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Teacher Spotlight: Mary Claire Kasunic – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Mary Claire Kasunic is the president of Oakland Catholic High School in Pittsburgh, PA. She joined the faculty of Oakland Catholic in 1992 as a French teacher and took her first group of students abroad in 1995. In August 2016, she came to the ACIS Boston Office to join our Young Women’s and Youth Leadership Advisory Board which advised ACIS’ efforts in building our new set of educational tours focused on leadership in the Dominican Republic and Italy. The group sought to identify key characteristics and values our new set of educational tours hoped to engender in young people.

We interviewed Mary Claire about her career, her experience traveling with students, and her views on building leadership skills in young people:

How long have you been teaching and what inspired you to first become an educator?

mary claire kasunicI began teaching here at Oakland Catholic High School in 1992, and I continued teaching even through my first year as President of the School, through June of 2015, so I’m not actively teaching at the moment despite my 23 years of teaching experience. However, in my role as President, I still feel like a teacher, but practice teaching in different settings these days…in other words, I’m very much in the business of education. Not just education in the traditional sense of curriculum and classrooms, but I educate the community on the vision of Oakland Catholic; I strategically develop “lesson plans” for marketing campaigns; I meet regularly with new staff, faculty, employees, and the Board on different endeavors whose ultimate goals are all about moving education forward…so my teaching role now is just much broader, but still grounded in the basic principles of solid teaching. My interest in teaching stems from my love of learning and passion for school and education as essential to forming your identity, broadening your horizons, increasing your knowledge. Learning, reading, verbal expression, ideas, theories, sharing different perspectives…I find all this invigorating and all this happens daily in an educational setting.

How long have you been traveling with students?

I first traveled with students in 1995. Since then, I’ve made about a dozen trips abroad with students, mainly to France, but twice to Spain, and one quick stopover in England. I’ve also traveled with students locally to NYC, DC, and Appalachia. On my own, I’ve traveled to France, Spain, Canada, and most recently China 🙂

What inspired you to lead your first trip?

As a French teacher who had never been to France and who focused on making sure that my students were confident in their ability to communicate orally, it seemed like a necessary requisite to get both them and myself to France. I became fluent in French and developed a fairly authentic accent via my studies here in the States because finances and life prevented me from studying there, but I think it’s important to be exposed at some point to the authentic experience of a language’s culture, history, geography, etc. However, I have always stressed with high school students pursuing languages that much can be achieved through study since many can not afford the expense of travel abroad while in high school. I traveled with students so that those who could afford the experience could benefit from it, and it permitted me to expand my personal knowledge and experience with the language and culture. (One reason we’ve built multiple travel opportunities for our students and worked to build some funding for students who are motivated to travel but can’t afford to do so is so that as many Oakland Catholic students as possible can benefit from the educational experience of travel.)

What led you to choose ACIS as your student travel provider?

I had traveled with several different student travel organizations and was not entirely happy with the tours, the hotels, the customer service. I always ended up putting out a lot of personal effort and customizing the tour to maximize the benefits for my students. I had heard about ACIS and knew that they were a bit more expensive, but honestly, after customization and noting services that my students weren’t receiving with the other companies, cost was no longer an issue, so I tried them out and never left. ACIS has consistently provided both me and other teachers at our school with a high-quality tour experience from start to finish.

cooking class in paris

Why is it important to encourage young people to build leadership skills and what are the core skills young people need to build in order to grow into leaders?

Leadership skills are crucial in all aspects of life, whether you are functioning as the group leader on your school project, the head of your household, the manager of others at work, or the CEO of a company. Possessing leadership skills implies that you are knowledgeable and able to share/apply that knowledge in appropriate and impactful ways. It means that you have the ability and diplomacy to self-direct and direct others in a task, endeavor, or undertaking. It indicates that you can not only problem solve, but you are perceptive enough to anticipate issues and address them in advance…in other words, you’re proactive in your work and not just reactive, but when you do need to react, you do so in a calm, informed, and decisive manner. Leaders do not eschew responsibility and they manage multiple responsibilities competently. It’s important to prepare each young person to function as a leader because leadership is necessary whether you are the ultimate person “in charge” or simply a team player. Leadership is a skill for life.

How is educational travel useful to educators looking to help their students build the necessary skills to mature into leaders?

If students are prepared properly and expectations are clearly outlined, educational travel provides students opportunities to see ideas and perspectives in action and in a tangible, authentic way. It broadens their view of the world; it exposes them to the idea that different is frequently just another “right way to do something”; it allows students to step outside their comfort zones and experience learning in context.

How have you observed students grow and mature after their experiences traveling abroad over your career?

I’ve witnessed growth and maturity in big and small ways, and frequently this is related to the type of travel experience they’ve encountered. Any travel within a group requires flexibility and exposure – this breeds growth and maturity provided that the teacher/group leader recognizes this and prepares students properly as to the expectations of the group, and then reinforces these positive outcomes during and after the trip by affirming how proud s/he is of how the students managed the travel experience. Longer travel, small group experiences, and independent student travel can have a tremendous impact on the student’s identity, sense of self, confidence, etc. Finally, the sheer exposure to another culture via travel abroad alters the perspectives and perceptions of a student, and this educational experience is frequently a compilation of mini “light bulb” moments as the student explores museums, eats something new, practices a foreign language, or engages directly with a resident.

You recently worked with a group of educators and staff from ACIS to build out our youth leadership trip offerings – what was your collective goal with that group and how did you go about accomplishing it?

My take was that we looked at the development of these initial leadership-themed trips from three angles:

1. which attributes of leadership did we want students to at least begin to develop as a result of this trip?
2. what types of leadership workshops would best develop or highlight these attributes of leadership while being authentic to the country being visited, current to the times, and most appropriately suited to the students so that the trip could be maximally beneficial to increasing the global awareness of the students on the trip?
3. what type of preparation of students, training of teachers, and future associated endeavors would be essential to ensuring a successful and highly sustainable program?

Anything else you’d like to add?

Simply that I am very proud to represent both Oakland Catholic High School and ACIS in this pilot of what I hope will become a long-running and renowned program for student travel with the very targeted purpose of developing global awareness and leadership skills.

Click here to speak to a reference and learn more about what’s like to travel with ACIS!

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