Dominican Sisters reflect on past year in classrooms, convent

By Emily Booker

It’s been one year since a novel coronavirus arrived, closing schools, introducing the concept of “social distancing,” and even suspending the public celebration of Mass.

For the eight Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville who teach in Diocese of Knoxville schools, it’s been a year of uncertainty, adjustment, and even opportunity.

In March 2020, students and teachers quickly adapted to at-home learning to finish the 2019-20 school year. Then in August, the schools adopted a hybrid model, with some students back in the classroom while others continued to learn at home. Some students moved back to online learning when exposed to COVID-19 and forced to quarantine.

Sister Mary Rebekah Odle-Kemp, OP, who teaches math at Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga, worked to make sure students at home felt like part of the in-person class and that all her students received help adapting back to in-person lessons.

“What I’ve been doing is the students video-conference into the class live, so they are not having an asynchronous type of experience. They are with the class, so whatever assignment I’m assigning in the classroom, I send to the student at home, and she or he is pulling up and doing it from home.

“Or if they’re in a small group, I take the laptop and put it in the small group, and they’re all working together as if they were here, it’s just that they’re remote. So we’re trying to make even the remote experience as close as possible to a school experience.”

As students began returning to the school in the fall, Sister Mary Rebekah said that it took some time for them to get back into the rhythm of in-person learning.

Sister Mary Rebekah, like all teachers, tried new techniques or switching up the lesson plan to meet the students’ needs.

“I was trying to flip my classroom, where students would watch the lesson at home then come to school having already filled out their notes. I will say, that didn’t really work very well. It was an experiment—we tried it. We just found it to be really difficult on the students. And I think mostly because the students, again, were struggling with returning back to school. Not because they didn’t want to be there, but because just reintegrating back into an academic environment was difficult.”

Sister Rachel Marie Boyd, OP, who is studying education at Aquinas College in Nashville, did her student teaching in Sister Mary Rebekah’s classroom last fall.

“She was very flexible, gung-ho, happy to do whatever,” Sister Mary Rebekah said.

Student teaching among the COVID distancing protocols, hybrid classrooms, and changing lesson plans might have been more stressful than in any other year, but student teachers got a front-row seat at problem-solving and quickly adapting in the classroom.

“I think what was beautiful about the student teacher is she really did get a very positive experience even though it wasn’t under the most ideal of circumstances,” Sister Mary Rebekah said.

Aquinas College sends Dominican sisters doing their student teaching to Notre Dame High School, Knoxville Catholic High School, and St. Mary School in Oak Ridge, where other Sisters teach full-time. During the year, those student teachers played a part in helping schools find creative solutions to meet students where they are amid the pandemic and engage them in their education.

“I know that my call is to teach the whole human person who is in front of me,” Sister Rachel Marie said. “It is a gift to teach young people and to guide them to deeper knowledge of themselves and of the Lord. Aquinas [College] has prepared me to embrace this gift with reverence and enthusiasm.”

She took her Notre Dame math students outside and had them solve math problems with sidewalk chalk. This let them get some fresh air while staying socially distanced during class.

“During the current pandemic, the need to focus on the dignity of each person and to accompany students, colleagues, and families has become even more vital,” said Sister Matthew Marie Cummings, OP, a professor of education at Aquinas College.

“Examples of how Aquinas student teachers have risen to this call can be seen in the creative ways the teacher candidates engaged their students and families to continue the sense of community during a time of isolation. Class group-work being accomplished outside with high school math students using sidewalk chalk to solve problems, and students and family members sharing memories and expressing gratitude for veterans by creating a Veterans Day Commemoration Wall using a digital tool to collaborate and encourage family discussions. The principles haven’t changed. We just have to be more creative in how we engage others,” Sister Matthew Marie added.

Sister Rachel Marie Boyd, OP, leads classroom instruction at Notre Dame High School during the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus presented a learning curve that Dominican Sisters and all Diocese of Knoxville teachers have learned from and managed well.

Sister Mary Rebekah echoed the sentiment that the fundamentals haven’t changed this year, but there has been a need to be more flexible and understand that some students have struggled during this time.

“I think that the students are finding they appreciate going to school. I think they are realizing they like school, that they want to be in school….We found that they were actually very motivated to do whatever it takes to stay live and in person,” she said. Sister Scholastica Niemann, OP, who teaches at Knoxville Catholic High School, agreed that while it has been a difficult year, in many ways a lot of good has come out of it.

