Presenting the fifth annual St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award

We asked people from across the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois what Catholic teacher in our schools is making a big difference in the classroom? What teacher goes above and beyond, someone whose impact is deep and personal? What teacher authentically lives out what it means to be Catholic and instills our faith into his or her students? What teacher embodies St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who founded Catholic schools in the United States?

The Office for Catholic Schools and Office for Communications for the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, organizers of the award, received a record 176 nominations from all across the diocese from principals, teachers, parents, priests, previous students, and current students this year. Nominations were reviewed by the Office for Catholic Education who then narrowed the list to five finalists, which Catholic Times presents in this edition along with quotes taken from nomination forms. Catholic Times will reveal the winner of the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Award in the May 26 edition. Thank you to everyone who submitted a nomination and thank you to all our teachers for their hard work and dedication! 

Jeremy Kovarik

English and theology teacher at Father McGivney Catholic High School in Glen Carbon

“He has always been the most supportive person in the entire school. He has pushed not just his students, but the whole community to be the best version of themselves. He creates an environment unlike any other. His students look forward to his class all day, even on their most exhausted days. I have never met a student here who didn’t love Mr. Kovarik or his class. He inspires us to be curious about the world and invites us to take charge of our lives. He is a staple of McGivney’s values, and our school would be completely lacking without him.”

Liv Rodgers, student

“His classes are always engaging and are my favorite part of the day. He strives to help us unlock the deeper meaning of things and teaches us how to be better people. His talks and insights are always inspirational and have made me a better writer and student. Mr. Kovarik always shows his passion for teaching in everything he does.”

Alivia Peck, student

“Mr. Kovarik has taught me so much, not only about English, but about life. He teaches us to appreciate ourselves and others through an exercise that he created in the classroom. Every semester we have compliments day. In this class, we say something we like about ourselves, and then other people can say things they like about you. This helps to not only build up our confidence, but also express our true opinions about people in a safe environment. On top of this, this past year, Mr. Kovarik took up teaching theology. This is extremely different from what he usually teaches, but he still chose to take the leap to help grow people in their faith.”

Samuel Joellenbeck, student

Cheryl Valdahl

First-grade teacher at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School in Decatur

“We transferred to Lourdes in first grade in a desperate situation. After kindergarten, because of a bullying situation, my son was terrified to even attend school. Mrs. Valdahl was an answer to my prayers. She helped my son quickly assimilate. He began to excel at his schoolwork and make friends. He has continued for three years at Lourdes as a successful student. Mrs. Valdahl was that first soft landing, her classroom a refuge. Her kindness, understanding, and patience absolutely transformed the idea of school for my son. She is a blessing to us and holds a special place in my heart.”

Parent of student

“She was the reason why our daughter wants to be a teacher. She is so patient, kind and loves all of her kids. Our daughter saw that in her and wanted to emulate her. Our daughter was given the opportunity to help teach her senior year in high school. Watching Mrs. Valdahl solidified the teaching path for our daughter. She is a wonderful woman and teacher!”

Laura Rayhill, parent of previous students

“Cheryl was a Godsend to me when I taught the other first grade class at Our Lady of Lourdes in 2007-2008. She was a lifesaver to this first year teacher. Cheryl was positive every day, and such a fantastic mentor to me. I learned so very much about being a good teacher from this great teacher! Cheryl encouraged me and was always there for me, even when I made bad first year teacher mistakes.  Her students, their parents, her colleagues, the administration, really everyone who has come in contact with Cheryl has benefited from her wonderful example as a superlative teacher and friend!”

Leslee Finney, colleague 

Stephanie Factor

Seventh-grade teacher at St. Peter Catholic School in Quincy

“Mrs. Factor has taught all four of my children. My oldest boy believed he wasn’t good at math and did not enjoy it until he had her as his math teacher. He came home and announced to me out of the blue, ‘It turns out Mom that I actually am pretty good at math after all.’ My second son who has always struggled with attention, would come home and tell me story after story and some to do with assignments that Mrs. Factor would share with him in class. She clearly had his undivided attention. My third child, a daughter, exhibited a similar reaction to her stories except she had her as a religion teacher. I can tell you this daughter of mine has a very strong moral code that she lives by, and I believe Mrs. Factor played a very large role in helping her shape this. Last but not least, my youngest daughter, who currently has her as her math teacher, underwent a major surgery on her back that caused her to miss a significant amount of school last year. Mrs. Factor not only checked on her and kept the class up to speed on how she was doing but also arranged for students to help her at school for the rest of the year upon her return. She showed an amazing amount of compassion for my daughter and her struggles even driving homework to our home one evening. Stephanie Factor exhibits daily her love of these students and her commitment to academic excellence and the Catholic mission. I believe God has cared for my family through her.”

