To the St. Raphael School community, fifth grade teacher Jerry Nash “takes the cake” – which the Archdiocese of Washington recognized with a surprise announcement on March 29 at the Rockville, Maryland, school, that he is among 11 local Catholic school teachers who will receive a 2019 Golden Apple Award for teaching excellence.

About two weeks earlier, Nash took the pies at the school, as the teacher – known for mixing learning, faith and fun in his classroom – invited his students to smash cream pies in his face to celebrate Pi Day on March 14.

“Jerry has a self-deprecating sense of humor that bonds easily with the kids,” said Teri Dwyer, St. Raphael’s principal. “It’s transparent to them that he’s lifting them up intellectually and spiritually, because it’s so much fun.”

The principal also noted, “Jerry Nash stands tall, literally and figuratively. He is a giant in our school community.”

The 6-foot-9-inch tall teacher did just that at the surprise Golden Apple Award announcement. After the schoolchildren began the day by praying together in the gym, Dwyer – who this past September was named as the Archdiocese of Washington’s 2018 Distinguished Principal of the Year, said, “This has been a big year for us at St. Raphael’s. The surprises keep coming.”

Then William Ryan – the archdiocese’s Superintendent of Schools – stepped forward and said that Nash was selected to receive the Golden Apple Award. The school community responded with loud applause, as six children walked on stage with a banner proclaiming their teacher’s honor, and he was handed golden and white balloons.

Expressing gratitude, Nash said was humbled by the award, adding that he was a teacher because of the students, and he loved his work. “Without you, I’m not here,” he said.

Wendy Anderson, the archdiocese’s Associate Superintendent for academics and leadership, explained that Nash and his fellow honorees will be recognized at a May 16 dinner at the Mayflower Hotel, and receive golden apples and a $5,000 check.

“When a school has a Golden Apple winner, the whole school wins,” she said, noting it reflects the faith and spirit of that community.

The Golden Apple Awards from the Pittsburgh-based Donahue Family Foundation are given in recognition of excellence in teaching and for commitment to Catholic education.

The St. Raphael fifth graders posed for a photo with their teacher, and many of the 22 students in the class gave him a group hug. Nash told them that they should have a pizza and ice cream party to celebrate, and one boy jokingly asked him what 5,000 divided by 22 was. As students left the gym, they were offered apple-shaped cookies with gold-colored icing.

Nash has been teaching the fifth grade this year at St. Raphael School after teaching seventh grade homeroom and middle school language arts there for the previous six years. At St. Raphael’s, he has also taught third and fourth grade math and language arts, and sixth and seventh grade social studies.

Patty Quinn, St. Raphael’s previous fifth grade teacher, died of cancer last year. She won the Golden Apple Award in 2014. Nash, who volunteered to succeed her as the fifth grade teacher, continues to display a poster that she placed near the door that reads, “When faced with two choices, always choose the kinder.”

“I left it on the wall, and it will stay there,” he said. “It’s a message I reinforce with my fifth graders.”

Nash and his wife Susan – who works for Frederick County public schools as a counselor – attend Mother Seton Parish in Germantown with their sons Christopher and Sean, who are students at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve always wanted to be a teacher. I’m a teacher because of the great teachers I’ve had,” said Jerry Nash, noting that he attended Catholic schools from nursery school through college, “and I feel that every day.”

Nash, who is 50, credited the impact of his teachers, first from Blessed Sacrament School in Washington, where he attended kindergarten through the fourth grade; then at The Heights School in Potomac, where he graduated from high school; and then at Loyola College of Maryland, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English. He also earned a master of arts degree in English and American literature from the University of Maryland.

He also credited the example of his parents. Nash said his mother Patricia, who died in 2013, was “a faith-filled teacher at home.” His father James, who died in 2017, worked as a lawyer, and later served as an ancient history and religion teacher at The Heights and as a facilities manager at the school, worked at the front desk at the Catholic Information Center and cared for people living with AIDS at the Gift of Peace home operated by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity in Washington.

“He (my father) felt God called him to be a lawyer, a husband, a father and a teacher,” and to later serve in those other roles, said Nash.

Teaching at a Catholic school has deepened his own faith, said Nash, explaining that Catholic teachers have the opportunity to witness to their faith by what they say and do.

The award-winning teacher said that as a student, his own teachers sparked his intellectual curiosity, and he hopes he gives that same gift to his students, and also helps them learn that “whatever vocation God calls them to be, that their faith is central to their lives, (that) God loves them no matter what… and accepts us no matter where you are or who you are.”

Father Michael Salah, St. Raphael’s pastor, was unable to attend the Golden Apple announcement because he was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In a letter nominating Nash for the award, the priest said, “Jerry is a man of great faith, and he builds up the body of Christ in his words and actions with our students, their parents, and his co-workers. Besides his work in the classroom, Jerry leads our students in daily song each morning in church, serves as a Eucharistic minister for our liturgies, prepares our school lectors, and serves on our administrative team.”

Molly Nagel – a mother of three students at St. Raphael School who helps teach children in the preschool there – also nominated Nash for the award. She said he is “a model of faith inside and outside the classroom,” and added that he “makes learning fun for the kids.”

Nash told students that if they brought in a homemade chocolate pudding or banana cream pie, they could smash it on his face for Pi Day, which is celebrated on March 14 because 3-14 are the first three digits in pi, the mathematical constant for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. He never expected 12 of them to take him up on that offer. Photos in the parish bulletin and videos on the school’s Facebook page show gleeful students smashing pie in their laughing teacher’s face.

His classroom includes posters explaining mathematical terms and scientific concepts, religious statues, and a window sill display of bobbleheads of Washington Nationals baseball players in various action poses, not far from a collection of rubber ducks. The teacher said that in addition to school being a place to foster students’ learning and faith, “it’s a place to have fun with your classmates and teachers,” and he said the Pi Day experience will be a special memory for him and his students.

Fifth grade student John Coene said, “Mr. Nash is such a great teacher. It’s always fun to be in his class… There’s never a dull moment!”

St. Raphael School fifth graders give a group hug to their teacher, Jerry Nash, after he was named a 2019 Golden Apple Award winner for teaching excellence. (CS photo/Mihoko Owada)