Erin Vader, new Nolan leader, knows the school from inside out

Betty Dillard

Back in June, when she learned she’d been appointed the new president of Nolan Catholic High School, Erin Vader began rummaging through her keepsakes at home. A 1988 Nolan graduate, she found her senior ring and proudly wears it again. She also pulled out her uniform, “which still fits,” she said. “It’s come full circle.” Vader left her position as principal at Our Mother of Mercy Catholic School and began her duties July 1 at Nolan, the diocese’s 1,000-student secondary school in east Fort Worth. Vader, 43, is the first Nolan Catholic graduate to lead the school in its 53-year history. She’s also the first woman to lead the school. And she is the first local Catholic school educator to move into leadership at Nolan. “Never in any part of my journey did I ever see the next thing coming. I’ve been open to the journey but never thought I’d come back here,” Vader said. “I have full faith in the people here at Nolan and believe we’re all on the same team and working on the same goal.”

Vader, a product of Fort Worth’s Catholic schools, has worked as a teacher and administrator in the diocesan school system for 18 years. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Texas at Arlington in 1994 and joined the teaching staff of St. Andrew Catholic School in Fort Worth. In 2005, she became principal of St. Peter the Apostle Catholic School; five years later she became the middle school director and assistant principal at Our Mother of Mercy and was promoted to principal in 2012. She received a master’s degree in education in 2001 from Texas Wesleyan University, where she’s currently enrolled in the Texas Wesleyan Doctoral Educational Leadership program. Nolan Catholic is owned by the Diocese of Fort Worth but had been administered since 1961 by the Society of Mary (Marianist) community of priests and brothers. Nolan began as a co-institutional school with Catholic secondary education for young women taught by the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur and for boys taught by the Marianists. The diocese assumed management of Nolan Catholic after the Marianists withdrew at the end of the school year due to a decline in their order’s number. Vader envisions Nolan to be “inclusive, rigorous, holistic and, most importantly,” she said, “based on joyfully spreading the word of God.”

You’ve set many firsts as the new president. How does it feel to be the first woman and the first Nolan graduate to lead your alma mater? It’s incredibly exciting. It also feels very comfortable, surprisingly comfortable. I’ve been relieved and blessed with how everyone has been so supportive and how much of this feels like home. The ‘first female’ part struck us late in the process. I thought if I were to become the first female president that would be an added bonus. Being an alumna is really a tribute to everything Nolan’s done for the past 50-plus years. It says something about what we’ve done here at Nolan that they would welcome back one of their own to help run the place. The Marianists and the Sisters of St. Mary have built such a strong foundation here. The idea that I’m a product of that, that I am to a degree something they built, to come back and live that out is wonderful. I’m proud to do it.

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How will the Marianists leaving the diocese impact the school and your leadership? It will be different. We’ll be moving from strength to strength. The Marianists built such a strong foundation that we’re just building on that. Obviously, a great deal of what they accomplished will continue on because I’m part of what they created. Many of our teachers and staff are alums so it moves on through them. So the Marianist aspect is not gone; it’s just taking a different form. We’re very blessed our bishop is so committed to Catholic education in general and Nolan Catholic particularly. He’s going to be very involved in this school and with that on our side I’m very confident in what we’re going to be creating here.

What is your vision? Our vision for Nolan is to take those things that Nolan does so well and just make them bigger and better. We have always had strong academics. We have always had opportunities for the kids to grow athletically, artistically and in all those areas where their God-given talents lie. What we’re looking to do is open up the school even more. We want to make sure that every parent who wants to have a Catholic education for their child has the opportunity to have their child here at Nolan. We want to make it as accessible as possible. We’re also looking for ways that we can grow and become more of a presence in our community. We do a lot of work in different parishes and with Catholic Charities but we really want to move out into the community at large so that we can really help and show who our students are.

Describe your leadership style. I’m a strong believer in the democratic style of leadership. I believe if you put the right people in the right places things happen. You empower the people you work with and support them so they know they have the responsibility and the ability to do the job. We all expect the best of each other. We expect the best of our kids, too. We believe we were called to be here, that this is a vocation, not just a career. I believe in the servant-leader model. It’s in our mission statement; it’s what was built into me when I was here at Nolan. We’re called to be successful and to help others be successful. You bring everyone up with you. That’s how I look at it. It’s better if we’re all doing a good job together.

You’re helping guide students academically as well as spiritually. Talk about your focus on faith formation. The basis for any Catholic school, in my opinion, is two rules, and they’re not my rules. You love and honor God and love and honor each other and if you focus on those two things everything else falls in place. If you love God and honor God you’re going to use all your skills and gifts to the best of your ability because He gave them to you. If you love each other you’re going to use those skills and gifts to help other people and make the world a better place. There are plenty of schools that have great academics, great sports programs, amazing arts programs and robotics teams and all the bells and whistles. The difference for Nolan is we have all those things and we turn to the kids and say, ‘How are you going to use all this to make the world a better place?’ It’s not about you but you using what you have to make the world a better place. Saint Teresa says, in my favorite prayer, Christ has no body now but yours. He has no feet or hands but yours. How are you going to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world? That’s what we’re calling these kids to do. It’s a heady thing. We’re called to do the same thing. Our hands and feet are forming these kids to go out into the world. It’s nothing less than a calling and we take it seriously – and with a great deal of joy. I love my job. I love being a teacher. And I never had any intention of being a teacher.

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Really? What were you going to do? I didn’t know what I was going to do. I finished my undergraduate degree in English and my English teacher here at Nolan – a shout out to Judy Jones – encouraged me to teach. When I started teaching I was hooked. I went on to get my master’s and I’m working on my doctorate now. I’m blessed to have had others see something in me. To be brought back here with all these amazing experiences at other Marianist schools is a God thing. I feel like I was trained to be here. I’m going to do my best to put all that training and knowledge to bear.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? It’s the way of living my parents have tried to teach me. My father would say all the time you never know a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. I was surprised to later read that in To Kill A Mockingbird and realize my father didn’t make that up. My parents always strove to make my sisters – they’re both teachers, too – and me understand where another person was coming from, to understand their experiences and what they need. That has really served me well in my life. That’s been emphasized over and over again in my schooling and through my faith. You understand yourself better when you can do that.

What advice do you give teachers and aspiring educators? Pretty much the same thing, especially when it comes to students. You have to know who they are and what their experience and situations are if you hope to reach them and hope to lift them up. Figure out what these kids need to be successful, to be empowered, and give it to them. Help them find it for themselves. Love gets a bad rap. Many people believe love is touchy-feely and weak. Nothing is fiercer, more powerful, more transformative, more world changing or life changing than love. Most teachers have that kind of love for kids. It’s that fierce love that changes kids, that changes us, and that’s what will change the world.

Your advice to students? Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid. If you have faith and love you don’t need to be afraid of anything. If you are coming from a place of love and hope and joy, that’s when things happen. That’s when things get done. That’s when things change. Our job is to make sure this place is that place where they’re not afraid or worried or scared, where they know they are the most powerful, miraculous creatures in the world. They are God-made and God-given. If they have that belief in themselves, amazing things can happen.