Amy Arnoldm, parent of student

“Mrs. Factor is an amazing teacher who goes above and beyond daily for her the students. It is not easy to be a teacher of middle school students. It is a time in their lives where they are struggling with their emotions and relationships. Being a teenager is hard, which is why our kids need someone they trust to lean on, to come to for advice, and to share their lives with. Mrs. Factor is a teacher that does all of that and more. She is patient, kind, and best of all, has fun with all of the students. She never judges but expects the best from each and every student. There is no doubt that Mrs. Factor is called to be a teacher of our young teens. During her lifetime, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton was known for her devoutness, her compassion, and her desire to help others. This is exactly what Mrs. Factor does on a daily basis for all of her students at St. Peter School.”

Jessica Beaston, parent of student

Michele Sands

Math and engineering teacher at Marquette Catholic High School in Alton

“She is one of the most incredibly giving people that I know and have ever known. She goes above and beyond in everything that she does, from teaching, to volunteering, to helping her co-workers, to being a mother and a grandmother. She is also that rare sort of wonderfully humble person that does not tell you about any of the amazing things that she is doing to help others and yet, when you find them out, she asks you not to make a big deal out of them.

“In the past several years, she has entered her engineering students into competitions to build 3D printed items to help the physically and mentally handicapped and her students have qualified for national competitions multiple times, with their designs being used by companies after the competition. She just brings out the absolute best in her students and is that one special type of teacher that as a fellow teacher, you are both jealous of and in awe of, for their abilities.

“Mrs. Sands brought in a group that she works with outside of school at her local parish in Highland, St. Paul Catholic Church, that puts together rice meals for underserved and struggling countries. Our seniors put together hundreds of meals, got to listen to a witness on the helpfulness of these meals, and why it matters what we were doing.

“I found out that Mrs. Sands is one of the leading members of her church in helping to organize trips, giving, and support to Haiti and other struggling countries and has been on mission trips to provide aid to these countries several times.”

Tim Harmon, principal

“Mrs. Sands is a wonderful person to be around and a good faith role model. Every day, she is genuinely excited to be in class and teaching math. She loves all of her students and pushes them to be the best that they can be. Before class, she always reads from a book that has daily quotes from Mother Teresa.

“Mrs. Sands has had a huge impact on my life. Without her, I would not know the things about the mathematical world that I do now. I would not be prepared to start my journey in college to be an engineer. She has pushed me and reassured me that I will be fine and that I will make a fantastic engineer. She does this not only for me but for all of her students. Mrs. Michelle Sands is easily one of the best teachers I have ever had.”

Abigail Taylor, student 

Maria Wilson

Kindergarten teacher at St. Boniface Catholic School in Edwardsville

“Mrs. Wilson was actually my first-grade teacher at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic School in Bethalto and now she has my son for kindergarten, 35 years later. Mrs. Wilson embodies a true Catholic school teacher. She is so caring, she obviously loves being a teacher, she is so smart, she loves Jesus, but most importantly, she is strict. That is a hard characteristic to embrace these days. I appreciate teachers who hold kids accountable. It isn’t easy watching 30 kids a day, let alone teaching them and then holding them accountable for their actions. When I send my son to Mrs. Wilson’s class, I know he is learning his studies, learning about Jesus, and learning to be respectful and self-disciplined. Mrs. Wilson has been doing a fantastic job for 35 years and we love her!”

Lora Aulabaugh, parent of student

“It takes a very motivated, patient, kind, energetic, and compassionate person to teach kindergarten, and Mrs. Maria Wilson is a person with all of those special qualities and more! Our oldest daughter was in her classroom a few years ago, our second daughter is in her class now, and our youngest daughter will be there in a few more years (which we look very forward to). Each morning, Mrs. Wilson greets the students with a smile and then proceeds to make them feel adored and loved in each activity throughout the rest of the day. I melt when reading the letters she writes to our children on the monthly calendars that come home. The bottom is always signed, ‘I love being your teacher!’ It is evident in parent/teacher conferences and other communications with Mrs. Wilson that ‘teaching’ is not just her job — it is a vocation that she has answered the call to. She has a passion for making a difference in children’s lives. Her students are her dedication, and her devotion is to them. The joy that she radiates in the school and classroom makes her love for Catholic education obvious to students, other staff, and parents alike. At the end of each year, she teaches her students the sign language for ‘I love you’ so they can sign to her in passing in the hallway when they graduate to first grade and beyond. In addition to promoting academic excellence, the way she strives to raise tiny saints is truly unmatched. We sent our children to her classroom to learn and to grow, but what ultimately touched us the most is the love she has shown. I cannot think of any teacher who loves like Jesus, gives from the heart, and builds up the kingdom of God more than Mrs. Wilson does. Our family adores her, and St. Boniface Catholic School is blessed to have her!”

Bridget Fleming, parent of student