Becoming a sister of St. Francis was natural for Sr. Janet Thiel. Throughout her grade school and high school (St. Anthony’s)—both in Trenton, New Jersey—her teachers were Franciscans. When Janet realized that she, too, wanted to be a sister, she followed the example of the teachers she had admired and became a Sister of St. Francis of Philadelphia, joining the congregation shortly after her high school graduation.
Sr. Janet holds a B.A. in mathematics from La Salle University, master’s degrees in mathematics and education from the Catholic University of America and the University of San Francisco, respectively, and a Ph.D. in education from Capella University. Sr. Janet speaks of her love and study of mathematics: “I’ve always been good at math. When I was a young sister, we had an assistant provincial—Sr. Eleanor Christine—who was a mathematician herself; she petitioned for me to continue my studies to get my degree before I was 25. In those days, we went to school on Saturdays and in the summer, so it might take years before you would get your degree. Sr. Eleanor Christine mentored me for my undergraduate degree and then encouraged me to continue on with a master’s degree in math right away.” Sr. Janet’s second master’s degree and doctorate are in the fields of education and administration, putting her practical experience in these areas into academic credentialing.
Once again living near New Jersey family and friends, Sr. Janet is now the assistant vice president for university assessment and accreditation at Georgian Court University, in Lakewood. Among Sr. Janet’s responsibilities are all functions related to assessment and accreditation: evaluating data, providing feedback surveys, using and training others to use assessment software, and helping the university community plan for and practice continuous improvement. Sr. Janet assists the faculty in writing meaningful objectives and in understanding the differences among goals, outcomes, and objectives. Sr. Janet explains: “I work with both the functional side—the non-academic units—and the individual academic programs themselves. I help each unit and academic program to develop plans allowing faculty and staff to assess their goals, outcomes, and objectives over a three-year span and report on their results. And then I work with peer-based committees in the university to review the plans and reports.”
Before coming to Georgian Court University, Sr. Janet was Neumann University’s associate vice president for academic affairs, also with a focus on assessment. Her responsibilities at Neumann included chairing the steering committee for the university’s Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) reaccreditation—which colleges and universities must renew periodically. Then when her ministry led her to Georgian Court University, Georgian Court was beginning their own MSCHE reaccreditation self-study. Sr. Janet was, therefore, intensely engaged in accreditation work for five consecutive years—and with changing regional accreditation standards and differing institutional needs and approaches.
Sr. Janet observes that with any such situation, “You adapt: You have your basic skills and then you adapt—no matter whether you are working with five-year-olds in a kindergarten or adults who are writing their doctoral dissertations, or you are working with university faculty and administrators. The same premises are there: they want to learn; they want structure in their day; they want to know how to get to the end result, and they want someone to be nice to them along the way.”
In her university ministry, Sr. Janet welcomes the one-on-one contact and the opportunity to mentor younger people, helping them achieve their goals and show independence in their actions: “I let each person or group know, ‘I can tell you the assessment process, but I’m not going to tell you what to assess.’ That part is up to them, but I have to train them: what’s a rubric, what’s appropriate for assessment, what is the structure we use at this university, and what are the tools I’m going to be able to give you to accomplish and report on your goals.”
Sr. Janet also teaches university courses: “‘On occasion they let me teach,’ is how I phrase it since I was in administration since I was a wee child, it seems. But I enjoy teaching—developing courses and working with students, taking them from where they are to where they need to be. Most recently, I have been working with future educators. I’ve done that in several schools, and it’s always meaningful because so many future teachers have a math phobia that I can help overcome. If I emphasize anything, it’s that you cannot go into a classroom fearful of math because that fear will be communicated to the students. Part of my doctoral research was looking at the range of emotions math inspires and the feelings other than fear or anxiety that go into the complex experience of learning math. I found that for most math students, the positive emotions outweigh the negative, so that even though the students don’t like taking tests, they are challenged and feel pride when they are able to solve the problems given to them.”
In addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate college students, Sr. Janet has taught at virtually every other level: “So I have the full spectrum. I know what a five-year-old should be able to do, as well as a doctoral student.” Among the many schools to have benefited from her teaching and leadership gifts are Sacred Heart School, in Allentown, Pennsylvania; Allentown Central Catholic High School; and St. Mark’s High School, Wilmington, Delaware. She served as the principal or head of school for Immaculate Conception School, Towson, Maryland; Our Lady of Peace School, North Augusta, South Carolina; and the Catholic High School of Baltimore.
The enormous value of Sr. Janet’s diverse experience is illustrated by her service as a math-skills counselor at the University of Maryland. Because she had taught both grade school and high-school students, she could pinpoint when the university students were supposed to have learned a concept that now caused them fear. She asked her students, “When did you first start to feel afraid of math or have anxiety?” “And then we worked backwards from there, and I could say, ‘Okay, so this happened there; what can we do from here?’ Or I would take their current circumstances and apply math to them, making the math more relevant and easier to grasp.”
Sharing her knowledge and experience in mathematics learning and in assessment, Sr. Janet has published academic articles and presented at numerous conferences. With her extensive expertise, Sr. Janet is also a valuable member of MSCHE teams visiting colleges and universities that are seeking accreditation or reaccreditation. In addition to participating on assessment teams, Sr. Janet has served as a consultant for special MSCHE projects assisting institutions with assessment. For the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia, Sr. Janet has brought her planning, assessment, and technical knowledge to the Chapter Planning Committee for the last two congregational chapters. “It’s always good,” she says, “to work with our sisters in that collegial way.”
As busy as she is with her ministries, Sr. Janet also likes to travel and enjoys reading novels—“the complete opposite of what I’m doing, nothing analytical.” For her travel destinations, “I like to travel anywhere—in the country, out of the country—whatever opportunity is there I’ll take.” Mentioning another pastime, she adds, “I’m a thrift-shop aficionado and have helped outfit a few sisters. I’ve taken them on fieldtrips to the local thrift shops and given them advice. It’s always fun to surprise them with, ‘Oh this will fit you,’ and ‘This will look nice.’” Reflecting on her far-reaching ministries and interests, Sr. Janet concludes, “My experience has all been good. I’m not afraid to try new things.” Moreover, Sr. Janet exemplifies living the Franciscan charism. She encourages and empowers countless others throughout the settings in which she lives and serves.