The principal of St. Peter Interparish School in Jefferson City had just called to hire Lesha Neidert to teach second grade.
Mrs. Neidert decided to talk about it with her family before accepting.
“As I was driving home, I saw a rainbow,” she recalled. “I told God, ‘I see what You’re doing. You’re calling me. This must be where I have to be.’”
This spring, almost six years after “God came knocking,” Mrs. Neidert will accept a “Lead. Learn. Proclaim.” Award from the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA).
The award highlights teachers who demonstrate a strong Catholic educational philosophy, exceptional ability, dedication and results.
“She is very deserving of this honor, and we are grateful for her innumerable contributions to Catholic education,” stated Annette Jones, the NCEA’s assistant director for school leadership.
The honorees, chosen from the more than 150,000 educators serving in the nation’s Catholic elementary and secondary schools, will be recognized April 23 during the NCEA Convention & Expo.
Mrs. Neidert will be the latest of a handful of St. Peter Interparish School faculty members to receive prestigious honors from the NCEA.
“I’m very thrilled that our school has a tradition of creating an environment where we can do the kinds of things we do, where we can use our faith and learning to inspire our students, our families and our staff,” she said.
Let children lead
Mrs. Neidert has always enjoyed helping children overcome obstacles to learning, especially when it comes to reading.
“I like working with students who need a little bit of support or me having to teach in a different way,” she said. “God gave me that gift. I’ll always be that way.”
As a second-grade teacher, she considers it a special privilege — “the highlight of my career” — to help her students prepare to receive the Lord in Holy Communion, and absolution from their sins in reconciliation.
St. Peter Interparish School includes the Vogelweid Learning Center, a special-services program for children of widely diverse needs for learning that generally cannot be met in a typical classroom setting.
Mrs. Neidert relishes working with the center’s director, Paula Wekenborg, to help second graders with special needs prepare for the sacraments.
“Paula has been instrumental in bringing these kids into my classroom and in helping me stay focused on their needs,” she said.
Mrs. Neidert believes a key to teaching children of all ability levels is forging a relationship with them and their families.
“That’s really the first part of getting a good foundation,” she said. “You want to build a team mentality with the parents and the student.”
It’s also important to make learning interactive and interesting.
“You have to follow the child’s lead,” she said. “You have to find out what the student is interested in and what they know about it, and go from there.”
This is all the more important with faith formation and sacrament preparation.
“With the sacraments, you have to bring the faith to life,” she said. “You have to bring them over to the church and make the stories come alive and put them in the context of Jesus’ time.”
For instance, when it’s time to learn about reconciliation, she finds out what her students know about forgiveness, and what their experiences with mercy have been.
“And that’s the lead I follow,” she said.
Mrs. Neidert grew up in St. Louis. Her mother was Catholic and her father Protestant.
She worshipped in several congregations and got to know people from many faith traditions.
She went to Missouri State University in Springfield to study elementary education and developmental reading.
She began to languish spiritually after her mother died.
Her then-fiancé (now husband) Andrew, who grew up Catholic in Jefferson City, was concerned about her and went to Claretian Father Eddie De León, director and chaplain of Campus Ministry at the university.
The priest advised him to be sure to practice his own faith before trying to lead his future wife back to church.
Mr. Neidert started going to Mass every Sunday evening at the Catholic Student Center and inviting her to attend.
After about a month and a half, she gave in and went with him.
“It felt like coming home,” she said. “It turned out to be a monumental point in my life.”
She wound up completing her sacramental initiation with Fr. De León through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.
“God was there, knocking on my door, and that’s where it fell into place,” she said.
She was amazed at how the priest led people to Christ by inspiring them rather than using guilt or coercion.
She patterns her own approach on his in trying to invigorate students and families as they prepare for First Communion.
“It’s definitely a partnership with me and them and our priest, Fr. Pardee, and the whole parish,” she said.
She noted that parents have their children baptized, introduce them to Christ and take them to Mass.
“But with reconciliation and First Communion, the child becomes a real, active member of the Church, and I want them to feel that way,” she said.
Where learning occurs
Mr. and Mrs. Neidert got married in 2004. Their son, Harper, is in fifth grade at St. Peter Interparish School.
Mrs. Neidert taught remedial reading for nine years in a public elementary school.
“I’m an underdog person at heart,” she said. “I’ve always enjoyed working with kids who are struggling. That’s kind of my thing.”
Her specialty was a program called Reading Recovery, developed by a teacher named Marie Clay in New Zealand.
“It’s an intervention for struggling readers,” said Mrs. Neidert. “You take lowest 2 percent and you have 20 weeks to get them on level.”
It’s how she learned to “follow the child’s lead.”
“You don’t follow a rote path,” she said. “You take what the child knows and build on that.”
That approach requires flexibility and trust in the students.
“When you give up a little bit of control and let them lead the way, that’s when the learning occurs!” she said.
She believes it’s a privilege to teach in a faith-driven Catholic school where everyone — teachers, administration, staff and the parish priest — is focused on Christ.
“We understand that if you’re not faith-driven, you’re not putting your students first,” she said. “I think St. Peter does a great job of putting faith first, students first, families first.”
Collaboration among teachers and staff is encouraged and facilitated.
“We share a trusting relationship to work together to help students become best they can be,” she said.
The teachers are committed to making each other successful.
“And when we’re successful as teachers, our kids are going to be successful,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
One at a time
Mrs. Neidert said her students minister to her, mainly through their wild curiosity and boundless sense of wonder.
“They ask magnificent questions,” she said. “They wonder so much about things that they often catch me off guard with their deep and thoughtful questions.”
When she doesn’t know an answer to a religion question off the top of her head, she lets them see her turn to Scripture and to what she calls “the Catholic book of questions and answers” — the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
“I think that is what faith is about — to wonder and seek God in many different ways,” she said. “And they definitely motivate me to do that.”
Inspired by St. Mother Theresa of Kolkata’s advice for making families strong and helping people get closer to Christ, Mrs. Neidert focuses on doing these things “one child, one family at a time.”
“The Church becomes stronger and grows one family at a time, and you have to start it with your family and it flows into that,” she said.
Mrs. Neidert asked for prayers for all teachers, especially “for them to keep an open heart to meeting everyone’s needs and always becoming more loving and caring examples of Jesus.”
She is awestruck the sacrifices students’ parents and the whole parish make in order for the children to have a good education.
“I think a lot of times, parents don’t even realize the sacrifices they’re making day in and day out to do that,” she said. “So I thank God for them.”