Great Teachers Never Stop Being Students

Principal Mari Thomas visits classrooms to see how teachers are sharing their experiences with students.


While Saint Ursula Academy students recharge over the summer, their teachers also refuel, inspired by seminars, trips and other engaging experiences that not only enhance their expertise but rekindle their passion for their profession. And they bring that fresh perspective and enthusiasm back to their classrooms in the fall, enriching the Saint Ursula Academy learning environment for all.

The Catholic college-preparatory/secondary school for young women is committed to dedicating the resources necessary to ensure teachers have the time, tools, regional and global experiences, and the continuing professional development they need to become and remain leaders in their field, school officials note.

“Professional development is a top priority, and we’re creating an environment where our faculty not only gets space to be in conversation with one another and collaborate with one another, but we make sure they have the time,” says Mari Thomas, Ph.D., Saint Ursula Academy principal.

Thomas regularly meets with teachers, helping them coordinate their professional development goals and find the resources to pursue them. Her goal is to not only maintain Saint Ursula Academy’s professional development priority but ramp it up a bit.

“The more we have that connection with our faculty during professional development, the more we uncover their passions and interests,” she says.

Thomas recalls a recent article in the Washington Post suggesting that the most effective learning environment for students is one that supports great teaching by allowing faculty time to rekindle their professional passions. At Saint Ursula Academy, that means thinking – and planning professional development opportunities – outside the academic year. It’s an integral approach toward fulfilling the school’s mission, which is to promote academic excellence, honor each person’s uniqueness and transform young women into thinkers, leaders, nurturers and prophets committed to building a better world.

“The academic year is filled with classes and activities during the school day, so we provide our faculty opportunities in the summer – more within their personal timeframe – so they feel they have ample time to pursue their interests,” Thomas says.

A few examples: several Saint Ursula Academy educators attended this summer’s National Coalition of Girls’ Schools Conference, themed “Girls as Makers, Inventors, Engineers and Entrepreneurs;” social studies instructor David Tonnis recently traveled to Germany and Poland where he attended a program on teaching the Holocaust; and English instructor Zack Hacker recently published his first novel.

“History has always been a passion of mine,” says Tonnis. “I teach a variety of classes, but my focus is European history. I was lucky that when I started teaching at Saint Ursula Academy seven years ago, I was encouraged by the then-principal to go to professional development opportunities to enhance what I studied in college – particularly World War II and the Holocaust.”

Teaching students about a horrific chapter in history like the Holocaust is difficult, Tonnis notes. But professional development opportunities such as the teacher’s program and a previous internship with the Anti-Defamation League in Washington, D.C., have taught him how to teach students about the Holocaust in a way that helps them better understand and connect with that part of history. He continues to partner with the Nancy and David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center to develop curriculum and lead seminars for other area educators.

Writing a novel seems like a natural accomplishment for Hacker, an English teacher with a master’s degree in literature. His novel, “Cut Reality,” is a murder mystery/psychological thriller that considers the psychology of reality TV from both a viewer’s and a participant’s perspective.

“I always dabbled in writing short stories, but never longer pieces,” Hacker explains. “I’m a big believer in writing alongside my students, so when they are working on a project, I may not be working on the same project, but I like to be working on something. I found myself contributing to this piece – it was halfway finished in 2017 – and then I kicked it in gear, decided to finish it and get a book published.

“As an English teacher, it’s been very valuable,” Hacker adds. “I like to run my classroom as project-based, and if I am working on project of my own, it creates a great connection bringing real-world projects into play.”

According to Hacker, one of Saint Ursula Academy’s greatest assets is its class schedule, which is a great boon to teachers’ professional development.

“We’re on a rotating block schedule. With a smaller number of students, it allows me some space and room to grow. I think the way our schedule works and the other professional development activities that take place outside the classroom – although they may not always be directly related – enhance what I’m teaching in the classroom. The Saint Ursula community has been interested and engaged in my professional growth and has really supported it. I don’t think I could have written my first novel without the students’ enthusiasm or the enthusiasm of the administration.”

According to Thomas, giving faculty the gift of support in pursuing their passions, plus the extended teaching time offered via block scheduling, equals inspired students impelled to dig a little bit deeper into the classroom subjects at hand.

“We still teach the academic standards, but when the teachers’ passions and creativity come through, it keeps the students more engaged in what they’re learning,” she says.


Saint Ursula Academy is located at 1339 E. McMillan St., Cincinnati, OH 45206. For more information, visit