The Official Newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock

Catholic teachers: stronger in body = stronger in mind

Health and fitness of faculty becomes a priority for some Catholic schools

Published: May 2, 2017         
St. Theresa School coach Melanie Meuse-Warg (left), second-grade teacher Amanda Williams and librarian Karen Stoltz pose with their medals after the 10K race of the Little Rock Marathon March 4.

Teachers dedicate their lives to passing wisdom to the next generations. While learning typically revolves around textbooks, experiments and problem solving, some Catholic teachers are teaching how to live a healthy life with their very being. Living a healthy lifestyle through fitness and proper food choices isn’t a requirement for educators, but teachers in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Fayetteville and West Memphis are going the extra mile, sometimes literally, to show how treating the body like a temple of God’s creation can change lives for the better.


Body, mind and spirit

Catholic High School in Little Rock prides itself on teaching students to be a “whole person,” which Principal Steve Straessle characterized as “emotionally strong, academically fit, spiritually sound and physically fit.”

“So it was common sense we needed to make sure that was true for the teachers,” he said. “… If any of those points are lagging it’s like driving a car with a flat tire. You can still go but not the way that you should.”

“I could see my health was declining. It became clear I had to do something; I wasn’t going to make it. Losing weight had become an impossible task.” Amanda Williams, second-grade teacher at St. Theresa School in Little Rock

More than three years ago, Straessle, 47, encouraged staff to work on physical fitness. Fitness has been important in his own life, having run both the Baltimore and Chicago Marathons, about two dozen half-marathons, several 5K and 10K races and running the Pikes Peak Ascent twice, a half-marathon that goes up Pikes Peak in Colorado.

Healthy teachers mean fewer sick days and more energy in the classroom, he said.

Today, 32 CHS faculty members now regularly work toward their individual fitness goals, whether it be working out at a gym or running a marathon and sharing those achievements in a group text program to keep each other accountable and to offer support.

“We really encourage each other and it just makes us feel good when other people comment on what we’ve done and encourage us. I think it helped an already good thing,” said Gretchen Gowen of the camaraderie among the staff when it comes to fitness. Gowen, 64, who teaches journalism and English, walked her first marathon with math teacher Shannon Fratesi, the Little Rock Half Marathon March 5. Straessle also competed, along with a host of other teachers, and waited an hour and a half in the rain at the finish line to congratulate Gowen and Fratesi.

Stephanie Hartnedy, 46, who teaches structured study hall and junior religion, runs daily and completed two marathons in February and March.

“Students have a lot of energy and so to be enthusiastic in the classroom, to have the energy to both discipline and inspire them in teaching takes a lot of energy ourselves,” Hartnedy said. “So improving our fitness definitely improves how we teach in the classroom. Just from very simple things from being able to get up the stairs without huffing and puffing and then going to teach. To be able to make it through an entire work day with the same enthusiasm in six periods you have in first period, the fitness program helps with that.”

Lisa Connell, who teaches math and religion, was one of the first teachers to get on board with the fitness program. Over the years she has competed in one marathon and 15 half marathons.

“When you’re talking to the kids not only about what you teach, but if you show the example that you need to be healthy to be able to live longer and you have to keep it going no matter what you’re age, even if you’re young, they’re more likely to do it,” Connell, 46, said. “I see them at the gym all the time and they’re like, ‘Oh, I should do that class Mrs. Connell’ and I say come on. And they don’t,” she laughed, adding, “They go and play basketball. At least you’re at the gym, working out, doing something.”

A healthy life is the reward, but other perks have surfaced. CHS teachers have received a free FitBit or another tracking device from Go!Running in Little Rock. The school, thanks to money from alumni and other donors, will also pay a portion of the memberships to the Little Rock Athletic Club or the Little Rock Racquet Club and the entire entry fee for any athletic event they choose to participate in.

This year, thanks to alumni support, cash incentives were offered to teachers who submitted a personal fitness goal in August and why it was important for them to accomplish. A monetary value was then assigned to each goal and the reward money will go to a teacher once it’s completed. Straessle said about 20 teachers signed up and the goals varied.

“Run your first 5K may be $100. Run your first half marathon, maybe $300 … Lose 20 pounds, or be able to do 20 pull-ups. Things like that is what we got,” he said. “The idea was financial incentives are usually just short-term goals but because we already had this program we thought it’d take people off the fence and into that habit-forming aspect of fitness.”


