2019 Michael Pressley Award for Excellence in Catholic Education: Maura Shea
By: Kenna Arana
What makes Catholic education distinctive?
This question has long intrigued Maura Shea, a member of ACE 18 (Plaquemine) and Catholic educator and writer.
“It’s a question I’m continually asking myself,” she says. “I realize more and more what a complicated question it is. We’re claiming that we’re doing something different, and I want us to be better able to articulate and understand that difference.”
In recognition of Shea’s work exploring that question, she received the 2019 Michael Pressley Award for Excellence in Catholic Education at the Alliance for Catholic Education’s commencement ceremony Saturday. The award is given annually to two graduates of the ACE Teaching Fellows program who have distinguished themselves by making significant contributions to the ministry of Catholic education. Shea earned this honor for her commitment to the mission of Catholic education and the excellence she has demonstrated in her work as an English teacher and instructional coach. Elias Moo, the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Archdiocese of Denver, also won the award this year.
Shea’s fascination with the unique nature of Catholic education extends to her role as an English teacher. She asks, “What does it look like to teach English in a distinctive Catholic way that is invites everyone?”
Her desire to invite others to explore their faith through the study of English is one of the factors that initially drew Shea to ACE. Her roommate at the University of Dallas told her about ACE, but at the time Shea was considering pursuing a graduate degree in English.
“When you’re in college, your whole life is about you,” Shea recalls thinking. “Your studies, your future, your interests. I realized that I needed to get out of my own head, to go outside of myself.”
Shea decided to apply to ACE and another teaching program called PATH. Throughout her discernment process, she was praying for the intercession of St. Joseph, and this ultimately became the determining factor in her decision to join ACE.
“ACE sent out a DVD to accepted applicants. In it, Father Lou (DelFra, CSC) gave a homily about the reading in Matthew’s Gospel when St. Joseph responds to the call to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt,” she says. “That’s when I made the decision to do ACE.”
As an ACE teacher, Shea found herself challenged to serve others. She says of ACE, “If you let it, teaching just pulls you out of yourself. It makes you encounter real people and reality.” Teaching high school English in Plaquemine, Louisiana, Shea was further challenged to make herself vulnerable by taking on the role of a student in addition to that of a teacher. She reflects on her experience as humbling.
“ACE did its best to prepare us to be culturally responsive, but it’s one thing to talk about that, and it was another thing to realize that this community was so distinctive from the one I had grown up in. It was rooted and took pride in those roots in a beautiful way,” Shea says. “I think what helped me was a willingness to be a student in that community. I was mostly asking questions because I was overwhelmed, but that feeling of being overwhelmed was a real gift because it made me open.”
At the end of her two years in ACE, she moved with two friends in her cohort to Denver. They all accepted positions at Bishop Machebeuf High School. “I just loved the small community and profound faith of the school, and that there were quite a few other ACE teachers there,” Shea says.
At Bishop Machebeuf, Shea served as an English teacher and instructional coach. She later became the dean of curriculum and instruction, a role that gave her the opportunity both to help other teachers grow and to learn from them herself. After teaching for five years at Bishop Machebeuf, Shea spent a year teaching English at a high school in Austin. She is now working with high school and college students at the Witherspoon Institute, an independent research center at Princeton University that works to enhance understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies. Here, she hopes to continue to explore philosophies of Catholic education and the questions that have fascinated her for so long about what makes the approach so unique.
Throughout the varied experiences she’s had since ACE, at least one other thing has remained a constant.
“My first year teaching in Plaquemine, there was a picture with a quote from Mother Teresa. It was a picture of her and Pope John Paul II, and the quote said, ‘We are not called upon to be successful, but to be faithful,’” Shea says.
Shea has displayed this photo in every classroom since, and it remains with her now.
“I looked at that every day,” Shea says, “because as a first-year teacher, I so rarely felt successful. Success, however you define it, isn’t really in your hands, but faithfulness can be. There’s something liberating in reminding myself to leave the question of success or failure to God.”