If there’s thing one thing the pandemic has made abundantly clear, it’s the importance of schoolteachers. Their dedication to educating children, despite the difficult circumstances, has been nothing short of heroic. But teachers have always been critical to their communities, particularly Catholic schoolteachers who bring their faith into academic studies. Here are two Orange County teachers who demonstrate the faith-filled dedication and love that are hallmarks of Catholic education.
MELANIE HARNER, ST. ANGELA MERICI PARISH SCHOOL, BREA
Melanie Harner has been teaching for 44 years—so long that she’s even taught the children of some of her first students—and she is proud to be part of the Catholic education system.
“The pull of Catholic schools is the ability to work our Catholic faith into the curriculum—reading, science, social studies, all of it,” she says. “Having a strong basis in our Catholic faith and identity makes us stand out.”
Harner offers a few examples of how this works: “When I’m teaching reading and a character has a decision to make, I can ask students, ‘What would Jesus do in this situation?’ And in science I can justify scientific logic with our faith by asking ‘Who started it all?’”
Harner was born and raised in Anaheim into a family of teachers. “My father and my grandfather on my mother’s side were teachers,” she says. After finishing college at Cal State Fullerton, Harner applied to work at public schools but “I didn’t get the right feeling there.”
Then came the offer to teach at St. Angela Merici. She jumped at the chance, but her first years were not easy. “When I started, the biggest challenge was the class size—I had 54 students.”
After 38 years as a third-grade teacher, Harner became a diversified learner coordinator, a revolutionary new program in education, which she has been doing ever since. “It means we try to meet each child’s need and learning style,” she explains. “If we see a child who needs additional help, we get that help. We can offer an individual learning plan.”
Children with learning disabilities usually do better when they can remain with their class, she explains. “Nine times out of ten I can supply children what they need to stay in their environment and get their needs met,” Harner asserts. “The commitment to the diversified learning program has really grown strong in last 10 years,” she adds. “The current diocese leadership is really supportive.”
The idea is to create an inclusive learning environment where all students can thrive. “It’s important to reach both ends of the spectrum—children who need enrichment and children who need support,” Harner explains.
Harner’s experience is demonstrated by her flexibility to address the needs of individual students. What would she tell a new teacher just beginning her career? “Take your enthusiasm and your job of teaching and meet each child where they are,” she advises. “Some children will not respond in same way as other children, so be willing to realize that and adjust your approach and help that child find the love of learning as much as the other children.”
LAUREN LIEBELT, ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI SCHOOL, YORBA LINDA
This first-year teacher is bursting with enthusiasm for her profession. “I was inspired to be a teacher because I wanted a chance to make an impact in a child’s life,” she says.
Liebelt was raised in Yorba Linda and recently completed her master’s degree in teaching from Chapman University. “I feel such strong passion for what I do—working with kids is energizing and exciting! Their spirits fill the classroom and there is truly no place I would rather be.”
The Catholic school system is just right for Liebelt. “I am especially excited to work at St. Francis of Assisi because it provides an opportunity to merge my two greatest passions: my faith and education,” she says. “I love the Lord, I love working with children, I love to learn, and I hope that through my work I can make a difference.”
The first year for any teacher is challenging, but nothing compares to 2020. “They don’t teach you how to handle a worldwide pandemic in teacher preparation courses!” says Liebelt. “I have had to master online learning while also teaching in the classroom for the first time—I have kids in my room and kids online every single day.”
Thankfully, teachers don’t work alone—they thrive with support, and this has been a source of unexpected joy for Liebelt. “What has surprised me most is the outpouring support from the Saint Francis staff,” she says. “Each day I am overwhelmed with love, support, kindness, and generosity! I have made so many friendships with my colleagues that have been the biggest blessings to me.”
And then there are the students. “I absolutely adore my class as well, but that was no surprise!” she says.
Liebelt’s hopes for her young students? “That they learn and grow in my classroom not only academically, but in their faith; that they feel comfortable and connected in my classroom; that they know how loved they are and that they grow up to make a difference in this world, whether it be big or small.”