Bishop McNamara High School president Marco Clark, left, announces that Justin McClain is a recipient of a 2017 Golden Apple Award.
CS PHOTOS BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN Bishop McNamara High School president Marco Clark, left, announces that Justin McClain is a recipient of a 2017 Golden Apple Award.
As Justin McClain entered the library at Bishop McNamara High School in Forestville for what he thought was a prayer service, his four young children waited behind the closed doors of a side room, with the oldest two standing on their tiptoes to peek out the blinds and see when it was time for them to surprise their dad.

When the school’s president, Marco Clark, announced that Justin McClain is a recipient of a 2017 Golden Apple Award, students hurried into the room with a banner, closely followed by his wife Bernadette and four excited children, including the newborn baby who had just been born a few weeks previously.

Justin McClain is the first teacher from Bishop McNamara to receive the annual award, which is given to teachers who exemplify professional excellence, leadership, commitment to Catholic values, and devotion to teaching.  He is one of 10 teachers in the Archdiocese of Washington to receive the award this year.

“He walks a faith witness that is not only exemplary but inspirational,” said Clark, whose children were taught by McClain. “He teaches much more by his actions than in the classroom…He changes lives. He touches people very deeply at their core.”

McClain is a 2000 graduate of Bishop McNamara, and went on to college at the University of Maryland. After college, he spent a year in the seminary, before discerning that he had a different call, which he discovered in a couple of different ways when he returned to Bishop McNamara in 2006.

He began teaching Spanish, and soon met his wife, who at the time taught French at the school. After four years, he started also teaching theology, which he fell in love with and now teaches exclusively.

“In any subject I had him in, he was always the same,” said Kayla Preston, a senior at the school who has had McClain for both Spanish and theology. “He was always energetic…you could tell he knew what he was talking about, and he loved theology especially.”

After 10 years of teaching, McClain decided to write down some reflections on what he had learned. Eventually, these turned into a book titled “Called to Teach,” which was published by Ave Maria Press in 2016. For each day of the year, the book has a reflection written by McClain about the vocation of teaching in a Catholic school.

“You can tell he isn’t just checking the boxes of what students need to know,” Preston said, noting how McClain will answer any questions the students have. “For anything that has to do with the Catholic faith, Mr. McClain is the person to talk to.”

Preston, who is not Catholic, said she learned a lot about the Catholic faith from her teacher, and especially appreciated his explanation of intercessory prayer, which she previously did not understand.

“I wasn’t just learning to pass a class,” said Preston. “I was learning to understand the Catholic religion.”

McClain sees winning a Golden Apple Award as an opportunity to encourage his fellow teachers to “take seriously God’s call” because “we are in the business of making saints,” he said.

“He was the most enthusiastic teacher I had by far,” said Wesley Bowers, a senior at McNamara. “He holds the students to a higher standard probably than any other teacher in the school.”

McClain is known for the extra effort he puts into his relationships with students, such as the e-mails he sends to his former students to check-in, and the bookmarks he sends his students on their birthdays.

“He is a different type of teacher,” said Bowers. “…I’ve never seen a teacher so dedicated to the faith and to his job.”

His goal as a teacher, McClain said, is to inspire his students to “seek first the kingdom of God.” No matter what happens in their life, whether they are wealthy or poor, powerful or weak, “no matter what position they are in, if they can attach it to the Gospel and live the Good News in that position, that’s my goal,” he said. 

Sophomore Carlos Yovany Saravia said he has had challenges in his own faith life, asking questions like, “Is Jesus Christ really present in my life?” but McClain has helped him through those struggles.

“I am not able to see [Jesus], but I know His love is there for me,” said Saravia, adding that he can always rely on that love “through someone like Mr. McClain.”