An Interview with Maria Hawk, Ed.D.

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Dr. Knight: I am honored to interview you, Maria, as the Regional Director Secondary Schools & Board Development for the Archdiocese of Chicago, can you tell us how you decided to work in this position?


Dr. Hawk: Thanks for reaching out! After teaching for ten years and serving as a principal for an additional ten, I wanted to put my newly-acquired doctorate to good use in a more consultative role within the Archdiocese of Chicago. My current position allows me to use my education and experience to assist multiple schools in a variety of areas. As a former practitioner it has been an interesting transition, and I do miss the day-to-day workings of a school – especially interactions with the students.


Dr. Knight: The readers would like to know your background in Catholic education and what that involvement means to you?


Dr. Hawk: I grew up in a large Catholic family on the southwest side of Chicago. I am the youngest of eight children and we all attended a Catholic elementary school in our neighborhood. Faith was always important to my parents and became an integral part my personal life as an adult. Interestingly enough, I did not begin my professional career in Catholic education. I earned a B.S. in Business Administration and worked at a Fortune 500 company right out of college. During that time, I was a volunteer religious education teacher at my local parish. I found that I was spending more time and effort preparing my Sunday school lessons than worrying about my “real job.” After some soul searching, I discovered that my true passion was education. I quit my job and enrolled in a Master of Arts in Teaching program. After receiving my M.A.T. I began my educational career at a Catholic school as a second-grade teacher and have worked in Catholic education ever since. The ability to pray and incorporate gospel values into the school day really sets our schools apart from our public counterparts. Catholic schools can truly help develop the whole child physically, intellectually and spiritually. Our students know that they are loved deeply by God and have a constant companion on the journey of life.

Dr. Knight: We are a large Catholic archdiocese growing in diversity. Could you tell us how diversity enriches our high schools?


Dr. Hawk: Diversity brings so much in terms of understanding and tolerance to our students and schools. I truly believe that children are very accepting of others in a school setting, and given a welcoming and caring climate, they very naturally become classmates, teammates, and ultimately close friends. We do have many international students attending the Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago and they are able to share their beautiful, rich culture and perspective with their classmates. Both groups of students benefit immensely from this partnership.

Dr. Knight: What is your philosophy of leadership? What are some of the aspects of leadership that you promote?


Dr. Hawk: I believe that effective leaders create more leaders – true leaders affirm and encourage others to grow by taking on responsibility and leadership roles. This means that a true leader needs to be comfortable with a certain loss of control and the delegation of duties, but this approach will create a stronger school team and help others rise to their full potential. It takes time to cultivate and nurture these relationships, and often the short-sided leader will not make these investments. They often take on more than they can handle exhibiting signs of stress and also more importantly, fail to create a sense of community and buy-in with the staff. I also think that leaders need to be strong, confident and courageous. This is not something we often talk about when we think of collaborative leadership, but often a school leader is put into a position with the responsibility of managing opposing viewpoints. The leader must solicit opinions, weigh the evidence, consider the greater good and come to a decision. Some may not be happy with the results, but if the leader knows he/she acted in good faith, they must find the fortitude and conviction to carry on regardless. In addition, if it becomes clear that the leader made a mistake, they must have the courage and humility to admit it and move forward.


I also see leadership as a service to others. Leaders need to somehow flip the narrative of the “love of power” to the “power of love.” Being a leader in a Catholic school is truly a ministry, and one must care deeply about the students, parents, faculty and staff to help meet their spiritual and educational needs. Finally, a leader needs to inspire others to a greater understanding of the school’s mission. There is no “right” way to do this as some leaders are inspiring through their quiet faithful service; others through an overt passionate approach; and still others through simply providing an unwavering example of Christian living.


Dr. Knight: What are some ways you have dealt with challenges in regards to working with principals?


