By Christie L. Chicoine
CS&T Staff Writer

GLENSIDE – Had Elva M. FitzGerald not put family first, she most likely would be working as a forest ranger today.

Instead, FitzGerald, 56, has devoted nearly three decades to a teaching career at St. Luke the Evangelist School in Glenside, a job that came to be when she decided to stay close to home to tend to her ailing grandmother, who has since passed away.

“I got a degree in wildlife management – that’s perfect to teach in elementary school,” FitzGerald joked.

The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) recently named FitzGerald one of the country’s 12 distinguished elementary school teachers, an award to be conferred at the NCEA Convention in April in Minneapolis.

“I was happily surprised,” FitzGerald said. She insists the award is not hers alone but “an award given to the entire school.”

For St. Luke School, NCEA awards are becoming an annual event. Last year, the NCEA named the school principal, St. Joseph Sister William Adele, one of the country’s 12 distinguished elementary school principals.

FitzGerald was raised in St. Luke Parish and attended elementary and secondary school at Melrose Academy in Elkins Park, where she graduated in 1971.

As a student, FitzGerald was “the quiet one who always had the hand up to give the answer,” she said.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology in 1975 from Cook College at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., a master’s degree in wildlife management in 1979 from Pennsylvania State University in University Park and, in 1985 and 1993, masters’ degrees in education with concentrations in environmental education and educational leadership from Beaver College in Glenside.

Her career at St. Luke School began in 1981 after “life intervened,” FitzGerald said. Both her father and maternal grandfather had already passed away when her ailing maternal grandmother Loretta Croney moved in with FitzGerald’s mother. “I didn’t really feel that I could move out of state where any degrees in wildlife would take me,” FitzGerald said. “I decided I would stay close at home for a little while.”

FitzGerald’s mother, who at the time was a volunteer at St. Luke School, suggested that she apply for a teaching position that had just posted at the school.

FitzGerald has no regrets about her career choice. “It was meant to be,” she said. “I’ve always been very close to my family. I really thought this was what God wanted me to do. Looking back, I’m more convinced than ever.”

She began as a fourth grade teacher in 1981, a post she held until 1998, when she became a sixth grade teacher.

Among the teacher’s secrets to success is her willingness to alter the class schedule when she recognizes teachable moments.

“I want them to be able to see the whole picture and understand how things are connected to one another. I feel I’ve been successful if they’re asking questions and linking what we’ve talked about with things they’ve experienced, read about or seen a TV show about,” she said.

She also strives to guide the students to grow closer to God through their Catholic faith and to be there for one another. “There’s a whole world out there and we need to be thinking of those people,” FitzGerald reminds her students.

Outside the classroom, FitzGerald is an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, cantor and a soprano in the St. Luke Parish choir.

And she hasn’t abandoned her love for nature and wildlife. During summer vacations, FitzGerald frequents national parks.

“You have to stop and marvel at the wonders of God,” she said. “I don’t see how you can teach it and not talk about how God has created all of this.”