CINCINNATI -- Retirement age is typically in one’s 60s or 70s. Sister Mary Aloyse Gerhardstein decided to wait until she was 86 to retire from her junior high teaching post at Mercy Montessori School in East Walnut Hills.
Although Gerhardstein is retiring this year from Mercy Montessori as a teacher, she will remain involved with the school where she has taught for 34 of her 63 years as an educator.
Before she knew she wanted to teach, Gerhardstein knew she wanted to become a nun. Hearing her teacher read about the lives of the saints when she was a seventh-grade student at St. Martin of Tours Elementary in Cheviot helped Gerhardstein choose her life’s path.
“Of all the options available to me, I just knew I wanted to do that,” she said of her decision to join the Sisters of Mercy in 1947 after she completed high school at Mother of Mercy High.
In the early 1950s, Gerhardstein began teaching at St. Teresa in West Price Hill. She then taught history and music at Mother of Mercy. She was drawn to the more individualized methods of the Montessori style, so she studied Montessori education in Italy and then joined Mercy Montessori in 1971 to help start the school’s upper elementary program.
In 1983, she traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, where she helped to open a Montessori school. She stayed for several years to train the teachers and teach the students, which included Nelson Mandela’s children. Upon her return to Cincinnati, she taught at Xavier University, training Montessori teachers.
Then in 1992, she returned to Mercy Montessori, along with her former Xavier student Keith Kaiser, and the pair launched the school’s junior high program.
Kaiser, who is still the junior high director at Mercy Montessori, said he believes God put Gerhardstein in his path for a reason.
“She spends most of her life energy doing things for others,” Kaiser said. “I’ve appreciated that.”
Music has been an important part of Gerhardstein’s life since she began playing piano at age 9. She taught music for many years and incorporated music into her history classes through the writing and performance of several history-based musicals.
While reminiscing with former student Rachel Heitcamp, who is now a Mercy Montessori parent, Gerhardstein and Heitcamp broke into songs from the musicals written with Gerhardstein in history class.
“It was an inspiring and creative way that she taught us. When you have to learn Ohio history, you can learn it from a book and answer questions and talk about it -- or you can write a musical about it, which is what we did,” Heitcamp said. “Not only do those memories stick with me, but the information sticks with me. I can sing my way through Ohio history.”
Gerhardstein, who has degrees in education and music from the Athenaeum, Xavier University and the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, has spent much of the last few years at Mercy Montessori focusing on the junior high students’ History Day projects. Students select a topic to match the annual theme and prepare a display board, original drama, musical, website or another way to showcase history. Many of the students’ projects have won national awards.
“Sister has a way of being a gracious educator,” said Patty Normile, Mercy Montessori principal. “She’s teaching kids and they don’t even know they are being taught, and she does that by providing the opportunity for choice. Often, I think so many children fall away from learning in the junior high and high school years because everything is adult-driven. It’s all driven by the teachers, whereas Sister really is a Montessorian and she gets that children want to open their own doors of exploration.”
“I guess the key is that you don’t ask them if they’d like to do something, you just expect it,” Gerhardstein said. “You ask, ‘Which one of these things would you like to do?’ and not, ‘Do you want to do this?’”
For example, Gerhardstein is helping each class prepare for school mass this year, and she lists every possible way the children can participate in the mass, such as lighting candles, playing an instrument or doing a reading, Normile said. She then lets the children choose what role they will play in the mass.
“She helps bring out skills in children that they didn’t even know they had,” Heitcamp said.
Normile said she’s impressed by Gerhardstein’s unwavering patience and respect for every child. She has an ability to look past the occasional adolescent eye-rolls or attitudes. And Gerhardstein doesn’t expect her students to thank her; she knows that her job is to educate them for their future -- and that’s when the words of thanks often roll back around.
To mark Gerhardstein’s decades of service to Mercy Montessori, a special mass and reception will be held Sept. 20. Students will use donated canned goods to create sculptures related to Mercy Montessori and Gerhardstein. In addition, those touched by Gerhardstein can write a wish for her on the Tree of Life sculpture in the school lobby.
Gerhardstein will remain busy at Mercy Montessori with her role on several Mercy boards. While she said she is sad to be ending a large part of her duties, she will still be planning the community masses and managing the school archives, as well as consulting on the junior high History Day projects.
“I could see if you are retiring -- unless you have something that you are going to -- that it would be depressing,” Gerhardstein said.
But she has plenty left to do.