By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 6, 2021
FAYETTEVILLE—JoAnn McPherson sits behind a desk covered with a tapestry of Jesus revealing his sacred heart. On one corner is a crucified Jesus and on the opposite side of the desk is an oversized lizard. The principal of Our Lady of Mercy High School received these gifts from her students.
McPherson begins the school year as its leader. Last year she was named the interim principal. She’s been at the school since 2001, one year after it was founded. She’s worn two hats for many of those years as assistant principal and an English teacher.
She relishes time in the classroom, where she gets away from administrative demands and focuses on students. This year, she said she will have to give up the classroom to prepare for the planned 2022 opening of St. Mary’s Academy, the new K-12 grade school merging the Fayetteville high school and Our Lady of Victory School in Tyrone.
McPherson worships at Holy Trinity Church, Peachtree City.
Days before the school year began, McPherson paused to reflect on the past year and being a Catholic educator.
What led you to a career in Catholic education?
I answered an ad for Academia Perpetuo Socorro (“Academy of Our Lady of Perpetual Help”) in Puerto Rico. I had recently finished my master’s degree in English. I did not have a desire to teach high school, like all people in graduate school or college. And by the end of the first year, I was hooked. I taught a lot of the 12th graders and they are funny, and I still teach them and I still think they’re funny.
I came back to the United States after three years and went to work for a bank. After one year I knew I wanted to go back to a Catholic school. And so, I got a job at St Pius as an English teacher. I’ve never been sorry.
What’s the best advice you have received for teaching, and how have you tried to implement it?
My best advice was teach what you love. I loved literature, and thus I was able to continue to teach it, to enjoy it and I hope, impart a love of literature to my students.
What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding of being an educator in a Catholic school?
I think maybe the biggest misunderstanding about teaching in the Catholic school is perhaps they think there is too much rigor, maybe too much discipline. Maybe they think there’s no room for creative thought. All which I find to be false.
Are there any silver linings that came out of the past academic year?
I found masks to be great for discipline. There was no discipline problem. And I thought, ‘What’s going on here?’ And I realized that the students had these masks, and they were six feet apart. So mischief was at an all-time low.
I think the students who actually came here became very close. I saw a development of a kind of gratitude. Students were so grateful for anything that we could work out for them to do. For example, for prom, they were just so happy to work with each other to create something, so that they could have an experience because you know the year before, the spring when COVID broke out, there were no proms, it was just a halt to all those things.
For folks who have not been to Our Lady of Mercy, describe your students.
We always tell people—and we are firm in this conviction—our students are the best, and well, people tell us so. I also tell prospective parents our kids are real live kids and are not saints. They’re friendly, they are usually very accepting of other kids, because we do have a lot of diversity here across all levels of diversity. They want to go to college. And that’s why they’re here; they want to do well. Our kids are very involved in the extracurricular life of the school. It’s just across all levels because that’s what it takes for our small, family community to offer all these different things to kids.
Reading any good books these days?
I’m reading “Hallucinations” by Oliver Sacks. I’ll be a literary critic. His explanation of the neurological oddities he encounters have a spiritual dimension that I would not have anticipated.
What’s your favorite lesson to teach?
One of my old lessons I really enjoyed teaching was when I was teaching British literature to have my students write a mock epic. Part of the joy of it was when they originally found out what the assignment was there was screaming and gnashing of teeth. I found the limits of my assignment were superseded by their ability.