Kodiak teacher gives back to alma mater with a sense of purpose

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Maggie Schmitt grew up as a student walking the hallways of St. Mary’s Catholic School on Alaska’s Kodiak Island where she attended pre-school through eighth grade. From a young age she wanted to work with children. Six years ago she returned to her alma mater as an elementary teacher.

Her desire to reconnect with her remote Alaska hometown was kindled during her days at St. Joseph College in Rensselaer, Indiana. There she received a bachelor’s in education in 2012.

The Grey Nuns of the Sacred Heart first established St. Mary’s School in 1954. Back then there were only a dozen students. Since that time, the school has become a treasured part of Kodiak.

Now in her sixth year teaching, Schmitt oversees 19 fulltime students in third through fifth grade — about one-fifth of the student body. She teaches everything from religion to social studies and science.

“It’s about the children,” Schmitt said of her beloved vocation and the unique challenge of running a multi-grade classroom.

Teaching a multiple grades is rarely difficult from an academic standpoint, Schmitt noted. Differences in maturity levels of her students, however, are sometimes challenging, particularly with religious concepts. But Schmitt aims to teach in a developmentally appropriate manner to “make sure all students’ needs are addressed.”

This focus on each child is a feature of the school and a special blessing for Catholic schools in general, said Principal Teri Schneider.

“Maggie has dedicated her whole life to parish and community,” said Schneider, who has known Schmitt since she was a child. “She always had in her mind she would come back and teach here.”

This lifelong dedication causes the young teacher to see her career as a vocation arising from her Catholic faith.

“It helps my faith development to teach religion,” said Schmitt, who has taught at different grade levels. Children are curious, she said, recalling the question of one second-grader, who, preparing for sacraments, asked, “What does hell look like?”

Such surprises are part of her daily experience. Through exploration and sharing, she works diligently with both children and parents, and brings her own past experiences to play, said Principal Schneider.

“She consistently is working on improving techniques and ways to be more effective,” she said. “She is always open to new ideas.”

This openness and flexibility helps Schmitt trust the mission with which she has been entrusted, especially in difficult times. Between her first and second year of teaching, multiple changes in school and parish personnel created a certain unease. During those tumultuous years, the faculty and new administration focused on team building. In February 2017, Grey Nun Sister Diane Bardol, Principal of the school from 1968 to 2009 returned to Kodiak, briefly, to help re-vision the original mission of Saint Mary’s, whose enrollment once peaked at 200 students. Fellow Gray Nun Sister Bridget Connor, who taught at the school for nearly 20 years, joined her.

The presence of the nuns, and the events surrounding their visitation, enhanced Schmitt’s commitment to her vocation.

“This is what I am meant to do — continue the vision the nuns had when they started this school,” she said. Sensing the presence of the Holy Spirit in this process of discernment, she added, “This is where I am supposed to be. This is home.”

Saint Mary’s, with its diverse and transient population — many of whom are not Catholic — is like a small family within the larger Kodiak community, Schmitt said. A team effort is made by school personnel to get to know the parents, as well as the children. This emphasis on the family enhances the transmission of religious and social values.

Dedication to both her mission and the school’s vision inspired Schmitt to continue her education. This summer she will complete her master’s in education through the University of Alaska, Southeast.

It is this dedication that has made her a favorite among parents and students.

“We love her — she is so committed and conscientious, and engaged with the children,” said Sara Danelski, whose son, Liam, is a fifth grader in Schmitt’s class.

Liam said he likes his classroom and he feels safe there. He also praised his teacher’s academic skill.

“She has lots of tips and tricks to help you learn your multiplication facts, and is good in all subjects,” he said. “She is kind and loving and very patient.”


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