Teachers Dedicated to Service: Dr. Catherine Ferderbar


In mid-October, five area teachers were honored by the Education Deans of Greater Milwaukee for their work in service learning,  “… a form of experiential learning where students apply academic knowledge and critical thinking skills to address genuine community needs.”

Their projects – which range in scope from environmental activism to artistic expression and humanitarian assistance –clearly illustrate the impact teachers have upon both their students and the communities in which they teach.

We sat down with each award-winning teacher to find out more about what inspires them to engage with their students and their community in these powerful ways.

Dr. Catherine Ferderbar of St. Mary Parish School, Menomonee Falls was awarded the Advanced Career Award.

Ferderbar has spearheaded a school-wide recycling program and composting system managed entirely by students. Through a partnership with the Riveredge Nature Center, students learned how to identify and remove invasive species, the practice and advocacy of which has carried over into their own families and communities. After a service learning trip, parents were delighted when students facilitated a garden club and began serving fresh salads with vegetables, herbs, and spices, much of which was harvested from their school’s garden.

Students learned to collaborate and problem solve when insects sabotaged their garden over Christmas break. They demonstrated great concern when an oil pipe broke in a neighboring community and discussed at length the long-term impact of the contamination to the groundwater and soil. They organized the delivery of fresh water to 15 families in the area. In addition, students have designated a method of using bacteria to clean up oil spills and designed sanitary landfills.

Celebrate Teachers & Teaching: Was there a particular moment in your life when you knew you wanted to become a teacher?

Catherine Ferderbar: For me, teaching came about as “an accident.” When I was younger, in college actually, my father called me “ a perpetual student.” I love to learn, so I really like taking formal classes from people who are passionate about what they teach, and I seek informal learning experiences with people who relish sharing their understanding of our world. Because I’ve had such wonderful educational opportunities myself, I value education and I want to share the exhilaration of learning with others.

CTT: What are some of the positive transformations you’ve seen within your school and your students since implementing a service-learning curriculum?

CF: I’m not sure curriculum is the word I would use, although service-learning is a major focus in every class. It’s more than that, it’s a school culture. It permeates how we journey through our year together. I work in a parochial school. Our school mantra is “Live Jesus,” the motto of St. Francis de Sales. How do we do that? We look for opportunities to bring about his Father’s Kingdom, in the here and now.

One of the students’ favorite songs is “Go, Make a Difference.” Lyrics to another favorite song, enjoin all of us to “Bring forth the Kingdom of mercy, bring forth the Kingdom of peace, bring forth the Kingdom of justice, bring forth the City of God.”

If those are the thoughts that stream through our heads during the day, we become more in tune with the needs of those around us and we are more aware of and present to the occasions to make this world a better place. It’s not like this is some lofty, unattainable goal. Service is a natural outgrowth, part of who we become.

CTT: How do you envision the lessons and skills students learn through service-learning projects translating into improvement within your community and/or the city of Milwaukee?

FB: When we participated in a pilot “Protecting Wisconsin Ecosystems” field trip last spring, students came back really pumped up. The students had so many wonderful suggestions as to how we could improve what they termed “the best field trip ever.” One student told her grandma all about our trip and all the invasive species we “got rid of.” Grandma turned out to be a master gardener working with UW-extension. She sent Wisconsin Wildcards of invasive species to school for the entire class.

Since last May, students have taken pictures of themselves pulling invasive species from neighborhoods or their parents’ work places. On 9-11 this year, as a spontaneous “good deed,” my homeroom went outside and pulled weeds from the sidewalk crevices. In 10 minutes, they had two giant bagfuls. Why? Because the custodian has so much to do, they wanted to help him out and make a difference.

CTT: Have you observed any benefits beyond those that are academic-related for students who participate in service-learning projects?  If so, can you describe them?

CF: I always hope service-learning projects become part of students’ everyday life – that there is spillover to individual and family choices. That hope is not a wishful hope, but rather an expectant hope, grounded in the knowledge of what students have experienced at school.

When I did the research for my dissertation, I found that once students were aware of where water from their yards ended up – in the storm sewer, and ultimately, the local river and Lake Michigan drinking water – they made some different choices. They were more willing to pick up after the family dog, they swept fertilizer off driveways, or washed cars on the lawn instead of in the driveway. Little things, but they add up.

After making Easter baskets with their second grade buddies last year, and delivering them to seniors at two local nursing homes, the seventh grade (now eighth grade) students are more sensitive to the loneliness of the elderly. Our Deacon has been hospitalized since the beginning of the school year. That first week of school, students made cards to cheer him up. Last week was his birthday. Again, they made cards – and asked if they could walk over to the hospital to visit. I think that cultivating a sense of mindfulness is a skill that will serve the students and the community.

CTT: What motivates you to continue pushing yourself (“keep calm, teach on”) as a teacher often faced with stressors unimaginable for those outside the teaching profession?

CF: Motivation is a funny thing. It pokes at you in unexpected ways. I pushed really hard, to finish my PhD, while teaching full time. Instead of just completing the coursework, I would share my findings with students or talk about things I learned. Sharing and getting feedback motivated me to keep going. Seeing me learn and be excited, helped students to be more into their school “work”.  I also got a lot of support from colleagues and friends. I still do.  We brainstorm and troubleshoot to help kids achieve, keep our sanity, and just be there for each other.

I also teach a university course, to accelerated learners. Many of these folks have been out of school for 20 years – and they certainly haven’t taken a science class in forever. They’re pretty much terrified. So – I look for creative, nonthreatening ways to help them learn. I think the creativity and novelty of teaching, the building of relationships, knowing you are making a difference, those are the perks that keep me going.

Finally, I really take to heart the call to be a steward of creation. Each child who recognizes the call of a mourning dove, each parent who chaperones a field trip in the pond or prairie at Riveredge, has a greater appreciation of this beautiful planet and all that it provides. They are the real stewards, the decision-makers who will guide the future of our planet. They deserve the best that I can offer in understanding and skills to meet the challenge.

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