Marie Russo, a third grade teacher at St. Joseph Regional Catholic School in Beltsville, Maryland, for the past 13 years, says the most important lesson she can teach her students is to know that they are loved by God.

“They (students) can get math taught to them in other places. They can learn to read in another school. But, the most important thing to teach them is to know Jesus, (and) they can always turn to God,” she said.

Russo’s commitment to Catholic education has been honored by the Archdiocese of Washington. She is one of 11 archdiocesan educators to be named a Golden Apple Award winner this year. The annual award recognizes a teacher’s professional excellence, leadership, commitment to Catholic values, and devotion to teaching in Catholic schools.

“I can teach my students academics, but they also need to learn the peace of knowing God,” Russo said. “My job is to educate them in the faith.”

Herself a graduate of St. Joseph School and a lifelong member of the parish, Russo began her career as an educator in 1994 at her alma mater. She was a second grade teacher at the Beltsville school for several years before becoming a fourth grade teacher at St. Mary of the Assumption School in Upper Marlboro. While there, she was honored as that school’s teacher of the year.

In 2006, Russo returned to St. Joseph as the third grade teacher. The school is a regional school, serving students from St. Joseph Parish in Beltsville, St. Hugh of Grenoble Parish in Greenbelt and St. Nicholas Parish in Laurel.

“This is a family of faith-filled people here,” Russo said of her lifelong association with St. Joseph’s Parish and School. “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”

She was honored as St. Joseph’s teacher of the year in 2011.

Msgr. Karl Chimiak, pastor of St. Joseph Parish, praised Russo for “the outstanding job she does here.”

“Marie works really hard to make this a real Catholic community. She has a vested interest in the students, our parents and the Catholicity of our school,” the priest said. “Marie is a very dedicated teacher and the kids love her. She radiates the Christian Catholic values that are so important to our Catholic schools.”

Janine Bertolotti, principal of the school, said that Russo “makes a deliberate and intentional effort to meet each child where they are so they feel special and loved.”

“She has such gentleness in the classroom. And she takes effort to reach out to every student. Seeing that, you know she loves every child,” Dr. Bertolotti said. “She really lives her faith, and she’s fantastic as far as really incorporating the faith into the classroom.”

Carmelle Djoumgoue, a fourth grade student and former student of Russo, called her third grade teacher “really, really nice.”

“She really knows how to teach kids because she knows what they like,” Carmelle said. “She teaches us, but it’s like a game or an activity.”

Carmelle added that Russo “makes me want to learn how to be more Catholic and love God because she’s every enthusiastic about making sure we love God and follow Jesus.”

“She has never had a doubt about us, she always knew we could learn,” Carmelle said.

John DiGiovanni, a middle school math teacher at St. Joseph’s who is himself a former Gold Apple Award winner, nominated Russo for the honor.

“The best teacher teaches from the heart, and that is Marie Russo,” he said. “She obsesses over the success of every one of her beloved students. Marie Russo is about cultivating wonderful young people.”

Russo said she enjoys teaching the third grade because “the students have a unique and special way of looking at life. I love cultivating their minds and their faith.”

“I hope my students feel loved when they leave my classroom,” Russo said. “They need to feel loved and they need to know God.

Russo said teaching young people about their Catholic faith “gives me a chance to revisit the things that I learned and might have forgotten. This truly strengthens my faith.”

Russo and her fellow Golden Apple Award winners will be honored at a May 16 dinner hosted by Cardinal Donald Wuerl. Each will receive a $5,000 prize, along with a golden apple, pin and certificate.

The Golden Apple Awards, sponsored by the Donahue Family Foundation, honors outstanding Catholic school teachers in this archdiocese, and several other dioceses in Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Jack and Rhodora Donahue, founders of the Pittsburgh-based foundation, sent their 13 children to Catholic schools, and established the award to show their appreciation for Catholic education.