Dr. Hawk: The principalship has become an increasingly demanding role. Every year, we see more and more students coming to our schools with many emotional and social needs from all demographic areas. This has added yet another layer of responsibility and student support for the principal to provide. In addition, the sheer amount of compliance reports and logistical needs of a school make it difficult for principals to be true instructional leaders. They often fail to spend enough time observing and coaching their teachers, to ensure instructional time is effective and engaging.


Some of the principals I work with struggle with time management; they often feel overwhelmed and somewhat paralyzed given the demands of the job and the enormity of tasks they are required to complete. In turn, I often provide support by doing research on new state laws or Archdiocesan initiatives, synthesizing the information in one place so my principals can use it as a reference guide. I have also been devoting time at each of our monthly meetings to discuss relevant topics. Each year, we read an academic-themed book (one chapter a month) and conduct a discussion on its importance. Through these conversations we always go back to our ultimate goal: to educate children, which often gets lost in the details.


Dr. Knight: What advice would you give to a new high school teacher on his/her first year of teaching? As a person who worked with high school teachers all my life, I would like to see each student who applies to your schools to have the same mentor for 4 years as I think adults need to take seriously our responsibility to the next generation. Would that ever be something you could imagine doing or are already doing?


Dr. Hawk: I would say to the new high school teachers that your first year is often hard and don’t be discouraged if you face some difficulty. Starting off as a new teacher, in a new school, with new students, and new parents is often physically and emotionally stressful. New teachers need to allow themselves time to grow and develop their practice without expecting everything to go perfectly in the first year. They need to be willing to fail – because only through failing will they understand the adjustments and improvements required to become an effective instructor. After all, it is a marathon, not a sprint; the best teachers did not become great overnight. They perfected their craft through diligant reflection and practice, as with any other skill. I also advise new teachers to occasionally indulge in self-care rituals to keep them balanced. I encourage new teachers to engage in activities like travel, exercise, yoga and outside interests that will make them a happier and well-rounded person and ultimately, a better teacher.

I love your idea of the four-year continuous mentoring program for students – I think these relationships can be very beneficial for both parties. Students will have consistent and dependable adult mentorship, while adults will see their efforts pay off over the course of the four years. Developing these meaningful relationships is what education is truly about, and a good educator has the potential to instill a positive, life-long impact on a student.


Dr. Knight: What are some of the ways you interact with parents to support their work in raising their adolescents?


Dr. Hawk: I have been increasingly more concerned with high school students’ digital literacy and their use of technology, so one of my most important initiatives has been providing parents with educational workshops addressing appropriate online behavior. This has been possible through a partnership with the Archdiocese of Chicago Office of Human Dignity and Solidarity, who also incorporate John Paul II’s Theology of the Body lessons to keep teens safe from harmful exploitation in our over-sexualized society.


I feel that as adults, we have failed our children miserably on this count. We have willingly given them access to inappropriate content (typically through the use of cell phones), but have not explained to them – or their parents – the ramifications and consequences of risky online behavior.


Dr. Knight: As a statistician, I realize data is a large part of determining the success of schools. Explain your involvement in using data for the benefit of the students, their parents and the other schools in the Archdiocese?


Dr. Hawk: Schools currently have easy access to an abundance of data, some of it in real time. This has created a data-rich but information-poor environment; meaning, the overwhelming amount of raw data is lacking in usefulness and practicality, despite the fact that there is so much of it. In addition, it is important to remember that data is not just standardized test scores; there are all kinds of data we gather each day in a school. Examples are attendance records, behavioral referrals, graduation rates, and everyday conversations with students and staff. These can be valuable data points if we really took the time to study and analyze them.


