One of the best parts of Catholic Schools Week for students at St. Agatha Catholic School this year was getting to see two Ms. Platzkoesters “running around the same school,” they said.
One of the many Catholic Schools Week activities this year included a visit by St. Joseph (Freeburg) students to St. Agatha’s Catholic School in New Athens.
Alison Platzkoester teaches fifth and sixth grade along with seventh and eighth grade history at St Agatha’s. Her sister Natalie Platzkoester teaches third and fourth grade history, Religion and science at St Joseph’s.
Allison said she always knew she wanted to be an educator. “There was never another profession that crossed my mind,” she said. As for Natalie: “I would say it was “set it in stone by fifth grade. I had some amazing teachers and the relationships I saw between my teachers had a lot to do with it. They made teaching look enjoyable and meaningful.”
The sisters’ aunt, Carol Platzkoester, taught at Cathedral Grade School (now Notre Dame Academy). She was a big influence on the sisters.
“She taught in Belleville for about 45 years,” said Natalie. “She would watch us during the summers and take us up to her classroom while she was setting up for the school year. We would help sort books, move desks, help her with new technology. And she wasn’t just a Catholic school teacher, she was a true Catholic. She sat in the pew right next to us at church every Sunday. Seeing her dedication to her students and her own faith was an inspiration for me to become a Catholic educator. “
“It’s funny,” Natalie added. “I am now teaching the kids of some of her former students from the 70s and 80s. We’ve gone full circle.”
While Catholic schools was their first choice for a place of employment, Natalie said she often has to defend her decision to work in a Catholic school because of the pay difference.
“That always puzzles me,” she said. “As a Catholic I know that the Bible teaches that you cannot have two masters. You cannot serve both God and money … I’ve never struggled with this decision because the family and school life I grew up with taught me that you cannot chase money.
Chasing money in this life may bless you with a big house, nice clothes and cars but you will likely not be blessed in the next life.”
Natalie noted that this life is short and the next life is eternal.
“An appetite for money is a distraction from living life, let alone a Christian life. I go home feeling like I did something with the life, and gifts, that God gave me every single day. “
For Alison, Catholic education allows for “individual education.”
“Faculty and staff get to know their students and their families on a personal level.,” she said. “This makes education personal for the students, which I’ve found makes it easier to get them interested.
She said it is also refreshing to work in a Catholic environment.
“We pray as a school, as a class, as a faculty,” she said. “I can honestly say that my students are a reminder for me on how I should be living. Their innocence and fresh, unobstructed outlook on the world often refreshes my own.”
Alison said that while learning about the commandments in religion class she had one ten-year-old ask her about adultery.
“He asked ‘Why would you promise God and your wife to not like other girls and then do it? I’s pretty easy to keep a promise if you really want to.’ And I thought, yeah, you’re right. Comments like that remind me that teaching just a few young minds to go down the right path can have a huge impact on the future of our future and our church. What I’m trying to say in fewer words is that my students encourage me to be a better Christian.”
Alison said that her school is also able to integrate religion into the core curriculum.
“I always enjoy having kids put the history of our church on a time-line while studying Roman history or the Middle Ages so they can see how far we have come and what we come from,” she said. “It’s great to work in a community where kids can ask about God and I can answer. Actually, I’m encouraged to answer.”
The sisters agree that a Catholic education is a unique and blessed experience.
“A Catholic education is more than just an average education,” Alison said. We provide an environment that focuses on academic greatness as well as our Catholic faith. There isn’t a subject we teach that doesn’t allow us to integrate our Catholic culture into our academic curriculum.
We set high standards for our students in both of those fields and we’re also able to offer a safe learning environment as we encourage our students to live out their Catholic faith throughout the school day.”
Natalie agreed. “Kids can ask us life’s questions and we are allowed to answer. We share a faith and we get to live it out together each day. It’s like a partnership between home and school. Catholic education teaches the same morals that are (or should) be taught in the Catholic homes that they return to each night.
For Alison, the Catholic school focus revolves around instilling Christ-like character in her students which hopefully helps them make the right choices in life.
“We are not a school; we are a partnership with families,” she said. “We are their Catholic home during the day.”
One of Alison’s favorite things about Catholic schooling is the openness to prayer.
“If our students hear a siren outside they stop, drop and pray,” she said. “There is no hesitation. I can be in the middle of a lesson but they all start off with a Hail Mary together the second they hear that siren, they know that prayer comes first.”
The sisters have learned several valuable lessons from their Catholic school teachers that they continue to share with their students.
“I remember being taught tolerance of other religions,” said Natalie. “Part of our religion unit was learning about other religions and the connections those faiths have to Catholicism. It really taught me ‘why’ I am Catholic. I think many people look at Catholics as close-minded but I received a very open-minded education at Cathedral. Rather than removing all religion from our school, as is the public school standard, we did the opposite and brought all world religions in to better understand society. We were able to put ourselves into the shoes of people in other religions and decide things for ourselves.”
Alison said she also learned that you can’t just sit behind a desk and talk about making the world a better place.
“Our teachers set up community service opportunities that allowed us to realize our small efforts can make a big change,” she said. “All of my teachers at Cathedral from Pre-K to eighth grade had the attitude of ‘I am aware that I don’t make millions, but I love my students and I love my job.’ Getting that kind of care from a teacher can be very inspiring; it can make you want to do the same.”
Alison said that when she was in seventh grade both of her mothers’ grandparents passed away from cancer. Her entire class went to the funeral Mass and she can remember her teacher crying and hugging her mother in the hallway.
“It was just an amazing, caring atmosphere,” she said. “Like anything else, it has its ups and downs but if you are looking for the good in the world, you’ll find it in a well-run Catholic school.”
“Building off of what Natalie said, it was our teachers growing up that showed us the importance of helping the community,” said Alison. “We can stand in our classroom and preach about our Catholic teachings or we can come up with ways to actually make a change in the world.
During my time at St. Agatha’s, the staff has worked together set up several community service projects. This school year we have focused on incorporating the Corporal and Spiritual Work of Mercy into our service projects.”
Natalie had the last word. “My advice to those who want to see a morals change in the world is be the beginning of that change – create a close and openly faithful home life. Make faith a habit. Make it a family tradition.”