Recipients of diocesan school service awards demonstrate faith is at the heart of Catholic education
FORT WORTH- The Diocese of Fort Worth hosted School Service Awards on Oct. 13 at Nolan Catholic High School, beginning with a Mass led by Bishop Michael Olson and followed by addresses by Bishop Olson and Melissa Kasmeier, chief operations officer of schools.
The culmination of the event was award presentations to faculty and staff members celebrating service milestones at schools in the diocese.
Several honorees shared with North Texas Catholics why they work in Catholic education.
A mission with purpose
Catholic schools have been a part of Linda Kuntz’s life for as long as she can remember.
She was a student at Our Lady of Victory (OLV) in Fort Worth and graduated from Nolan.
After earning a business degree and working in business for a while, she decided she wanted to teach.
Kuntz got a full-time job working in the office at OLV while she completed her teacher certification at the University of Texas at Arlington at night.
She taught pre-K and kindergarten for many years before becoming principal at OLV for eight years until it closed in 2021. Then she became the assistant principal at St. Joseph Catholic School in Arlington.
Now she’s celebrating 30 years in Fort Worth diocesan schools and said that she’s stayed so long because she sees the job as a mission.
“It’s not the vacation or the money. My faith is very important to me, and I’m able to take my faith to work with me,” she said. “I get to serve God. I get to serve in a mission with purpose and people.”
Kuntz enjoyed her years as a kindergarten teacher and teaching young children about God, Jesus, and Mary in ways they could understand.
“We taught them through prayer, children’s Bible reading, song, movement, all encompassed in the classroom,” she said.
She talked with students about the meaning behind what went on during Mass, and they learned about the saints.
In recent years, she has enjoyed seeing her former students as they have become successful adults and citizens, seminarians, and parents.
“It’s a warm feeling to see what Catholic education has done for them as they’ve grown,” Kuntz said.
Faith at the center
Chuck Petter, athletic director and physical education teacher at St. John the Apostle Catholic School in North Richland Hills, was a St. John’s parent years before he began teaching there.
Petter’s oldest daughter was a fifth grader when the vice principal asked Petter to apply for an opening in the P.E. department. He was unemployed at the time, so he decided to apply.
Now he’s receiving a service award for 25 years at St. John’s.
Petter has taught both P.E. and religion classes.
“I enjoy watching kids grow and mature and develop, not just in their personality but athletically, too,” he said.
He sees how they learn coordination and begin to develop talents for different sports. He’s got former students playing football at Nolan and college soccer.
The second of nine children, Petter grew up playing all kinds of sports.
“We had our own baseball team,” he joked.
Petter was a walk-on member of the Oklahoma State University football team and learned to play rugby there.
Children can learn a lot about life from sports, but faith is the central element at St. John’s.
Catholic schools allow students and staff to pray, talk about their faith, and make the Sign of the Cross, he said.
“We see faith in the daily operation of how you live your life,” he said.
Petter said he counts it as a privilege to work in such an environment.
“It’s been a pleasure working here,” he said. “I’m not really considering it as just a job — it’s a service, helping these kids.”
Beginning with Prayer
Like Petter, Debbie Steidle, who teaches Spanish to students from pre-K to third grade at Holy Trinity Catholic School in Grapevine, was a parent at the school before she began teaching.
She taught special education in public schools before her son was born, then stayed home with him until he started kindergarten at Holy Trinity.
She began substitute teaching, but they asked her to take on the role of teaching Spanish.
“I said, ‘How about if I do it until you find somebody else?’” Steidle said.
Now she’s celebrating 20 years at Holy Trinity.
When she was training to be a teacher, she always wanted to focus on special education, but teaching Spanish to early elementary students turned out to be a dream job.
“When you start them young, they’re little sponges,” she said. “They learn fast and say the words correctly. They’re so loving and caring and enthused about learning.”
Steidle said she treasures going to Mass with students once a week and on Holy Days.
While her son was in school at Holy Trinity, she enjoyed seeing him at Mass and helping out as a Scripture reader.
She said it’s hard to believe that it’s been 20 years.
“I stayed because of being able to go to Mass and being able to pray,” she said. “Teachers have prayer for the day. What a wonderful way to start the day!”
A comfortable classroom
Ron Clark just passed the 15-year mark as a math teacher at Cassata Catholic High School in Fort Worth.
Why has he stayed so long?
“Overwhelmingly, I like the students. I like working with students,” Clark said. “The administration is exemplary. And the 14 people who work here — everyone gets along well.”
Clark said that Cassata students “are respectful and courteous,” where the most common problem is kids not finishing their homework.
Cassata is an alternative school for students who prefer a more flexible schedule, small classes, and a self-paced curriculum.
He enjoys the challenge of adapting his teaching to different learning styles. You can’t teach the same way to every student.
Clark places a high importance on controlling “the demeanor of the classroom” with humor and compassion.
“I don’t mind if they talk to each other,” he said. “There’s a feeling of respect and acceptance. It’s not my classroom, it’s our classroom. By making the classroom comfortable, you avoid some of the consternation.”
He said he didn’t set out to teach in a Catholic school but appreciates the focus on faith and service and that students and staff are able to pray.
“I just think it’s a very healthy religious environment to be in,” Clark said.
All his hobbies include math. Whether it’s writing music, art, carpentry, or home renovation, Clark sees the connection to numbers. He’s even made his DIY paver patio project a math problem in his classroom, complete with measurements and photos.
“They can see the application of math to everyday life,” he said.
A family tradition
Annette Cihak is celebrating a decade of working at St. Rita Catholic School in Fort Worth.
Her children were students at the school when she became an office aide, then an aide for pre-K and kindergarten, and, most recently, cafeteria manager.
Cihak sees it as her role to go where they need her.
“I’m very honored that they not only allowed me to work here, but they moved me to where they thought I could be of assistance,” she said. “I’m glad I can help them in that manner because I really appreciate this school.”
When Principal Mary Burns asked her to take over as cafeteria manager, Cihak got her kitchen management certification.
“I like the fact that the kids are super nice,” Cihak said. “St. Rita is a smaller school, and everyone is so close here.”
She also appreciates seeing the students practice their faith so it “gets to be a part of their everyday life.”
Children and staff members experience Catholic liturgy and practices.
“We make a point of having prayer before school and at lunch,” she said.
St. Rita is a family tradition for the Cihaks.
Both of her sons attended St. Rita. The oldest is 24 and the youngest is a senior at Nolan.
Her husband also attended St. Rita, and her mother-in-law Kathy Cihak was a long-time teacher at the school and now helps out as a cafeteria monitor.
“We love it as a family, being part of the St. Rita community,” she said.