‘This award represents all Catholic school teachers’

Bishop Barry C. Knestout hugs Patricia Pitton, a teacher at St. Pius X, Norfolk, at the Excellence in Catholic Education awards dinner in Richmond, April 20. Pitton won the Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Award, the top award for teachers in the diocese. (Photo/Michael Mickle)

Diocese’s top teacher dedicates Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Award ‘to all of us’

This award really represents ALL Catholic school teachers and I dedicate it to all of us,” said Patricia Pitton.

The beloved teacher at St. Pius X Catholic School, Norfolk, won this year’s Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Award, the diocese’s top award honoring excellence in its educators.

The diocesan Office of Catholic Schools (OCS) held its sixth annual Excellence in Catholic Education Celebration on Thursday, April 20, in Richmond.

Bishop Barry C. Knestout and Superintendent Kelly Lazzara recognized teachers for their hard work, dedication, and professionalism – and for serving their school communities while exemplifying the mission of OCS.

During the opening prayer, the bishop asked God to “strengthen the vocation” of all teachers and faculty, so they can help their students experience the love and beauty of Catholic schools.

Bishop Knestout also expressed gratitude for the high standard the teachers have set for Catholic education, and the sacrifices they have made so that more students can grow and carry on the faith.

Earlier this year, administrators and colleagues at each Catholic school in the diocese selected a teacher based on their “exceptional commitment to Catholic education through leadership and service to their students, parents, colleagues, parishes and school communities.”

From that list of 23 teachers, three were announced as winners of Catholic Educator Awards: Susan Bender, from Our Lady of Mount Carmel School (OLMC), Newport News; Beatrice Korka, from St. Gregory the Great Catholic School, Virginia Beach; and Janet White, from Star of the Sea Catholic School, Virginia Beach.

Full circle

Collectively, the group of 23 educators recognized that night shares more than 300 years of teaching experience.

(left to right) Dominican Sister Anna Joseph, principal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School (OLMC), Newport News; Megan Jones Pearring, Charlottesville Catholic School; and Susan Bender, OLMC. Both Pearring and Bender received educator awards, and Pearring was once Bender’s student at OLMC. (Photo/Michael Mickle)

Five of the teachers have spent their entire careers teaching in Catholic schools. Ten were products of Catholic schools themselves.

A former student of St. Pius X School is now the principal there and remembers when Seton Award winner Pitton arrived at the school as a teacher. Decades later, he’s back and she’s still there!

One of Pitton’s former students, Jennifer Grimm, is now a teacher at Portsmouth Catholic Regional School and was one of the 23 teachers honored this year.

“I was probably more proud of that than my own award, because I felt I had come full circle,” Pitton said.

Another of this year’s honorees, Megan Jones Pearring of Charlottesville Catholic School, was once a student of Susan Bender, this year’s winner from OLMC.

‘I am no different’

“I feel like I am no different from any of the other teachers,” said Pitton.

Patricia Pitton

She said she was astounded when her name was called for the Seton award.

Pitton has spent 39 years teaching at St. Pius X. She has taught third, fifth, and sixth grade, and is currently teaching middle school science and sixth grade math.

She said she started off teaching in public schools but then decided to transfer to Catholic schools because “I was raised with higher expectations.”

She calls Catholic school a family, not just a community.

The principal wrote that Pitton is “often the first teacher our alumni visit when they stop by school or school events.”

Pitton said her former students often visit her and she stays in touch with many of them.

Her colleagues describe her this way: “Pat is one of the first teachers in school and is one of the last teachers to leave the building and she does it joyfully.”

Pitton said many people have tried to convince her to switch to public schools for the higher pay and benefits.

“I believe in Catholic education and all it entails with all my heart,” she said.

Pitton’s favorite part of the job is when she sees “a child’s face and eyes light up when they understand what they have been struggling with.”

She remembers a fifth grade student who resisted school the entire year, and she refused to give up on him. At the end of the year, he brought her a bouquet of flowers with a handwritten thank you note, saying he loved her and would always remember her. Pitton said he grew up to be very successful.

“When we see our students succeed, when they send their own students back to us to teach them and see the love of God shining through each one of them, it makes it all worthwhile,” Pitton said

Profound impact

Bender is in her 26th year at OLMC, and said, “As a first grade teacher, building faith formation in my students is a top priority.”

She recalls one of the greatest moments in her career was meeting a student who said she did not believe in God. That student had a conversion while in Bender’s class. One day, the student announced she was going to be baptized and asked Bender to be her godmother.

Susan Bender

“I never imagined touching the life of a child in such a profound way,” Bender recalled.

The faculty who nominated Bender said the “resounding word to describe Miss Bender was dedicated.”

In addition to her work in the classroom, Bender mentors new teachers, coaches, and serves on many committees.

School administrators said Bender’s joy and commitment were evident when the teacher was asked to move classrooms twice in the last two years. Bender had been in the same classroom for 24 years.

“Anyone who has been teaching for years knows what a chore this can be!” said her colleagues. “She packed and unpacked joyfully…twice!”

“What a gift to have such a dedicated teacher who can see when there is a need for the good of the school and is happy to make sacrifices along the way,” they wrote in her nomination letter.

Bender said she was “surprised” when her name was called for the diocesan award and calls it a “true blessing.”

The best part of her job is “seeing the growth of the children spiritually and academically.”

‘Something to live up to’

“Now I feel like I have something to live up to,” said Korka, another diocesan winner. “I was just shocked – and feel very honored.”

The second grade teacher has been teaching at St. Gregory the Great for nine years. Her colleagues say Korka has “proven herself to be an extraordinary teacher.”

Korka’s classroom time is a mix of independent work time, partner time, and small groups so the students can be engaged with their peers. She says another important aspect of her class is student-directed learning, which teaches the children responsibility, hard work, self-control, and kindness.

“Beatrice lives her faith openly, quietly, and without question is a light for all to see,” the faculty wrote in her nomination letter.

Beatrice Korka

Korka said she grew up in a military family who moved a lot and found comfort and stability in her Catholic education.

“In my classroom, I am Jesus’ hands. I am bringing the faith and love of Christ directly to my students,” she said.

“My goal is for all of my students to know that our faith is a lifestyle, not something we practice only at church or during religion class,” she added.

“I am humbled by the role I am called to play in their lives and in their faith formation.”

‘Always faithful’

Tears could be seen in White’s eyes after she was called to receive her diocesan award.

“I was amazed – it was truly phenomenal to know they care that much,” she said at the end of the night.

According to her school administrators, “‘Always faithful’ is the motto that Janet has followed her whole life, first as a career Marine and then for the past 13 years as an educator at Star of the Sea.”

As a P.E. teacher, her colleagues say she “shares her spirit and energy with faculty, staff, parents,

Janet White

and also keeps in contact with numerous alumni which continues to strengthen the fabric of our school.”

Catholic education is a family affair for White. Her parents attended Catholic schools.

She is the eighth of ten children; she and all her siblings “reaped the rewards of Catholic education.”

White says all five of her children also attended Catholic schools. She says becoming a Catholic educator has been “by far the most rewarding experience I have ever had.”

“Watching my students grow, knowing that God is working through me, I am the vessel chosen to help them grow in their faith is profound,” White added.

Editor’s note: Check out the April 17 issue of catholicvirginian.org to see Bishop Barry C. Knestout’s “Christ Our Hope” column titled “Three Components Key to Sustaining Catholic Schools.”

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