“I think they [student teachers] actually feel very blessed to be doing their student teaching now because I think we’re all just realizing how important it is to have the personal connection. As helpful as the technology is, the flip side is it’s making us more aware of how precious the actual face-to-face interaction with other people is. When you go long stretches without seeing people, it’s very hard for us. I think the student teachers, they’re being stretched and being challenged, but I think they also recognize that it’s really a great blessing,” Sister Scholastica said.

“Teaching is so rewarding because you’re always trying to meet each individual student where they’re at. So it’s always a bit of a juggling act to get to each individual student. But then you add into the mixture students who are at home or are having technological difficulties. It was actually really neat to learn the different programs—the Teams call and Zoom—and learning how to connect students to the classroom when they’re remote,” she added. “It’s been a really great opportunity to learn the technology. You always think, ‘Well, someday I’ll learn all that,’ and then that day comes and you’re like, ‘I have to figure this out.’”

Sister Scholastica said that this year has given her more time to reflect on her life as both a religious Sister and a teacher and the connection between the two.

“The Sisters are just in awe of what all of the teachers here at Knoxville Catholic are able to do for the students in the midst of them going home to care for their families, dealing with all of the uncertainty that I think a lot of families have experienced this past year. The Sisters, we get to go home to our prayers and that kind of foundation we have in the convent. It’s been so beautiful to see all of the teachers here at Knoxville Catholic just give 100 percent and more of themselves to the vocation of teaching and helping those students,” she said.

The Sisters who teach at Knoxville Catholic share a convent with the sisters who teach at St. Mary School in Oak Ridge.

Sister Marie Blanchette Cummings, OP, principal of St. Mary School, reflected on how the past year affected her students. Like the older high school students, the students at St. Mary struggled with new technology and precautions, but with their teachers’ concerted efforts, they, too, have had a successful school year.

“Teachers by nature want to meet the needs of all of the students, and it is hard when there are some emotional wounds there. And it is hard to read how a student is doing when they are on a teeny, tiny square on a computer screen. And if anything goes wrong with technology, you lose the kids that are in front of you while you try to fix the computer program,” Sister Marie Blanchette said.

Last March when the schools moved online, Sister Marie Blanchette recalled having many faculty meetings with teachers as they planned how to continue teaching, getting students the resources they need, and checking in on each family to make sure they were OK at home. As they realized that schools would remain online through the end of the school year, they donated the food in the cafeteria to needy families and parishioners.

“It was just amazing to see everyone thinking of everyone else,” she said.

Like many people, the Sisters spent a lot of time at home last spring. They taught remotely and spent time playing board games and baking. They did not spend the summer or Christmas with their Sisters at the motherhouse in Nashville in order to protect the older Sisters from any exposure to COVID-19.

“It was hard but definitely a sacrifice we were willing to make,” Sister Marie Blanchette said.

“It has helped us draw closer to one another. We get to spend that quality family time together, so that’s been a great benefit,” Sister Scholastica said. “I think it’s also made each of us more aware that our life as religious is grounded in prayer. There has been more time for that kind of space in our life for the regular prayer and quiet and silence needed to enable us to do the very difficult work of then going back into the schools. I’m just more aware now of the connection between our prayer life at the convent and then taking that back into the school.”

That connection is what keeps the Dominican Sisters grounded through chaotic times such as the past year. Their desire to serve God has led them into the classrooms to lovingly instruct students and care for each individual they teach. Like everyone, the pandemic has affected their work and home life, but it has also brought a new appreciation for what is most important.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I imagine that public Masses would not be happening,” Sister Marie Blanchette said, recalling how public celebration of the Mass in the diocese was suspended for 10 weeks last spring. “After that was gratitude because our pastor and associate pastor made sure that we had Mass every single day in our convent.”

“Back when the pandemic first started, we were able to livestream Mass from the convent,” Sister Scholastica noted.

Until public Masses resumed on Pentecost weekend, parishioners at St. Mary Parish tuned in to the livestream from the Sisters’ convent for daily Mass.

“It was really beautiful to realize that because we have a chapel in our house and a priest was able to come celebrate Mass, we were able to bring the whole community with us to Mass in our little convent chapel,” Sister Scholastica said. “I think all of us were really realizing what a privilege it is to be able to go Mass. It was very difficult to hear some of the things that were happening, and then realizing as you live it that Christ is still with you. That’s the foundation of our life.”

“It’s been a hard year,” Sister Marie Blanchette said. “Everyone wishes it hadn’t happened. But even in the midst of the hard things that happened, there have been good things that have happened. I think families have rediscovered the importance of one another and spending time together….I’m hopeful that everyone has realized the value of the human person and how much we need one another.”

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