Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2008

Giving up bigger paychecks for a higher calling

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After Dan McCarthy graduated from Georgetown University in 2005, he took a job at an investment bank in New York City — ‘‘one of the highest paying jobs you can have other than a professional athlete,” he says.

But McCarthy, 24, a product of 16 years of Catholic education, said he wanted something more out of life. He wanted a career that could reproduce the sense of community, faith and education he said was such a large part of his Catholic upbringing.

So last year he decided to ‘‘take a leap of faith,” he said, and became a teacher. Today, he instructs ninth-graders in mathematics at the newly opened Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, where he says he makes a third of his previous salary and has had no second thoughts.

‘‘It only seemed natural to affect other lives in that same way, since it had done so much for me,” said McCarthy, who attended Catholic schools alongside his four siblings.

McCarthy is among area Catholic schoolteachers who often pass up better-paying job opportunities, at public schools or elsewhere, because they believe strongly in the philosophy of Catholic education.

Schools throughout the Archdiocese of Washington are celebrating National Catholic Schools Week Jan. 27 to Feb. 2, and many are opening their doors to make a case for Catholic education.

‘‘I wanted to be able to share my faith as part of my daily teaching, and being in a Catholic school allows me to do that,” said Virginia Cooper, 44, who has spent the last 21 years teaching English and history at St. Bernadette’s School in Silver Spring.

At St. Bernadette’s, religion is taught for 45 minutes a day for four days a week and the entire school attends Mass together on Fridays.

‘‘We talk about God on a daily basis in every single class,” said Donna Clarke, 60, who worked in public schools for eight years before returning to St. Bernadette’s, where she was once a student and has now taught for 26 years.

For some Catholic teachers, the religion infused into teaching is a primary motivator in making them work where they do.

Others say they enjoy the sense of community. Rosa Cuellar, 47, a Spanish teacher at St. Bernadette’s who immigrated from Guatemala in 1981, said she found a welcoming and familiar environment for her and her two children at the Catholic school.

‘‘No matter what country and area [Catholics live in], you’re still following the rules of the Catholic Church,” she said. ‘‘As a parent and also as an immigrant ... it’s been a great experience to feel the welcoming, the understand and the feeling of community as well.”

McCarthy says he will always remember the support he received after a car accident in eighth grade.

‘‘I remember the outpouring of people in school coming to see me in the hospital,” he said. ‘‘... I’ll never forget that.”

Clarke said her Catholic faith and community helped her get through tough times, like the 18-month span in which she lost her brother and mother, and her father suffered a stroke.

Sister Kathleen Lannak, principal at St. John the Evangelist School in Silver Spring, said Catholic schools in America were originally started to cater to European immigrants and were staffed entirely by clergy. Nowadays, she said, lay people fill most, if not all, of the positions, though they are still expected to embrace a Catholic philosophy.

‘‘We don’t think of this as a job,” Lannak said. ‘‘We think of it as a calling.”

That calling can come with financial sacrifices. A first-year teacher at St. John, a pre-K through grade 8 school, makes $34,180, Lannak said, significantly less than what first-year teachers in Montgomery County typically earn. The first-year salary for a teacher in Montgomery County Public Schools is $44,200, according to the system’s Web site.

Teachers within the archdiocese do not need certification upon hiring but are required to do so within three years of their hiring date, said Kathy Dempsey, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese.

Clarke acknowledged that she could make more money teaching in a public school, but said the rewards she gets from teaching where she does is worth it.