By Jim Wogan
Mary Ann Deschaine, a veteran educator with nearly three decades of experience as a teacher, principal, and superintendent, was announced as the new superintendent of Catholic schools for the Diocese of Knoxville on May 31.
She served as superintendent of Catholic schools in the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich., from 2011-18, and held the same position in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Va., from 2018 until her appointment in Knoxville.
Mrs. Deschaine is married and has five grown children. She and her husband, Mark, a university-level associate professor of education, have now made Knoxville their home.
Just two days after her first day on the job, Mrs. Deschaine appeared on the “Inside the Diocese of Knoxville” podcast with host Jim Wogan to discuss her transition to East Tennessee and her very early assessment of Catholic schools here. The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
JW: Welcome to… the diocese.
MD: Thank you very much. I am very excited to be here… such a beautiful diocese.
JW: I was walking through the parking lot, and I saw, I think they were teachers getting ready for the school year. You can see the excitement. I can imagine, even though you’re not teaching, because of the transition, you have been doing your own share of moving boxes and all that. The job aside, how has moving down to Tennessee been going for you?
MD: It’s been wonderful. My husband and I have been roadies. We drove from West Virginia to Knoxville, unloaded, and then (we’re) kind of figuring out our way around town. Things have been going well.
JW: What struck you about this diocese, and why did you decide at this point in your career to make the move down here?
MD: Knoxville is a very vibrant area. It is growing. Just seeing the interaction, the people, all the building that is going on, it is an up-and-coming area. I believe it has a great growth mindset, and I am excited to be a part of that. I think “forward thinking” is part of any dynamic that needs to be occurring right now, and there are changes that are happening, and I like change. Change is good.
JW: We’re still a small diocese. We’re a mission diocese. There is a sense of optimism about what can be done, what has been done, and where this diocese might be heading. Clearly, schools are a big part of that equation.
MD: I think there are opportunities for growth, and there are a lot of things going on at the state level through parent choices and being able to take (education funds) with them, and our non-public schools are an option, but more importantly, our Catholic schools are becoming options for that through educational savings accounts and new ways of thinking about educating our children; we’re able to take advantage of that.
I think that our Catholic schools in the Diocese of Knoxville are poised to do that. There is so much growth that can happen, and that is a positive thing. That’s a positive thing for our faith, specifically.
JW: The growth in Catholic schools [is] in this part of the country. The numbers aren’t good [elsewhere], but here things are really on an uptick, and I know the diocese has been a part of that. One of the things I heard from you when you were speaking to new employees [on July 26], was to ‘teach Jesus.’ That was one of your opening salvos.
MD: My focus coming in is that we are here to teach Jesus in our Catholic schools. But more importantly, too, is to teach Jesus in preparing souls for the kingdom.
You can go anywhere and get your academics. I kind of said this at the new employee orientation. There are homeschools, there are online schools, there are public schools, there are non-public schools, there are a flavor-flav of whatever type of Christian school that you would like, but we are Catholic schools, and our ultimate goal has to be to prepare those souls for the kingdom, and then it’s the athletics, or the academics, or the extra-curricular, and I think that’s what our focus has to be, and it is here in the Diocese of Knoxville.
It is preparing those souls for the kingdom, it’s the infusion of our Catholic faith in every subject area, and everything that we do—on and off the field, in the pews at church, in the desk at school. It is ‘teach Jesus’ and prepare our souls for the kingdom.
JW: Can you discuss your superintendent experience, how it started, and what eventually brought you to Knoxville?
MD: I am going to go back a little bit. I went to public schools, and then I came back to Catholic schools. I chose to go into Catholic schools in a superintendency position in the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich. There are seven dioceses in Michigan, and I was in the middle one; it is across the middle of the state.
I was fortunate when I was there that I had a bishop who encouraged me to take on additional leadership roles, so I was also president of the Michigan Association of Non-Public Schools. I wore that hat, which included non-public schools of any faith.
After that, I meandered down to West Virginia. That was definitely a faith-filled mission. I was there for five years. Now I have come here, and I am with the Diocese of Knoxville starting out another career with different tools, and I am going to use those going forward.
JW: You spent seven years in Saginaw and then you transitioned to take the superintendent position in the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston. As someone who has been through those transitions, how has that helped you prepare for this transition into this diocese?
MD: I come with a lot of different tools to address different needs. It has always been a learning experience. I was with a diocese that had 13 schools and went to a diocese with 24 schools.
I have learned along the way, but I think that’s OK. I think that life is a journey, and it is all about experiences and knowing what you do well and how you can do better. But it is building upon what is in place, and I hopefully have those skills to help people say, “you’re doing this great, but have you thought about this next? Where are you going with it? I can help you with that because this is a little bit of what I did, and let’s see where you can take it.”