When efficiently working with student academic data, one has to narrow the focus and look beneath the surface to find the root cause of a problem, instead of using aggregate data to make sweeping generalizations and thereby enacting school wide initiatives that may or may not solve the problem itself. I personally like to look at individual student growth metrics to measure whether students are learning. An examination of these types of data is critical to creating differentiated learning opportunities and skill building lessons within the classroom. I feel most teachers could benefit from receiving professional development on how to begin a cycle of inquiry using data within their own classrooms. Teachers could be shown how to examine multiple classroom data points to determine a problem of practice. Once the problem of practice is identified, teachers then determine the root cause by digging deeper and not looking for the superficial quick fix. The teacher then creates and implements an action plan, collects more data and the cycle repeats itself. A process like this will empower teachers to make curriculum and/or instructional changes based on their own findings. It is a more personal and organic approach to problem solving, and bypasses the all too prevalent issue of top-down solutions. Substantive changes in a school must start with each teacher in his/her own classroom.


Dr. Knight: Safety is such an important part of our everyday understanding of life. What aspects are the most important variables to you?


Dr. Hawk: To me, school safety has two components that are related yet distinct from one another. The first is the structural safety of the school campus. Procedures and policies for how students, staff and visitors enter the building as well as detailed instructions for what to do in case of an emergency now have to be scripted, practiced, evaluated, adjusted and updated regularly in response to previous incidents. Unfortunately, this is the world we now live in as we have all witnessed unspeakable acts play out in schools around the country.


The other component of school safety revolves around the social and emotional health of the students and staff. School should be a safe place where everyone feels loved, valued, accepted and respected. Catholic schools have always promoted these ideals; however, I think we all could do a better job of intentionally responding to these needs. We are seeing an increase of younger children coming to school with serious emotional issues. Instruction in digital citizenship, conflict resolution and interpersonal relationships – coupled with restorative justice programs for those who fall short – will help prepare our students for productive and peaceful adult lives.


Dr. Knight: Technology is such an integral and important part of our lives. What has been effective for your schools? Do we use technological devices ‘too much’?


Dr. Hawk: I have seen some very successful 1:1 programs that have promoted collaboration and higher-level thinking skills in the classroom. I have also seen technology used just to say we are using it. I am a proponent of using the SAMR model to evaluate the technological integration in a school. This helps to distinguish the level of true implementation. If a teacher is merely substituting technology for a paper/pencil activity, then the full use of technology as an instructional tool is lost, and frankly, what is the point? But if a teacher plans lessons that can re-define tasks previously inconceivable, then he/she is truly preparing our students for the future. Many of our teachers did not grow up with technology like our students have, and there is a tremendous gap in skills and knowledge. This can be a barrier to full integration.

Technology is now a part of everyone’s day-to-day life, including our students. There is no going back, but I do worry about the lack of face-to-face personal interactions students have with one another. I wonder if they will be able to sustain relationships, read body language and have genuine meaningful conversations with others. Also, the misuse of social media can lead to cyberbullying and a sense of isolation. This aspect is often difficult for schools to manage due to the fact that these interactions regularly occur off hours/off site. However, the ramifications of inappropriate online behavior make their way into the school. We must continue to educate parents and students on the serious consequences of abusing technology.


Dr. Knight: How does your work follow the mission of the Archdiocese? How is it important for the success of the Catholic Church?


Dr. Hawk: Recently the Pastoral Center (home of the Archdiocese) published their core values. They are: Discipleship, Community, Service, Excellence, and Hope. Each of these core values is imbedded within the work I do. First and foremost, we are called to be disciples of Jesus believing in His teachings and spreading His message of love throughout the world. We are also called into communion with others to share our time and talents with those less fortunate than us. I am currently implementing this core value through my work with several high schools in areas of poverty. I also fulfill a service role by providing advice and counsel to all the high schools in the Chicago Archdiocese to help continue the mission of educating young adults. Through our academic support and curricular work, we endeavor to provide each student with a comprehensive and excellent education rooted in the values of the gospel. Lastly, we are purveyors of hope – hope that if we promote Christian values in our own daily lives, we will inspire and lead people of all backgrounds to a more fulfilling life here on earth and one day in heaven.


Dr. Knight: Thank you for providing us with valuable information about the engagement you have in education and how your work provides leadership in the area of Catholic schools.


Dr. Hawk: Thank you Dr. Knight, it’s been my pleasure.

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