figure out who God made them to be,” Roth said. “With that comes a set of challenges in them trying to be someone they aren’t. So as teachers we can guide them to be their authentic selves and who God made them to be.”
The teachers find ways to bring Christian ideals into all subjects, Buchta said.
“We all share our love of God with our students, regardless of what class we teach,” she said. “We bring our faith into all subject areas and situations, ‘teaching and admonishing’ our students.
“We share a similar view of the faith,” Buchta said of her team, “and I don’t know if that makes us unique, but I surely feel blessed to work with such a faith-filled group of like-minded people.
“That characteristic is not limited to the middle-school staff, as we are blessed with many such teachers at SPP (Ss. Peter and Paul), and I know many others in the archdiocesan schools as well.”
“I am very grateful for my team,” Zierke said, “because we all work together to make sure our students are taken care of, so they can succeed. We want them to do well and we want them to be happy where they’re at. Our goal collectively is to get them ready for high school.”
Preparing students for high school can be more challenging when the vast majority are from immigrant families and learning English as a second language. Some of them have already surpassed their parents’ formal education, Bauer said.
The school’s Family Enrichment Program is helping the parents, too, deepening their involvement at school and providing educational and parenting opportunities to enrich their lives.
The middle school students face a number of challenges, many from outside their families and school.
“They’re growing up in a world where anything is accepted,” Zierke said. “The team’s philosophy is to teach the students, perhaps without saying it directly, is ‘you’re going to be different.’ We want them to be able to think for themselves, to learn right from wrong,” but also ‘why is there a right and wrong?’”
“They’re at that age when you can teach them how to think for themselves,” Zierke said.
“I teach them the faith, but I want them to ask questions, so that when they’re confirmed they know what’s out there, but they know that the faith has the tools to get them through. I try to teach them how to live as a Catholic in the world.”
“The rewards are watching them make that transition into independent students who take ownership of their learning,” Riggs said, “and seeing the light switch come on for middle school students is always a blessing.
“Watching young students grow into the eighth-graders who eventually leave us is bittersweet,” she said. “When they come back to tell me how they are doing, it really makes me feel blessed to have been a part of the journey.”
“We are all still students of the faith ourselves,” Williby said. “So by our lives and example we witness to our constant searching for the Lord where he may be found.”