|Karen Phillips, dean of studies at Pope John Paul II High School, was recently honored with the Christ the Teacher award, the highest annual honor given by the Diocese of Nashville to an outstanding educator. Phillips, above, is pictured in the hallway of JPII. The Christ the Teacher award statue is pictured below. Photo by Rick Musacchio|
In early February, Karen Phillips, assistant head of school, dean of studies and social studies teacher at Pope John Paul II High School, received the Christ the Teacher award from the Diocese of Nashville Catholic Schools Office. The award is given each year to an outstanding educator in the diocese.
JPII Headmaster Mike Deely, who nominated Phillips for the award, noted how integral she was to the early, and continued, success of the school. “She built a culture of confidence that all students can meet academic challenges and be successful,” he wrote in the nomination. “The depth of Karen’s accomplishment rests not simply in building a school, but more in the manner in which she did it. She worked with a grace and calmness that led others to find confidence in something new. She worked with relentless determination and vigor, which inspired her team to do the same. Most importantly, she did it in love and service,” Deely wrote.
Building a school from the ground up
Phillips was involved with JPII long before it admitted its first students. While teaching history and economics at Gallatin High School, she was asked by then-Father David Choby, her pastor at St. John Vianney Church in Gallatin, if she would join the Board of Trust for a new Catholic high school and help design the curriculum.
Before the actual construction of JPII began, Phillips moved into an office in a trailer on site, and began calling on colleagues she knew that could help “flesh out the full curriculum,” she said.
While Phillips had expertise in social studies and the humanities, she had to seek out teachers of other core academic areas, including math, science, language, and theology.
Phillips worked closely with JPII’s first headmaster, Hans Broekman, to assemble the school’s original faculty and staff. Phillips became assistant principal of academic affairs, but she also taught in the classroom, along with her other administrative counterparts. “Everyone that we brought on board, to the greatest extent possible, taught classes,” she said.
JPII opened its doors in August of 2002 to 240 students. For a brand-new school, it quickly garnered a reputation for being a top-notch academic institution. Phillips believes that positive perception was earned through hiring as department heads professionals who were well regarded in the Sumner County community.
“These people had been long-time teaching professionals and had already established records as experts,” said Phillips. “Two had won national Presidential teaching awards. It really gave us a leg up to have faculty leaders who were already known.”
It also helped that the school was very successful in its early student recruitment efforts, Phillips said. Broekman, in particular, “was able to connect with things that parents were really concerned for – not only an outstanding curriculum, but also the Catholic mission of this school that would be different from that of other schools in the county.”
From Phillips’ perspective, JPII had numerous qualities that set it aside from other schools. The founders’ vision was to offer a rigorous college preparatory curriculum, but one that was inclusive of learners with a range of abilities.
That vision has served the school well. Phillips points to the substantial accomplishments of students at all levels. Beyond the achievements in advanced placement classes and the variety of AP courses offered, she is proud that so many students choose to participate in these more challenging classes.
“I think we’ve been able to convince students that they really are capable of handling some of these college-level courses and doing well in them,” said Phillips. “We expect all of our students are headed for higher education, for college-level work, and that all of them need to be exposed to the development of skills that are going to serve them well when they get there. Not just the brightest or most elite members of the class.”
The Catholic school difference
Although Phillips enjoyed teaching at Gallatin High, she learned to appreciate the aspects of Catholic education that were not available in the public school setting. Like the ability to address the students’ spirituality, which they can call on when experiencing daily stresses.
“I still make it a practice to start my class with prayer, because I want students to remember that there is constant support for them in Christ in their lives, and that they have strengths and gifts to give each other too,” said Phillips. “When I’ve talked with students who are in crisis, I’m always reminding them not to forget about the option they have to take their concerns and their challenges to God and prayer.
“In Catholic education we have the ability to address the spiritual development of the individual, and to hold that as important as the intellectual, the social, the athletic and the artistic – all those things that make us who we are,” continued Phillips. “I believe that is such an important gift that Catholic education offers families, so important in the molding and development of young people.”
Phillips is very grateful for the Christ the Teacher award, but she’s convinced the school’s success has as much to do with the diocese believing in the JPII mission. She is thankful for the guidance of Diocesan Superintendent of Schools Dr. Therese Williams, Curriculum Director Alice Valiquette, Director of Professional Staff Development Sue Higdon and Bishop Choby.
“They were willing to allow us to develop the vision that we had for academics and for the other aspects of the program – things that have helped create the culture of this school,” Phillips said. “Without the encouragement to take our vision and be creative and try things that were a little bit different from the other schools, we wouldn’t have been able to get here. I have to credit them for the constant support they’ve given us since we’ve opened.”
Finding strength in community
Invaluable support would come to Phillips from other sources. In June 2014, Phillips was diagnosed with colon cancer. After surgery, she took the remainder of that summer off to recuperate. Back in school in the fall, Phillips was undergoing chemotherapy regularly, and missing every other Friday for treatments.
“During that time, I can’t tell you how much support I received from my colleagues, in filling in both my administrative and my teaching duties,” said Phillips. “I found that my interaction in this community was kind of redemptive – it allowed me to focus on something more important than myself.”
“Even in health struggles, her warm smile, gentle manner and kind presence never wavered,” Deely said of Phillips.
Since ending chemotherapy, Phillips has continued to feel better and gain strength. She believes the prayers from the community and the ability to continue working through recovery helped her overcome this health crisis.
“This community has been a blessing to me in so many ways – the students, the parents, my colleagues – everyone has always been supportive,” Phillips said. “I credit Bishop Choby for pulling me in when he did 17 years ago. I would never have foreseen the kind of professional growth and opportunities that I’ve been blessed with in this job.”