Looking back on the 2019-20 school year’s final quarter, Margaret Rodriguez, a fifth grade language arts and homeroom teacher at St. Bernadette School in Silver Spring, Maryland, said it was an unprecedented time that neither teachers nor students would soon forget. Yet, in spite of the challenges and uncertainties due to the COVID-19 shutdown, she said there are many things to be grateful for and valuable lessons learned during the past three months.

“It reminded me of my commitment to Catholic education, what I’ve done in the past and what I hope to still do in the future,” said Rodriguez, one of 10 Catholic school teachers from across the Archdiocese of Washington to receive the 2020 Golden Apple Award.  The prestigious annual honor sponsored by the Donahue Family Foundation recognizes excellence, leadership, commitment to Catholic values, and devotion to teaching in Catholic schools among archdiocesan Catholic school teachers.

When the stay-at-home orders in mid-March closed all schools in Maryland and the District of Columbia, Rodriguez said the St. Bernadette faculty was well prepared to utilize several internet communication platforms, such as Google Classroom and Zoom, to get the school’s distance learning up and running swiftly and smoothly.

“We didn’t want to make things more difficult, but support our families socially and emotionally and keep our students learning academically,” she said.

Rodriguez said she missed in-person classroom instruction, but she continued online live discussions with her students on the books they were reading and worked hard to keep her students engaged every day. For her students, some of whom are the children of first responders, she said she wanted to keep the remote learning experience positive for them, particularly with the fears surrounding the coronavirus disease.

One way that helped, she said, was holding remote homeroom “Morning Meetings,” in which Rodriguez and her students would greet each other and pray together to start the day. “I really cared about where they were at this time, especially with things changing day by day,” she said. Rodriguez also spoke of her gratitude for the St. Bernadette School parents who helped their children adapt to the online instruction methods. “I am so appreciative of the families because I know what it took to support (their children),” she said. “It was wonderful to know we had families willing to do that. They were so positive and helpful.”

Rodriguez, 41, who grew up in the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament Parish in Washington, D.C., received her bachelor’s degree in English literature from St. Mary’s College in Southern Maryland. She earned her master’s degree in teaching from Notre Dame of Maryland University, as well as a graduate certificate from Loyola University in administration and supervision. She is currently working on a graduate certificate in special education. Rodriguez and her husband, Jonathan Champion, have two children who attend St. Bernadette School – Nicholas, who will be in fifth grade this fall, and Molly, a rising second grader.

After college, she wasn’t sure at first what career path to follow, but decided to go into teaching, beginning as a first grade teacher at St. Augustine School in  Washington, D.C., where she taught for two years. She said working there confirmed her calling to serve in education. “It was an incredible experience,” said Rodriguez, adding how honored she felt to start her teaching career at St. Augustine with its historical significance in the archdiocese as a parish founded in 1858 by free men and women of color.

In order to work closer to home, she first began teaching third grade at St. Bernadette School in 2006. Rodriguez, who also serves as the school’s assistant principal, said she admires the close-knit, diverse, faith-filled school community, where she is blessed to be both a teacher and a school parent.

During a faculty meeting on Zoom last month, Rodriguez said she was surprised, honored and humbled to learn she had been chosen as a Golden Apple Award winner. St. Bernadette’s principal, Ted Ewanciw, praised Rodriguez not only as an outstanding mentor to her colleagues, but also as an exceptional educator who always goes above and beyond for her students.

“Margaret truly understands how to reach out and inspire her students, caring for them as individuals and working with families to instill positive self-esteem and a kind heart in each of these students. I have watched her create a positive classroom experience year after year,” he said. “She embraces the mission of the Catholic school educator every day and her commitment to all our children and their families is to be commended.”

Although Rodriguez is busy wrapping up a school year that ended in such an unexpected way, cleaning out her classroom and rearranging desks in anticipation of new guidelines, she said she looks forward to returning in the fall to the St. Bernadette School building, where academics, social justice and the Catholic faith are never socially distant from each other. For this reason, Rodriguez said she teaches in a Catholic school.

“I always felt a call to talk about my faith and academics,” she said. “The Catholic faith is the lens to view all our subjects.”

Margaret Rodriguez, a fifth grade language arts and homeroom teacher at St. Bernadette School in Silver Spring, is one of 10 Catholic school teachers across the Archdiocese of Washington receiving the 2020 Golden Apple Award for teaching excellence. (Courtesy photo)