Stories of Justice: S. Sarah Heger, educator

Changing the world through education,
one young woman at a time.

by Sister Mary Flick, justice ministry coordinator

For Sister Sarah Heger, a career in education seemed more a means to an end than a career choice. “I knew I wanted to change the world,” she says of her career aspirations as a high school student. “Everything I thought of, ultimately, boiled down to education.”

So the Pacific, Missouri, native chose to study at Fontbonne University, well known for its special education degree program. She turned down the opportunity to play Division I volleyball at the University of Missouri-Columbia because Mizzou had lost its accreditation in education. So she settled for Division III at Fontbonne because, she says, “Teaching is something I want to do the rest of my life.” She graduated from the CSJ-sponsored university in 2004.

In 2005, she began her candidacy with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet and taught at St. Joan of Arc grade school.

After first vows, Sister Sarah headed to Ripley, Mississippi, to teach in the public high school. Initially hired to work in the career office, she ended the first year working in the career office as well as teaching English as a Second Language, special education classes and coaching volleyball, track, and cross country teams.

 She thought she knew what to expect for year two, as she signed a contract to teach special education classes. However, upon her arrival the day before classes began, she was without students or a schedule. She was told to set her own schedule and observe where the needs were in the school.

“It was like the first sisters who divided the city and responded to the needs that were there,” she says.

Returning to St. Louis in 2010, she began her service at Marian Middle School, St. Louis’ only Catholic all-girls middle school for young women with academic potential whose families are financially unable to meet the tuition costs of private education. Her first five years were spent in the classroom teaching “fifth-grade everything.” Today, she is finishing up her first full year as principal.

“At Marian, we take students with great potential who are under-served in the school environment. We work with the students and their families to reach that potential.”

“But we can’t break the cycle of poverty with an eighth-grade education,” Sarah notes. “So we follow our students until they find their way into a career and make an impact in the community and the world.”

Not all students are the same. Sarah says she has taught students who are homeless, some who have been abused and others “who come from a phenomenal family life, but cannot afford private, faith-based education.” During her five years as a Marian teacher, she had a student who came to fifth grade reading at a second grade level, another who came reading at a 10th grade level, and everything in between.

“I became a teacher because I’m a life-long student,” she says. “I’ve learned so much about who I am by being here. I take my students where they are and grow with them. My students have changed my life.”

Sister Sarah admits it’s been a difficult move to being in administration versus being in the classroom every day. “I affect change in a different way. But my relationships with students, families, and staff have to remain central.”

But you’ll find her office chair is empty much of the time. She subs, she coaches track and she eats lunch with the girls every day. In fact, she says she’s taught almost every girl in the building.  It’s part and parcel of how she sees her work as principal.  “Being a principal is about being interrupted, and always being present.”

For Sister Sarah, this presence is grounded in her prayer life. “My prayer life allows me to stay centered on what’s important. Without a grounding in prayer, discipline looks different, conversations sound different,’ she says.

This perspective helps her to pause before she acts and speaks with students and parents, contemplating how to reach them where they are in the moment and in their lives. “I pause before I act and speak … I take a deep breath and say a prayer. When I remember to do that, the conversation goes better.”

Marian opened its doors in 2000 as a joint venture between seven women’s religious communities, one being the Sisters of St. Joseph.  “I love being part of this collaborative venture,” Sister Sarah says. “Collaboration is part of the future of religious life. It’s inspirational what the sisters did and continue to do through their support here at Marian.”

That collaboration and mutuality is fostered repeatedly in the school’s hallways and offices. “It’s a two-way street here,” Sister Sarah notes. “I cannot change the world by myself. But by allowing each other to be changed through relationship and interactions, we change the world together. That’s what we do here.”

And that’s what Sister Sarah intends to make her life’s ministry. “I think I’ll always be involved in education,” she says. “I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be. “When you educate a woman, you educate a generation.”

It’s how she plans to change the world: one young woman at a time.

Read about Sister Sarah's recent run in the Boston Marathon in the St. Louis Review. 



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