JW: Was there something you learned in Saginaw and then in Charleston that you will use now that you have come here to Knoxville?
MD: Sure. I think part of it is helping people to grow in their profession, to help them grow in their faith. So, I think it’s steppingstones along the way. I am always about taking people to the next level and helping them to experience life and to be the better person that Jesus wants you to be. I think everyone has their own tool belt, and I’d like to add some tools to their belt for them.
JW: What is it about education that excites you?
MD: It’s the kids, about seeing their potential. When you see their eyes light up when you have done that experiment in science class, or you have the little guy who finally ties his shoes by himself, those are important steps along the way. That’s what I get a kick out of.
It doesn’t matter if they’re older kids doing well on an exam or if it’s watching a play and having that shy kid get up there and sing that song and be the lead. That’s what it’s about. It’s about growing these kids and seeing what potential is in them and helping them unlock that along the way.
JW: You have only been on the job for a few days now, but I do want to talk about a few issues with the understanding that you are still getting to know Knoxville, and Knoxville is still getting to know you. Let’s talk a little bit about this diocese and nationwide with what is going on with Catholic schools. You mentioned educational savings accounts. How do you see that playing out, and what role would the diocese have in something like that?
MD: I think it’s great that states are looking at different opportunities for us as taxpayers to be able to have the funds follow the child. I think it’s important having non-public schools, faith-based schools having access to those funds.
I started off in Michigan, and we weren’t able to have the funds follow the kids, but when I was with the Association of Non-Public Schools, we really pushed to have some of those funds used to support programming or teachers that were able to provide services for students. From that step it has evolved a little bit more.
In West Virginia, they had just implemented a program called the Hope Scholarship program in which the funds would follow the children to whatever they wanted to do, including homeschooling. That’s a little bit different than other states. Homeschools may not have been a part of that mix.
Here in Tennessee, what I have seen so far, it’s similar to having the funds follow the children, but it’s county-based, and I think as soon as they get it under their belt and experiment with it a little bit more and figure out the bugs that are always inherent when you start something, I think it is going to go and be almost a state-wide program. We have opportunities… not just for tuition, but other support services. As Catholic schools, we can be that provider of those services, and I think that that’s an opportunity that we need to investigate.
JW: Parents have always been involved in the education of their children. It seems like they have become a little more vocal and a little more assertive. Do you see that in the Catholic school system like we’ve seen it in the public school system, or has it been different?
MD: I think that for parents right now, it’s changing, even from when I was in the classroom 20 years ago. It has evolved. I think parents want to be heard. They’re not as passive. I think that is important.
Parents are the primary educators of their children… that is grounded in everything that we do. I think that it’s nice that it is out there now, that people are listening to that.
JW: Safety is always something that comes up. Anything you can say to ease some minds as we head into the school year?
MD: In fact, at the orientation meeting, we had a lot of resource officers there, and that was a pleasant surprise. I haven’t experienced that in my other positions.
I was just reading about how the governor has put out a grant opportunity for our non-publics, and our schools have applied for that. I am encouraged by that, and we do have safety plans for the schools. So, as I get my feet wet and start seeing what is going on, we’ll have further discussions. It is safety and it is education.
JW: How has the role of superintendent changed over your career?
MD: I think it has changed that there are more opportunities out there and we have to become aware of that. By that, I mean the public sector is supporting our roles in a different way. There are more grant opportunities, so we have to be in tune with that.
We also have to do a lot more on the political side. There is a lot more lobbying that is being done. There is a lot more, not just parent’s voices, but as non-public, faith-based institutions, our voices have to be heard out there, too. Our numbers are growing as far as who we represent, and our voices need to be listened to also.
JW: Is there anything else you would like to comment on?
MD: The message I have is that we prepare souls for the kingdom, and that is our major goal, but we also prepare our kids to move forward. They are global citizens who are prepared to face the challenges that are going to be out there. Our world is changing, and we help them change to meet their needs.
JW: I know that you have met with school leaders, the principals, and the presidents. Have you had an opportunity to get around the diocese yet?
MD: It is getting on the calendar. Within the first month my goal is to go to all the schools, attend Mass at the schools, and meet the staff. I like to be an unannounced presence sometimes, so if you are a principal, I will be showing up at your door (laughs).
JW: Maybe unannounced is good (laughs). They won’t get nervous, and you get a better taste for what’s going on. Good luck with the new school year.
MD: Thank you. I am very excited to see what God has in store for all of us.
Listen to this and other episodes of the “Inside the Diocese of Knoxville” podcast by visiting https://dioknox.org/podcasts.