Mary Forr: Teaching Together in America's Catholic Schools
“My older sister, Marita, always wanted to be a teacher, and she is way more gifted and patient than I ever have been or ever will be.”
As children in their make-believe classroom in the basement–complete with chalkboard and “tests”– Marita Forr would play the teacher, and Mary Forr would play the student. Many years later, in a reversal of roles, Mary was the one leading her class at the blackboard. Marita, six years older and born with special needs, was never far from her mind though. Mary was determined to dispel stereotypes and open doors for her sister and others who faced some of the same challenges.
Mary (ACE 18, Atlanta), the current Director of Life Issues for the Archdiocese of Washington, was one of two recipients of the 2017 Scott C. Malpass Founders Prize. Mary was recognized for her exceptional contributions to the field of education through the creation of Teaching Together, a program that seeks opportunities for people with disabilities to help in Catholic school classrooms as teacher’s aides. Forr was honored along with Gabriel Moreno as two ACE graduates whose God-given talents of leadership, innovation, and commitment to service on behalf of the gospel have shaped their vocation and transformed their communities.
“This is a huge honor and one that I’m pretty sure I was not worthy of receiving,” Mary says. The youngest of three children, she grew up in Altoona, Pennsylvania, a small city in the southwestern part of the state just a short drive from Punxsutawney Phil’s hometown. “My parents made so many sacrifices so we could go to Catholic school. It was extremely important to them, and it was like a second family. It’s small, everyone knows everyone and is cheering for them to do well.” Although welcomed by the community, Marita went to public school. “Unfortunately, the Catholic schools in our area at the time were not as well-equipped to teach students with special needs.”
That stuck with Mary, and after following her older brother, Tommy, to Notre Dame, a chance attendance at a retreat changed her life. “Originally, I didn’t think I wanted to be a teacher, but I went on a Notre Dame Encounter and the witness of both Mike Suso and Sarah Greene (now Perkins) intrigued me,” she says. Hearing about their experiences with the ACE program and taking Fr. Sean McGraw’s class heavily influenced Mary, “It seemed like that was the door God was opening.”
Mary walked through the door and hasn’t looked back. She says, “ACE’s greatest gift was the community they gave us. My current roommate is still the person I was placed with… It sounds crazy, right? You’re going to a new city and you’re living there with people you have known for a summer, and somehow it’s supposed to work out. But that’s the really beautiful part about ACE. Somehow it does! The reason it does is that everyone there is trying to help others and is focused on Christ. That was a huge gift for me.”
Mary also credits ACE with giving her the platform to think beyond herself. “I know all the gifts that my sister and her friends have, and a major part of why I chose to do ACE was because I had this idea of creating an opportunity where someone with special needs could work as a teacher’s aide in a classroom.” Teaching Together began as an experiment at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Atlanta, Georgia. During a conversation with her ACE mentor teacher, Ana De Mello, whose daughter Lani has Down syndrome, Mary asked if Lani might want to help in her classroom. “It really transformed my teaching. She graded all my multiple-choice tests, did all of my bulletin boards, made all my copies . . . it was incredible!” A number of the students saw the value and Mary saw the impact it had on them as well. “They were benefitting because not only did I have more time to plan classes, but also simply by Lani’s presence in the classroom. She would frequently be the one telling the kids, ‘Hey, you need to stop talking and pay attention.’ It was a huge benefit!”
Teaching Together was formally instituted at St. Peter School in Washington, DC with help from Mary’s principal and Remick Leadership graduate, Jennifer Ketchum, and Michele Monk (ACE 18, Atlanta), the first teacher willing to have a teacher's aide with special needs, and has expanded to Chicago, Illinois. “It’s so wonderful that the idea is catching on and it’s growing. We even have interest from a school in St. Louis. We’re excited to grow! Megan Osterhout (ACE 18, Fort Worth) has been a big reason why it's growing in Chicago where long-time Catholic education supporters Patti Herbst, Ann Shannon, and Joanne Callahan have really professionalized the program. They’re brilliant and so organized and so dedicated to this program. They’ve made it something that can be replicated in other areas.”
Mary highlights the fact that it’s not a cookie-cutter program. “The job is different depending on the person doing it. It showcases the gifts of the people with special needs and it allows the communities to figure out how they can benefit most from those gifts,” she says. “When you start working with this program you realize the level of help you’re receiving is so much greatest than what you’re giving.”
Mary says Teaching Together is exactly where it needs to be. “Catholic schools aim to educate the mind, body and the soul… and to help lead others to Christ which is our ultimate goal. We live in a world with a lot of challenges that can’t be overcome by intelligence alone, we need the best engineers, the best doctors, the best teachers, but we also need those people to be the best people at heart. It’s being virtuous that allows them to use those gifts for the of benefit of others.”
Mary would love to see Teaching Together in every Catholic school across the country. She says, “Our Catholic school students need to meet people of all types and with all different gifts. People with special needs--for a long time--have not been fully part of our community. I know our students are better off when they’re meeting these people and experiencing their gifts and when our students are able to share their gifts in return.”
She sees this as a vocation, but one she‘s not alone in fulfilling, “I know the Teaching Together program would not have started without my family, Fr. Lou (DelFra, CSC), Brian Collier, Maria McKenna, Megan Osterhout, Michelle Monk–all people I met from ACE. More significantly, those are people who have really shaped the kind of person I’m trying to become. When I think about a career, the things I learned in ACE, that Christ should be the center of your life, that you can pray about things before doing them, that it’s important to support others in their work, and that we’re all on the team trying to get to heaven. Those are the things that shape everything that I do.”
Learn more about Teaching Together at teachingtogetherdc.com
Learn more about ACE's efforts to include all learners in Catholic schools by visiting the Program for Inclusive Education at ace.nd.edu/inclusion