Thomas Kolar, a religion teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Olney, is a 2018 Golden Apple Award winner. (CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN)
Thomas Kolar, a religion teacher at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Olney, is a 2018 Golden Apple Award winner. (CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN)
Some unexpected visitors entered the classroom on April 25 as Thomas Kolar was teaching his ninth grade Old Testament religion class at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney.

After the class paused to see what was going on, Wendi Williams, the assistant superintendent for advancement and enrollment management in the Archdiocese of Washington, announced that Kolar had been selected to receive a Golden Apple Award “because of his excellence in Catholic education,” the “way he brings faith into his teaching” and the way he acts as a role model for students.

Kolar, after recovering from the shock, said “a lot of times in teaching, you don’t know if you’re making an impact…so something like this is incredibly validating.”

Kolar teaches that ninth grade religion class, as well as the 10th grade New Testament class. Outside of the classroom, Kolar organizes many pro-life activities at the school, including bringing students to the March for Life and the recent March for Our Lives, where students from around the country gathered to protest gun violence. Kolar also organized a pro-life conference at Good Counsel and invited students from other high schools to join.

Through these activities, Paul Barker, the president of Good Counsel, said he thinks the students see “authenticity.”

“What happens outside the classroom is mirrored inside the classroom,” he said. “The kids know that Tom is very committed to the pro-life activity, they see that, and it fits perfectly with what he says and does in his classroom.”

Kolar said his mission as a religion teacher is to give the students the content, but also to “give them an encounter with it.”

“I want them to come away thinking of the faith as something really wonderful and good and beautiful and something that has meaning in their lives,” he said.

Catherine Zellers and Hannah Yomi, who are both ninth grade students in Kolar’s class, said they appreciate how his teaching engages them in creative ways other than lectures. Kolar shows the students TV shows and movies and finds unexpected ways to tie in a perspective of faith, they said.

“I think what students love about Mr. Kolar is that he is not like other teachers,” said Yomi. “…Mr. Kolar makes class so interactive; he lets us watch videos, he does group work. He helps us understand the things in ways that other teachers don’t.”

Yomi remembered one particular instance in which Kolar asked the students to watch My Little Pony, and all of the students were confused about why they had to watch a show for young children.

“But in that scene, we were able to realize the faith that little pony had in her friend and he connected it to the lesson we were learning about, about faith in God,” she said.

Kolar is one of 10 teachers in the Archdiocese of Washington and one of only two high school teachers to receive the Golden Apple Award this year. Zellers said she thinks Kolar is deserving of the award because of the way he presents the faith in the classroom.

“I think he is deserving to be a Golden Apple Award winner because he really strives to teach us the faith in a way that everyone can understand, and he doesn’t require you to be Catholic…but he still puts it out there and he gives you, ‘This is what I believe; this is what I believe is true and this is what I believe is good, and let me show you all the ways it is good,’” she said. “I think that it really can be used to help change people’s minds, because you don’t really want to force the faith on anyone.”

Barker said Kolar exhibits the “trifecta” that they look for when hiring teachers: a scholar, someone who is compatible with the mission of the school, and someone who can do other things as well.

“In a Catholic school, you are not going to find a better man than Tom Kolar for living out his faith,” said Barker.

Kolar said if he could leave his students with one message, he would want them to know that God loves them, despite how “trite or cliché” that may sound.

“I want them to know that’s true and I want them to not just know the idea, but I want them to feel it and to understand it and to know how good the Catholic faith is, and how good their lives will be if they live that faith,” he said.

That message must have come across well, because when asked what she would say if she could send a thank you message to Kolar, Zellers said, “Thank you for continuing to teach and continuing to engage us even when it is a Monday and it is raining and no one really wants to be in religion class, and really never losing sight of what is really important, which is that God loves us.”