Aquinas’ dean working to support Catholic educators

Sister Mary Grace Watson

The role of the Catholic educator goes beyond the intellectual development of their students, said the new dean of the School of Education at Aquinas College in Nashville.

“I think the role of the Catholic teacher is to work with parents, who are the primary educators, to guide and inspire young people to come to know their vocation in life and become the person that God created them to be so they can truly be happy in this life and in heaven,” said Sister Mary Grace Watson, O.P. who is in her first year as the dean of Aquinas’ School of Education.

Teaching is more than a job, Sister Mary Grace said. “It really is a vocation to guide these young people to be saints, which is so needed in our world today.”

The School of Education is the primary focus and largest program at Aquinas, which is owned and operated by the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville, who have sisters teaching in Catholic schools across the United States and beyond.

Currently, the college has about 50 students, 40 of whom are Dominican sisters, Sister Mary Grace said. The school would like to attract more lay students who are not members of the St. Cecilia Congregation, she added.

The undergraduate degrees offered by Aquinas’ School of Education include: a bachelor of science for an interdisciplinary studies major with an elementary education minor; a bachelor of science degree with an English major and a secondary education minor, and another with a history major and a secondary education minor. The degrees in English and history are for students preparing to teach at the secondary school level.

The graduate degrees offered by the School of Education include: a master of education in teaching and learning for individuals who presently hold a degree and/or licensure in teaching and who would like to pursue and advanced degree; a master of arts in teaching for elementary education and a master of arts in teaching for secondary education for individuals who hold an undergraduate degree in a discipline outside education.

“It’s an excellent program for Catholic education in particular,” Sister Mary Grace said. “I feel we have so much to offer, especially to Catholic schools at a time when Catholic schools are struggling with Catholic identity.”

Catholic schools can incorporate the faith in every subject, Sister Mary Grace said. “I think that’s something that’s woven into our program.”

As one of only two Catholic colleges in Tennessee, she said, “We really have a responsibility to share what we have to offer.”

Sister Mary Grace, who graduated from Aquinas in 2002, taught second and fourth grade for nine years in elementary schools in Jackson, Tennessee, North Beach, Maryland, Kennesaw, Georgia, and Newport News, Virginia.

She then served for three years as assistant principal at Saint John Paul the Great High School in Potomac Shores, Virginia, which has an emphasis on bioethics. In that position, Sister Mary Grace coordinated the school’s student house system, designed to help students build community, and she helped with professional development of teachers.

Her next stop was in McEwen, Tennessee, where she served as principal of St. Patrick School from 2014 to 2020.

“I went from a huge suburban high school to a very small rural elementary school, so it was quite an adjustment,” Sister Mary Grace said. “A lot of the things I learned at John Paul I could use at St. Patrick.”

She has been drawing on her experience as a teacher and administrator as she reviews the programs at Aquinas.

“The past couple of months I’ve spent time looking at our programs, the classes we offer, the professors’ syllabi, and the richness of the courses we offer,” Sister Mary Grace said. “That lines up with the challenges we’re seeing in our schools, the things I saw as a principal.”

Among those challenges are meeting the social and emotional needs of the students and better using technology in the classroom. “Those are things that are part of the curriculum” at Aquinas, she said.

“Another thing we’re working on this year is recognizing sometimes teachers can’t afford to take the time to take a whole class. So, we’re offering webinars to offer what we have in smaller pieces and make it more available,” Sister Mary Grace said.

“We had our first webinar a few weeks ago,” and about 50 people from across the country and Canada participated, Sister Mary Grace said.

The topic was “Cultivating Hope and Trust and Helping Students with Anxiety in the Classroom.”

“It was a topic that was very timely,” Sister Mary Grace said. “Anxiety is affecting kids younger and younger,” and students’ anxiety is heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The children are very much affected by the pandemic,” she said. “The uncertainty of our climate does affect them. And when their parents are worried it does trickle down to them.”

For more information about the Education in Mission Workshop webinars or to register, visit Aquinas’ website, www.aquinascollege.edu.

“I think we’re at a really good place here at Aquinas right now,” Sister Mary Grace said. “We’ve gone through the strategic planning process and we have a really good vision of how we can best serve the Church. … We’re continuing to look for opportunities to do that.”