| By Carla Smith | Correspondent

Savio teacher named High School Teacher of the Year

Being honored and awarded is something even the humblest of recipients appreciate. When that honor is peer-driven and nominated by coworkers, it’s even more special. That’s where St. Dominic Savio Catholic High School teacher Alanna Heyl recently found herself after being named one of two Teachers of the Year by the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops (www.txcatholic.org). She was nominated for the award by Principal Evan Pscencik and Assistant Principal Patrick Goetz and was somewhat shocked to hear of the honor.

“I was surprised!” Heyl said. “Ultimately though, I felt gratitude for the community here at Savio, for the great people I work with every day, and for my students who make this work really fun.”

Heyl has been teaching theology at the north Austin school for 12 years and has served as chair of the Theology Department for 11 years. She currently teaches Theology IV, in which students learn about World Religions and Catholic Spirituality and Prayer; and the upper-level course, Christian Outreach, a seminar on Catholic social teaching in which they organize a variety of service projects. Heyl finds these opportunities most inspiring and satisfying.

“I have taught lots of different classes and grade levels and love working with all of them, including seniors as they make big decisions about their future and are the leaders of the school in all of the different clubs, activities and projects,” she said. “I hope to instill in them a sense of gratitude for the blessings they have been given, an understanding that they can make a difference in the world no matter where they are in life, and that God is actively working in their lives on a daily basis.”

One of those projects is Imago Christi Day, a school-wide day of service where students, faculty, staff and parent volunteers go into the community and serve together. The day involves nearly 500 people visiting 16 different service sites and ultimately introducing all participants to what it means to serve.

Under her guidance and mentorship, campus ministry and other programs are student-led, providing opportunities for teens to identify their unique talents and gifts and explore how they can use those skills to serve others.

“She works to help students see the presence of God in their everyday lives and that they have been given the grace to live out their unique vocation and calling from God,” Goertz said.

Another project Heyl helps coordinate in the Senior Servant Leader Project, which takes the school’s vision of forming servant leaders in the image of Christ and puts it squarely on students’ shoulders to take out in the world. Developed 12 years ago, the project offers students time to reflect on and explore their strengths, weaknesses, virtues, talents, values, motivations and interests and how they can all be used to get into college, find a good job, help those in need, and respond to injustice in the world. They then present their experience and research to answer the question, “What does servant leadership look like to me?”

Reaching high schoolers, especially in today’s day and age, can be challenging but Heyl has learned how to encourage them in their faith and their education.

“We all have different gifts and strengths and I try to emphasize there is a place and role for everyone. I also try to encourage them to grow in faith by emphasizing the importance of authenticity,” she said. “Many students are caught up in the idea that they need to be like everyone else or fulfill others’ expectations of them but in reality, this is ignoring the truth of who God created them to be.”

Heyl said she also focuses on being kind so that students feel comfortable in her classroom and works diligently to keep all activities focused on the students.

“The positive experiences students have at these events are simply a result of listening to them,” she said.

Heyl and her husband of 18 years and their four children are parishioners of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Austin. The Heyl children attend Holy Family Catholic School. She said working with staff and teachers as both a parent and teacher herself makes the TCCB honor even more special.

“It is an affirmation of the work I am doing everyday but also of the work of my fellow teachers who are also working very hard to make a difference and create wonderful opportunities for all our Savio students,” Heyl said.

Carla Smith has written for the Catholic Spirit since 2016. A long-time Austinite, she and her husband are members of Santa Rosa Parish in Andice. They enjoy spending time with their daughter and their three dogs, as well as fellowship, golf and football.