Students, parents and the principal at St. Francis of Assisi School say that teacher Fred Whittaker is a phenomenal Catholic educator.
They say his teaching style is creative, energetic and hands-on. His science classes can “awaken the inner-scientist in anyone,” said Paula Watkins, the principal. One parent characterized him as “the science teacher that everyone wishes they had.”
But these aren’t the qualities that make Whittaker, a 20-year veteran at the school, a phenomenal Catholic educator, Watkins said.
“He is a great role model to the children in living out his Catholic faith — in word, in action,” she said. “He’s not the type of teacher who stands up and teaches values-based living from a textbook. He’s out there rolling up his sleeves doing things for others.”
And he teaches his students to make service a regular part of their lives, she said.
Whittaker’s dedication to Catholic education will be honored next month when he receives the Father Joseph McGee Award for Outstanding Catholic Educator. It will be presented during the annual Salute to Catholic School Alumni on March 20 at 7 p.m. at the Galt House Hotel.
The dinner raises funds for the Catholic Education Foundation, which awards scholarships to Catholic school students and provides grants to Catholic schools. In addition to Whittaker, six distinguished alumni of Catholic schools also will be honored. For more information about the dinner, visit ceflou.org.
The Father McGee Award is presented each year to a teacher who embodies the values of Catholic education. Whittaker seems to fit that bill and then some.
At St. Francis of Assisi, he teaches science, religion and history to middle school students. He also is the director of the after school care program. He is the instructor for the eighth-grade confirmation program. He established a program at the school called Peace Families in which students do service work and have personal encounters with people “outside their comfort zones” — such as refugees resettled by Catholic Charities and people who have been homeless. And he is a sponsor of the middle school social justice club called the Committee on Conscience which, among other efforts, has raised tuition money to help refugees attend the school.
As if that weren’t enough, Whittaker also directs the science fair at the school, which wrapped up earlier this month.
On a recent Friday afternoon, seventh-graders walked out of Whittaker’s science class to a chorus of “God Bless you.” Whittaker says it to his students as they leave his classes and they return his blessing, not with an embarrassed giggle, but either with a smile or by offering a blessing in turn.
Sophia and Gretchen Frommeyer, twin seventh-graders, said at the end of a science class that they value Whittaker’s teaching style and kindness.
“We don’t read out of books — it’s not boring,” Gretchen said. “It’s fun and we learn a lot.”
Her sister Sophia added, “He finds a way to make everything funny. He makes up raps that are really funny.”
Asked how it feels to have a teacher bless them as they leave class, Sophia said, “It feels good.”
Whittaker said everything he does as a Catholic educator “comes from the heart.” For him, teaching and living a faith-filled life are interconnected.
“I was immersed in education my whole life without really knowing it,” Whittaker said during an interview in his science lab.
He noted that his father was a biology instructor at the University of Louisville and his mother was a medical technologist. But the family loved to learn together about all subjects.
“Curiosity and awe were encouraged in our house. We always felt great joy in knowing more,” he said. “To me, learning was something a family did and something you did in the midst of great love and community.
“That’s what I try to create in the classroom — a sense of community, a sense of awe,” he said. “If the kids feel safe emotionally, they’ll feel safe to be curious.
“I’ve always wanted my classroom to be a place where it’s as important to not know as it is to know,” he added. “I think a wonderful example that teachers can set for students is to remain teachable. I eagerly admit I don’t know enough.”
One thing he has learned a lot about — and has brought to both his students and the parish community at St. Francis of Assisi — is the Holocaust. He and his students, who have built relationships with survivors, worked from 2006 to 2008 to make Holocaust education a requirement for all Kentucky students. And they succeeded. Gov. Steve Beshear signed the mandate into law at St. Francis of Assisi School.
Holocaust education has become foundational in his religion curriculum, he said. His students also have pen pals in Israeli and Palestinian schools.
He seems to approach everything he does at the school with a great deal of energy, those who know him said. He noted during the interview in his lab that he has been at the school every day since mid-October, including Christmas day. But it’s not onerous; quite the opposite, he said.
“We use the metaphor, a labor of love,” he said. “But it’s more than that. I find great life in education and I feel called to honor the students who want to push themselves and to be there for the students who don’t want to.
“Every teacher thinks their kids are phenomenal and amazing and magic,” Whittaker added. “I think that of my kids. I get to be inspired by (their) amazing acts of kindness and forgiveness and compassion. The Gospels are alive in the lives of 14-year-olds.”
For more information about the Salute to Catholic School Alumni dinner, visit www.ceflou.org.