Strength with Christ

Across the back wall of Amanda Williams’ second-grade classroom at St. Theresa School in Little Rock are the words of Philippians 4:13 that has become not only her motto, but her saving grace: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”

After a lifetime of weight struggles, working hard to lose 50 pounds only to gain it back if she stepped off the wagon, Williams decided to have gastric bypass surgery in 2014. She was 375 pounds and everyday movements were painful.

“I was just going to die. I could see my health was declining. It became clear I had to do something; I wasn’t going to make it. Losing weight had become an impossible task,” Williams said.

The surgery was not the end of the road. Williams, 41, started exercising by simply walking. Today, she has participated in several 5Ks and 10Ks, 21 half-marathons, three full marathons, two 50K ultra marathons and the Ouachita Trail 50 Endurance Run in Little Rock. She has lost about 185 pounds.

This spring, Williams started the Little Angels Marathon Club for pre-k through eighth grade St. Theresa students. They walk, run or joyfully skip two miles twice a week after school around the school grounds for an hour, with Williams leading, along with P.E. Coach Melanie Warg, fifth-grade teacher Susan Roberson and librarian Karen Stoltz.

The club will end with the St. Theresa fundraiser Celebration of Life Fun Run 5K May 6. The 29 students will have walked 26.2 miles since the club began.

“Just their excitement,” has been fun to watch, Williams said, as well as seeing their endurance build each week. “They’re building up their ability to go and not be worn out. They’re becoming more fit.”

Summer Middaugh, 29, junior high literature and writing teacher at St. Joseph School in Fayetteville, has also passed her love of fitness down to students. In the spring, Middaugh launched a fitness club for middle school and junior high students, usually about 10 to 20, who spend about an hour twice a week learning different exercises.

“They love it. It’s hard, but they love it,” she said, adding the older students learn more “perseverance” while the younger ones focus on correct form for workouts like lunges and squats.

Like Williams, Middaugh teaches by example. She has competed in nine half marathons and two full marathons.

Around 4:30 a.m. most days of the week, she along with middle school English teacher Annie Ratliff are running the trails around Fayetteville before classes begin.

“Running has allowed us to build a friendship, talk about our faith, our curriculum,” Middaugh said, adding that she has experienced more energy in the classroom. “You’re up and around and you’re excited and they can see that. It’s kind of that after-lunch fading doesn’t happen anymore … you don’t have to rely on coffee in the afternoon.”

Mary Jo Dagastino, who teaches pre-k 4-year-olds at St. Michael School in West Memphis, began her fitness regimen six years ago after her husband had gastric bypass surgery. Dagastino learned that she loves walking and walks everywhere she can. In January she started a walking club at St. Michael School that includes students, parents and teachers walking two to three miles three days a week on school grounds.

“As we walk, the children sing and point out all of the beauty that they see in nature. They encourage each other and the teachers to keep up with each other,” Dagastino said.

The group has walked about 40 miles total in four months.

“God’s creation is so evident to me as I walk and fills me with much more joy than running on a treadmill or lifting weights,” she said.


A chef in the cafeteria

Heated-up frozen chicken nuggets, cartons of milk and Sloppy Joes made of “mystery meat” are just a few images that might spring to mind when thinking of lunch at a school cafeteria. However, Immaculate Conception School in North Little Rock has offerings like a restaurant — blackened chicken, veggie nachos, baked macaroni and cheese and corn bread muffins. It’s all thanks to Chef Laura Doughty, a member of St. Jude Church in Jacksonville, who was hired in the fall to improve the school’s lunch quality.

“By the time the older kids had their lunchtime, it was cold and it wasn’t up to our standards,” Michelle Koch, advancement director, said of the previous vendor.

Though lunch prices were increased by a $1.50 for a hot lunch to $4.50, the extra cost has been worth it. There are also fresh sandwich options and salads with homemade dressing. 

“Before we did not have faculty and staff eating in the cafeteria whatsoever,” Koch said. “Now there’s probably five to 10 teachers a day eating.”

Principal Marcia Brucks added, “The teachers have reacted very positively … I think it’s equally important for the teachers to have a good meal to keep them focused, healthy.”

At Catholic High, the faculty dining room now offers healthier lunch choices for teachers, such as soup and salad, after the school consulted with a nutritionist.

“It’s difficult to eat a large piece of cheese lasagna and a piece of pie and be at your best an hour later,” Straessle said. “We have a smoothie bar where they provide fresh fruit every morning and it’s everything — bananas, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, kale, we have protein, and teachers can get a smoothie at any point in the day.”

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