St. Leonard teacher wins McGee award

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Kathleen Willenbrink, recipient of the Father Joseph McGee Award for Outstanding Catholic Educator, worked with eighth-grader Skyler Jordan, right, at the school’s resource center Jan. 7. In her role as resource coordinator, Willenbrink works with students to support their classroom learning. (Record Photo by Ruby Thomas)

By Ruby Thomas, Record Staff Writer
Kathleen Willenbrink — the resource coordinator at St. Leonard School — said her early experiences as a student inspired her to become a teacher.
Willenbrink, who has been a teacher for more than 30 years, is this year’s recipient of the Father Joseph McGee Award for Outstanding Catholic Educator.

She will receive the award during the 26th Salute to Catholic School Alumni dinner, sponsored by the Catholic Education Foundation, on March 16 at The Galt House Hotel. The keynote speaker will be Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York.

Willenbrink said during an interview recently in St. Leonard’s resource center, “I had wonderful teachers in the second and third grades and I knew I wanted to be like them.” She started her career as a kindergarten teacher at St. Leonard after graduating from Spalding University, where she earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Her career has spanned more than three decades time in which she also taught at Sacred Heart of Jesus School in Jeffersonville, Ind., and Holy Spirit School. At one point she stayed home for two years, but even then she served as a home school teacher to one of her children and four neighborhood kids.

Willenbrink said her approach to education is based on nurturing the whole child.

“I want the kids to feel good about themselves. It’s not just about being smart,” she said. “They need to be people who are respectful and caring. They need to be an example of Christ everyday.”

Mary Parola, principal of St. Leonard, said she nominated Willenbrink for the McGee award, because she’s “a strong Catholic educator.”

“She always has the students’ best interest at the forefront of her mind,” said Parola. “She’s a firm believer of what Catholic education can do.”

Parola said that Willenbrink’s role as resource coordinator — a position she’s held for a little more than a year — requires her to support both students and teachers.

In between answering students’ questions in the resource center, Willenbrink explained that she works individually with students in all grade levels, including those with“learning differences.”

Willenbrink operates a “Student Success Center,” for students who need extra help, and a “Student Challenge Center,” for those who are working above grade level and looking for a challenge.

“They’re very bright and they all really want to learn and be successful,” she said, noting that all students learn differently.

Willenbrink recalled that as a young child she experienced some difficulties in learning.

“That made it a little difficult, but my second-grade teacher loved me no matter what,” she said. This experience made her more attuned to her students’ needs, she explained.

Willenbrink said she was “shocked” to learn she’d been chosen to receive the McGee Award. She noted that she has attended the Salute to Catholic School Alumni dinner, where the award is handed out, before.

“I’ve always thought about what an honor that is, but I never thought about it for myself. It’s quite an honor,” she said, tears moistening her eyes.
Parola said Willenbrink deserves the award because she lives the values she instills in her students.

“She is such an example of Christ for the students, staff and her family,” Parola said.

And her students have taken notice, as well.

Skyler Jordan, an eight-grader who stopped by the resource center to get help with a science test, recalled how Willenbrink made a difference in his life. He transferred to St. Leonard as a third-grader near the end of a school year, he said.

“She was my homeroom teacher and she welcomed and helped me,” said Jordan. “God may have called her to do this, because she works so well with kids.”

Jordan still remembers her classroom rules: Speak thoughtfully, listen generously and act respectfully. The three rules were written and posted near her classroom door.

“We touched the list on our way out the door as a sign that we were taking them with us,” said Jordan.

The three rules are now posted near the door of the resource center. Jordan remembered to touch the sign as he walked out. Willenbrink is surprised, but touched that he remembers.

Knowing that she’s touched the lives of her students is what is most rewarding, she said.

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