CATHOLIC SCHOOLS WEEK | All in a day's work for elementary teacher with PhD

Lisa Johnston |
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The students in Mary O'Connell's classes are about as far apart in age and demeanor as possible in education.

By day, she teaches third graders -- 8 and 9 year-olds -- at St. Justin Martyr School in Sunset Hills. In a classroom with child-sized seats arranged around tables, the walls are adorned with dinosaur drawings, colorful artwork and religious symbols, including the Cross of Jesus' crucifixion.

Then one night a week, she teaches adults -- mainly Catholic-school principals -- in the education doctorate program at St. Louis University. In a classroom similar to a conference room, with chairs and a long table, the Cross hangs on a white wall sans the vibrant artwork.

The venues and the students are about as different as can be, yet O'Connell describes transitioning from her day job matter-of-factly -- all in a day's work.

"There's really not that big of a difference," she said recently, sitting at a table in her classroom at St. Justin. "It's the same teaching style, just at a different level."

She approaches teaching adult principals and third graders essentially the same ... well, in a classroom absent dinosaurs but in a similar style.

"A lot of hands-on, group work," she said. "You take the strategies and skills you use with third graders and apply them to a different subject at the graduate level."

O'Connell has a doctorate, a PhD in education from SLU, and serves as an example of teacher quality in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Including O'Connell, the club of archdiocesan teachers with doctorates boasts 18 members, 10 in elementary schools and eight in high schools. PhDs and EdDs also are common in principal's offices.

Catholic education has been the primary focus for most of O'Connell's 37 years, so her accomplished teaching career in Catholic schools should surprise no one. The oldest of two children, she graduated grade school from St. Francis of Assisi in Oakville and high school from Nerinx Hall in Webster Groves. She attend SLU for college and graduate school, earning an undergraduate degree in 1999, a Master's in 2003 and a doctorate in 2011 -- all in education.

Her first teaching job was at St. Joan of Arc in south St. Louis, the second semester of the 1999-2000 school year. St. Joan of Arc principal Judy Talleur then took on the same role at St. Justin and recruited O'Connell to join the staff. She has been there since.

Teaching at St. Justin inspired O'Connell to pursue the advanced degrees. She focused on special education in the master's program after having special-needs students in her classroom. Then, she pursued the PhD based on her experience "looping."

In looping, a teacher advances to the next grade with a class, mainly two years total in the United States but often longer, sometimes through high school, outside the U.S. The experience is similar to that of specialists -- i.e. in art, music, language, etc. -- who teach students throughout grade school; only in this case, homeroom teachers stay with a specific class.

After exclusively teaching third-graders, she switched to second grade at Talleur's request, a change she described as "challenging" at first before the class "made a lot of progress toward the end of the year." But with school out for summer, her time with the students apparently was over.

"I was sad to see 'em go; I thought I could do a lot more with them," said O'Connell, who needed about two seconds to climb onboard when Talleur asked her to "loop" with the class. "I moved with them to third grade. Having the students two years in a row -- wow, what a difference, with the relationships, academically, socially and emotionally.

"You gain a whole extra month of academic time because you know the students so well. It's amazing. ... I really wanted to share the story of our looping experience, so that's what I did."

O'Connell "looped" again for her dissertation but has taught only third-graders since. "I would definitely loop again if I had the chance," she said

Her hands-on teaching style fits both looping and project-based learning at the vanguard of education -- STEM, STEAM and, in Catholic schools, STREAM, which adds the initial for religion to the acronym for science, technology, engineering, art and math. This student-centric approach works whether third-graders are discovering dinosaurs or principals are learning best practices in education.

"It's the same at any level," she said. "If they discover it, they'll remember it."

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