Sarah McDonald has always harbored a passion for helping others, especially the younger ones. She has coordinated Helping Hands, a Hurricane Harvey Resource Center, for families affected by the hurricane, and regularly participates in community activities and intramural sports throughout the Archdiocese. And now her positive leadership with a focus on creating a loving, Christ-like environment for children has led her to the St. Ambrose community of faith.
McDonald recently took over the principal’s job at St. Ambrose School, bringing with it a whirlwind of emotions and responsibilities as she gears up for her second round of authority at the school. But in between commitments, she took some time to speak with The Leader about her journey and her plans for the 2018-2019 school year.
How did you enter the education field?
I went back and forth for a little while and considered law school before I decided that wasn’t my calling. I went to Spring Hill College for undergrad, and while I was there I was introduced to ACE, a program at Notre Dame where they have teachers who live in community and work for two years at a Catholic school. I had one of “those” teachers; I thought he was dynamic, and just a young person excited about teaching – he just loved what he was doing. I’ve had so many teachers along the way that spearheaded my love and passion for education.
When did the passion for administration strike, and how?
I moved to Houston in 2010 for grad school and lived with 12 other Catholic educators in the diocese and a makeshift parish at Our Lady of Mount Caramel. That was sort of a baptism by fire into education/administration. I had great formation at Spring Hill that really put me in situations that weren’t what I was accustomed to. I was a leader of an at-risk middle school, tutoring for different students, and it was really then I knew administration was the path I wanted to go.
You learn things along the way and think ‘There are things I would do differently,’ especially at the particular school I worked with. It hurt me for the kids, and was extremely eye-opening. I started working at St. Thomas More, and worked there for eight years, and I recently began my doctorate through St. Louis University – this is just the culmination of the excitement and love for the work that I’m doing.
What endeared St. Ambrose School to you?
Someone in the teaching community told me they thought I’d be great fit, so I just went for it. I was also on the St. Ambrose Accreditation Team a couple of years ago, so I was familiar with the community, and had heard only good things about the school. I had friends at all these different high schools, and all of them said students from St. Ambrose are among the best-rounded students in the class. They didn’t know I was calling [because I got the job there], and they were open and honest in saying they didn’t have any discipline problems – they’re just good kids, and I felt that when I was there [on Accreditation Team].
What would you say are the school’s greatest strengths?
I would say one of our strengths is that community and the feeling you get there. I chose St. Ambrose because when you walk in the school, there’s just something about it you feel that you can’t explain. It just feels like home – not to say other schools don’t, but you just feel like [this place] is right as soon as you walk in the door. Obviously they’re on their best behavior [at Accreditation], but it didn’t seem like it was a fake genuine – just honest, genuine people. That’s the type of person I think I am, and I just felt like I could fit in and continue building on the foundation they’ve built.
What are some areas that could improve?
No matter a school’s strengths there always lies some room for growth. One focus I will have this year will be emphasizing the building of stronger relationships within the school and parish, as well as in the community. A lot of people I’ve spoken to are in the same mindset of growing the school through relationships. It’s a great school, and an incredible staff, but getting to know them more will help in achieving our goals as a school. I know they’ve got great ideas, it’s just about seeing what is doable and helping cultivate their vocation and being the best versions of themselves as well.