In Kelly Sweet’s kindergarten class at St. Mary’s School in Rockville, Maryland, she goes above and beyond the four walls of her classroom to expand the learning environment for her students. From the animals she raises inside her classroom, to the class garden in the outside courtyard, Sweet loves bringing many things to life for her students.

“It really flows with God’s creation and the kids can appreciate God’s creation and the opportunity to work with their hands out in the courtyard and the animals in our classroom… (That) allows for a lot of responsibility,” Sweet said.

Sweet was named as one of 10 Catholic school teachers from across the Archdiocese of Washington to receive the 2020 Golden Apple Award for teaching excellence.

After teaching at St. Mary’s School for nearly two decades, she still says that she and the school are “a perfect fit.”

“I always knew I was going to teach, I always knew I was going to work with children, so it was a really good fit,” she said.

When she first started teaching, one thing she loved about the lower grades was a child’s curiosity for learning.

“How could a young child not want to learn?,” she said. “I really purposefully thought, we’re going to make learning as part of their day so that they don’t even realize that they’re studying the life cycle of a plant, because they do it hands on, they don’t even realize that a goal is involved.”

Sweet said her approach to education goes beyond just meeting benchmarks and standards, but “I’m going to do it in a way that is developmentally appropriate for them, and in a fun way.”

The garden, as one example, provides the topic for reading and writing exercises as well, as students journal their activities and progress.

“We grow vegetables in the spring, we harvest in the fall… and I incorporate it all into the curriculum,” she said. “It was a really great opportunity for me to use all the multi-sensory approaches to learning and that universal learning design because of the way our classroom is set up.”

But as this spring brought along a new challenge with the global coronavirus pandemic, Sweet sent plant seeds to each of her students, with hopes that they will be able to grow some produce from home.

Her approach to teaching, she said, has given her the opportunity to embrace the diversity of learning that each child needs.

“It helps me be a better teacher because of the diversity in which all children learn from,” she said. “It’s a beautiful thing because I think I’ll teach until they tell me I can’t or until I think somebody should step in my shoes and take over.”  

One specific moment that she holds onto which expresses her appreciation for teaching at a Catholic school was 9-11, when the school first heard of the tragedy and immediately gathered in the church to pray the rosary.

“Once we could just go over to the church and pray a rosary, it just made sense where I was, because how could I make sense out of what was happening (on my own)?” she said. “The fact that we could just go over and pray, I think that is what made me decide that this is where I needed to be. When you can’t explain things that are horrific, you have this hope that we’re giving our children hope.”

The community that she’s also found at St. Mary’s for the past 19 years is an extension of her own family, she said, which is one other reason why she said she teaches at a Catholic school.

“In this day and age when things are so volatile, we can point to Jesus Christ as a way of being the number one teacher, the number one person on this Earth that set an example for each and every one of us,” she said. “I think the fact that we can say that in our classrooms, and we can practice that in our classrooms and use his discipleship to help children and to make them feel part of a community… it’s just a really wonderful way to explain things to kids when you can’t explain everything.”

The moment she learned that she received the Golden Apple Award, Sweet was on a Zoom call with the staff at St. Mary’s and when she first heard her name announced by Bill Ryan, the archdiocese’s secretary of Catholic schools, she was overwhelmed – and she stepped outside to find a banner in the front lawn of her house.  

“I felt so gracious because I have worked in this school for so long,” she said. “I do think that there are so many teachers that work in our schools and with the amount of work and dedication that I see, I think we’re all Golden Apple Award winners.”