Retiring superintendent of Catholic schools reminisces on 40 years in education

Retiring superintendent of Catholic schools reminisces on 40 years in education

JoAnn Tier can recount dozens of heartfelt moments from working in Catholic education for 34 years.

“It is the little things in life that touch the heartstrings,” said Tier, diocesan superintendent of Catholic Schools, as she recounted one memory from four years ago – an act of kindness during a high school graduation ceremony.

“The names of graduates were beginning to be called, and a young man, a graduate, stood up and went to the front to help a young lady as she mounted a series of steps. He saw the need and held out his hand to assist,” she said. “It’s that lived experience that melts your heart, that touches your life. The kindness, the sensitivity to others underscores the faith life that is lived each day, often in small but meaningful ways. Our faith is rooted in daily interactions.”

Tier is retiring this summer after 20 years in the Chancery, 11 of which were as superintendent. Originally set to leave at the end of June, she will continue in her position until Aug. 1, which will see the arrival of Dr. Vincent de Paul Schmidt.

Though her tenure is coming to a close, she’s not looking at retirement just yet. “I want to be there supporting our schools until the very end. I have the greatest admiration for our administrators, faculty and staff and will walk with them during this time of uncertainty and change. As long as I’m in the seat, I’ll be working,” she said.

Roots Run Deep

Tier grew up attending All Saints School in Burlington – the same school to which she would send her children. She later became a teacher at her alma mater and then served as its first lay principal.

“Prior to accepting the position of principal, a great deal of soul-searching and reflection ensued,” Tier said. “I was following the Bernadine Franciscan Sisters, who were leaving the school community after 65 years of service. I was a graduate of the school and a teacher. Enrollment had declined significantly. I did not want to be the first lay principal to close a school that I loved.

“I wanted to make a difference, but was goodwill, energy and commitment going to be enough?” she recalled thinking.

When she started, 120 students were enrolled. Ten years later, that number had grown to 225. She credits the growth to a collaborative working relationship with the pastor, teachers, and parents.

“Over time, we grew, and it was always due to the responsiveness to the needs of the students and the support of the pastor, parents and parish community,” she said. “It was a special time. It contributed to my knowledge base as I became a member of the Department of Catholic Schools in the Diocese.”

Her arrival at the diocesan Chancery in Lawrenceville was due, in part, to one of the people she most admired: St. Joseph Sister Dorothy L. Payne. Sister Dorothy, who was president of Trenton Catholic Academy in Hamilton at the time of her death in 2019, was then serving in the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools and encouraged Tier to apply for an open administrative position.

Accepting a role at the Chancery, Tier said, “was a matter that demanded personal reflection [and asking] ‘Where am I supposed to be right now?’ I believe God calls us and plants us where we are supposed to be. With the support of others and with a belief in what can be, positive outcomes can be realized.”

Tier took on various responsibilities in the Chancery – from working with the Catholic Urban Schools Program, to government programs and marketing initiatives, all of which, she said, provided many networking and learning opportunities.

Some of her proudest moments, however, come from seeing the successes of the Catholic schools in the Diocese during her time as superintendent.

Relationships Key

Tier is quick to admit the blessings that stem from having worked with two bishops who support Catholic schools.

“It was a pleasure to work briefly with Bishop Smith and to know the blessing of working with Bishop O’Connell for 10 years,” she said. “Both bishops provided commitment and investment in our Catholic schools. They valued the importance of passing on the faith and educating students to be responsible citizens. Their support and trust have been invaluable and cherished.”

She also praises members of the Department of Catholic Schools, the pastors, principals, school faculty, diocesan PTA and diocesan coworkers for their time and passion for Catholic schools and being what she calls “great sounding boards for visioning and direction.”

“The relationships really are at the core of this experience,” she said. “I have been surrounded by a group of amazingly talented individuals who work together to support our Catholic school students and schools.”

Also at the center of her experience – the successes achieved by Catholic schools in the Diocese. Ten years ago, she and staff began looking into ways to promote the good works being accomplished by school students, staff and others. Since that time, diocesan schools have been designated as Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence and Green Ribbon Schools by the U.S. Department of Education, and been named N.J. Future Ready Schools, and State and National Schools of Character.

This spring, the diocesan PTA took home a National Catholic Educational Association “Lead, Learn, Proclaim” Award.

“Besides creating an exceptional Catholic school learning environment, principals realize the importance of marketing and telling their school’s story,” Tier said. “In gaining recognition for their schools, the leaders invest in their future.”

Faith During Tough Times

With more than 40 years in the educational field – 34 in Catholic schools, seven in the public arena – there are bound to be challenges, too. Tier doesn’t hesitate to name her most heartbreaking hurdle.

“Closing schools,” she said with a note of sadness. “No one wants to close a Catholic school. That has been the most difficult journey – walking with our principals and teachers as that happens. It’s a time of helping them realize they’ve done the best they can, but that there are times we need to let go and see what God has in store. It’s a time to rely on faith during much adversity.”

Throughout both good and difficult times, Tier says working in Catholic education has helped her grow in faith and learn to trust in God – and others.

“It’s having the confidence to take necessary steps knowing you can fail,” she said. “If we’re staying safe and secure, we’re not going to grow.”

“Taking the position of superintendent was a risk,” she continued. “It was natural to wonder, ‘Am I up to this challenge, can I make a difference?’ It’s a matter of having that trust in God to guide you and say, ‘I’m giving my best. God, if there’s something more I need to know, help me out here.’”

Looking Ahead

Tier is optimistic about the future of Catholic schools in the Diocese, especially during the changes brought about by COVID-19. “This has been a time of stretching, growing and learning.”

She praises the time and efforts by school staff to boost virtual learning platforms. She explained that there is planning and troubleshooting that takes place daily, which includes teleconferences both locally and nationally to discern best practices in virtual learning.

“We are definitely in a difficult time with COVID-19. We will have a new look in the future, and part of that new look, I believe, will be more blended learning,” she said, speaking of remote and in-school learning. “However … we are a community committed to the faith, a community of learners, and we have faith in God to guide us.”

The pandemic may have brought about big changes, but Tier is confident one aspect of Catholic schools won’t change: the acts of service she sees occurring every day among the students.

“I am truly humbled at the service learning in our Catholic schools,” she said. “Students recognize the dignity of each person. They see the face of God in those whom they meet. They live the teachings of Jesus.”

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