Teacher Appreciation Week during the first week of May took on a special meaning this year for Jill Rison, an instructional specialist and art and math teacher at St. Mary’s School in Bryantown, Maryland.

On May 5, the St. Mary’s faculty was having a Zoom meeting online, since they couldn’t meet in person due to the shutdown of Catholic schools since mid-March as a precaution against the spread of the coronavirus. But during the meeting, Bill Ryan, the Archdiocese of Washington’s secretary of Catholic schools, made a surprise announcement, that Rison was one of 10 local Catholic school teachers who would be receiving the 2020 Golden Apple Award for teaching excellence.

But the appreciation for Rison didn’t end there. Moments later that afternoon, “they surprised me with a parade at my house,” he said.

Rison and her family live in Charlotte Hall, about a 10 minute drive from the school. She explained that after she hung up from the Zoom conference, “I was in shock. All of a sudden, I heard horns. People were driving down my driveway in a caravan.”

Teachers and administrators from the Charles County Catholic school then appeared in her yard, holding balloons and congratulatory signs, waving pompoms, and they brought a cake, too.

“I’m usually the party planner!” Rison said of being surprised twice that afternoon.

That show of affection reflected what the teacher said she likes best about St. Mary’s, where she has taught for the past six years – the family spirit there.

“When you walk through the doors of our school and parish, you truly become part of our family,” she said. “I know my students’ parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. Everyone’s welcome… We love everyone.”

St. Mary’s School and Parish in Bryantown are part of Rison’s family, too. She and her husband Marty and their children Hannah and Brody are members of the parish. Hannah just graduated as an eighth grader from St. Mary’s School after attending the school since she was in prekindergarten, and Brody continues there as a fourth grader this fall.

Jill Rison, a teacher at St. Mary’s School in Bryantown, poses with her children Hannah, who just graduated from the eighth grade at St. Mary’s, and Brody, who will be a fourth grader there this fall. Their dog Monty, a Maltese and Yorkie mix, gets in on the picture. (Courtesy photo)

Jill Rison said she was inspired to become Catholic by her husband, who grew up as a member of St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in Indian Head and graduated from St. Mary’s Ryken High School in Leonardtown. Now Hannah will be attending St. Mary’s Ryken this fall.

The teacher joked that her family has “a long tradition of St. Mary’s.”

Rison studied business and art at Salisbury University on Maryland’s Eastern Shore and later earned a master’s in education at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore. Before coming to St. Mary’s, she was a public school teacher in Charles County, where she was a resource teacher and taught third grade.

“I’ve always loved teaching,” she said. “I love to be able to shape young minds. It’s fun to see the light bulbs go off. I love building relationships with students.”

As an instructional specialist at St. Mary’s, she leads acceleration and remediation groups, providing extra academic challenges to students or assisting students who need help.

This past year, she also taught art and algebra to students there.

When Catholic school campuses had to close due to the coronavirus safety precautions this spring, “we didn’t miss a beat,” Rison said. “We had Google classroom already. We didn’t miss one day of instruction. We left that Friday and started that following Monday with instruction.”

Rison set up a Facebook page where parents could post their children’s art projects, which included doing drawings, photography and collages based on nature. She also provided links to students so they could study great artists and their work. Twice a week, Rison led online algebra classes for students.

Sharon Caniglia, the longtime principal of St. Mary’s who is retiring this summer, praised Rison as a creative, knowledgeable and talented teacher who meets the needs of the students in her art and algebra classes and in the small groups that she leads.

Father Rory Conley, St. Mary’s pastor, said Rison is a “great role model for students” who provides “excellent and quality instruction in a faith-filled classroom.”

The Golden Apple Awards are supported by the Donahue Family Foundation, and Rison and the other 2020 recipients of that honor will receive a $5,000 prize along with a golden apple and a certificate.

Jill Rison, an instructional specialist who also teachers art and algebra at St. Mary’s School in Bryantown, is one of 10 Catholic school teachers across the Archdiocese of Washington to receive the 2020 Golden Apple Award for teaching excellence.

Rison said she loves teaching in a Catholic school. “It makes it so much more meaningful to address issues using our faith,” she said.

The Golden Apple Award recipient said her greatest blessing in that work is “the relationships I can build, seeing students be successful, going on to college. I’m still in touch with many of them, and they let me know how they’re doing.” And she added that blessing includes “seeing them grow in their faith, too, seeing them at Mass on Sundays.”