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  • Writer's pictureThe Spartan Press

Meet the New Religion Teachers!

By Julienne Cancio & Jessica Ferrer '21

We are pleased to bring back our popular “Meet the Teachers” series, where we get to hear from ICA Cristo Rey’s newest faculty and staff. Today we introduce Ms. Samantha Benz and Ms. Elizabeth Merski.

Ms. Samantha Benz, Old Testament Scripture (Sophomore Religion)

Where did you grow up?

“I grew up in Burlingame--born and raised. I’ve moved around from Arizona, New York, and L.A.”

Where did you go to college- major/(minor) ???

“I went to Saint Mary’s of California. I majored in education.”

What subject are you teaching and why?

“I teach Old Testament Scripture because I applied for this job and I loved it. I’ve always wanted to be a religion teacher since I was 17… We’ve really stuck to just stories in the Old Testament and I try to get the students to think about themselves in the lives of the figures; actually we’re starting our unit on women in the Bible.”

Why did you apply to ICA?

“So I went to Mercy Burlingame and I loved my experience at an all-girls high school. There was just something about the vibe that I can’t really explain to people who didn’t have a single-gender education. I was randomly sent the link to apply to ICA and even though I didn’t know what the school was, I heard it was all girls and they wanted a religion teacher so I thought ‘Let’s do it!’ It kind of just fit all my criteria for what I wanted and then I met some of the faculty and admin. I thought that if they pick me, I want in.”

What have you been doing to teach during this pandemic, and what are some of the challenges you have encountered, if any?

“We really like to use this site called Edpuzzle. I record the lectures and then it’s self-paced, which I like. I think it caters to a lot of different types of learners and the students don’t have to worry about slowing down or going too fast. I also really like Padlet. I use it for discussion a lot because sometimes I think it’s intimidating to unmute yourself and speak out. So we use Padlet to get us started and then go from there.

“A challenge I think is getting over the fact that I can’t physically see all my students all the time. That's been a huge challenge for me because I’m a teacher that really values their relationships with my students before anything. I can’t really teach until we trust each other, or at least my students trust me, so that’s been really hard. However, we’ve still managed to do that through a screen, which I’m grateful for and have a really great vibe in the entire sophomore class.”

What are some of your recommendations to students who may be struggling at this time of the year?

“I try to encourage them to actually get out of their rooms, close their computers off the screen, and actually reach out to people. I think that’s what a lot of us are struggling with--students or even teachers--just reaching out to people when we need support or to talk and not be afraid to do that.”

Which Disney character are you most like and why?

“Oh my goodness, the first one that comes to mind is honestly Merida from Brave. I’m like not here for any of it sometimes. I’ll just shoot the arrow myself; I’ll do it my own way. I’m headstrong in certain aspects of my life.”

(Ms. Merski, on the right.)

Ms. Elizabeth Merski, Freshman Religion

Where did you grow up?

“I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania but have lived in a lot of places around the country. I actually went to high school in San Francisco, attended elementary school in different parts of California as well as Virginia and Pennsylvania.”

Where did you go to college?

“I graduated from college at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania but did my first year at Saint Mary’s College of California; so when I transferred I switched majors. My original major was Theater Performance and had a departmental scholarship, which is why I decided Saint Mary’s. At Gannon I studied Theology but I still minored in Spanish and Theater.”

What subject are you teaching and why?

“I am teaching Religion because I have a background in Theology. I worked in hospice for the longest period of time. It was kind of my first full-time job before the break in between. I have aspirations to go back to college to get a Masters and Doctorate in Theology… In religion class and theology class, we all have the opportunity to take even the smallest ideas--like the little Mustard Seed--and they can grow to be something really beautiful inside all of us.”

Why did you apply to ICA?

“This was my seventh teaching job that I had applied for. It’s hard to get a job teaching full-time out of college without full-time experience and with no education degree. I was looking for the right place and right community. I was living in Pennsylvania and always wanted to come back to San Francisco but never thought it was possible financially or otherwise. I love the ICA community, how diverse it is and how it serves women who maybe didn’t have other opportunities or had the opportunity to go to prep school by their own means. It seemed like a really vibrant inner-city school with a good Catholic spirit that I would want to be a part of....”

What have you been doing to teach during this pandemic?

“I really thrive off the audience so I do not do any recorded lectures. I would have such a hard time with being insecure or overanalyzing every mistake because I am a perfectionist and just having to obsess over editing or something like that. What you teach so much depends on who you’re teaching. I didn’t want to miss out, in the pandemic, the opportunity to still get kids’ questions and have those good conversations because not everyone’s the same. It’s not about me lecturing everyone. We haven’t done breakout rooms so much because the girls don’t know each other well. We’ve really focused on live class and trying to make it a seminar style as much as possible. We do actually do a lot of notes with the whiteboard; the students like having a whiteboard behind me because we can pretend we’re in school physically. I’ve worked really hard to foster a community spirit in our class. That’s kind of how I’ve approached most things--listening and just trying to go off the spirit of each class but keeping it simple.”

What are some of the challenges you have encountered, if any?

“The combination that’s hard is being a new teacher--because I was a substitute before this it’s my first full-time classroom experience--in a pandemic. I have the tendency to think, ‘Oh, this is my fault’ and go back to try and correct myself. However, a lot of the time in the pandemic stuff is going on with the students and the situation, and it’s not necessarily that it’s my first year of teaching but just how it is. It’s really hard to tell whether I just need to get better at teaching and revise my methods, listen, talk slowly, or whatever or if it’s just everything else that we can’t control. So trying to figure out how to take the best approach in the situation, what the problem is and how to move forward is hard, but I’ve learned so much and have gotten so much better.”

What are some of your recommendations to students who may be struggling at this time of the year?

“I was fortunate because I was kind of a good student--but a good, bad student--and was able to make it through without always giving my full effort, but not everybody has that ability to kind of coast when they’re not feeling their best. I always figured out that I’m more of an emotional person, like I feel everything, and when you’re young I think especially it’s harder to put stuff into context and little boxes. I would have to really deal with what was bothering me first before I went and did my homework or other stuff. So I think if a student was really struggling with feeling lack of motivation, a lot of stress in their life, or whatever the problem in school is kind of just the by-product of what the bigger problem is. Try to address--even in a low-line level--what the main source of stress or anxiety in your life is to improve school, which is kind of the second part to focusing on yourself… Frankly, some things are just more important than school. You need to have that long-view of saying ‘Am I going to let this event take control of my life and have long-lasting consequences? Like what can I do to mitigate that?’ It is definitely a balancing act…You have to call the shots for yourself.”

Which Disney character are you most like and why?

“Oh for sure Belle. She is always different and really kind of forged her own path. I felt like throughout my life, living in different places and my own situation has many times been very different from most of my peers, but I found strength in that. She also loves to read and loves knowledge. She kind of has a big imagination and what-not but really how she was okay with being different is how I relate to Belle.”


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