Devotion to teaching guides twins

OK, so the Damiano sisters admit they’ve played their share of twin tricks, like the time they switched places on the college professor and one went up to the front of the class instead of the other.

“What’s funny is that the people in the class knew and the teacher didn’t,” said Beth Damiano, who took the place of her identical twin sister, Cathy. The professor had called on Cathy and never noticed Beth showed up instead.

Now that the twins are teachers in the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, they would most certainly frown on that kind of behavior from their students, of course. In fact, that would probably earn any students who tried it a trip out into the hall for a little lecture on how to behave properly in school and show more respect for the teacher.

But later at the home the sisters share in Altoona, the same home where they grew up with their other four siblings, they’d probably laugh thinking about how another set of twins tried the same trick on them.

Because that’s the kind of teachers and now administrators the Damiano twins are, a self-described mix of discipline and love for their students that has earned them the respect of parents, peers and most importantly, students for more than two decades.

“They [the students] are drawn to respect, but they’re not really looking for praise. They’re looking for acknowledgment that they matter to you, that what they do matters,” said Beth, who is a fourth-grade teacher and vice principal at Altoona Central Catholic School. “You give them hugs, too, when they’re needed, maybe a high-five in the hall.”

Cathy, who was just named the principal at St. Rose of Lima School in Altoona, said discipline is vital for a principal and she plans to dispense it with fairness.

“They need to know that when they walk out the door, they’re not getting picked on, that nobody’s holding a grudge,” she said. “They’ll come back the next day, and it’s a new day.”

Beth, the oldest twin by three minutes, has taught at several schools in the diocese, starting at St. Aloysius School in Cresson, then on to Holy Name School in Ebensburg, Sacred Heart School in Altoona and St. Thomas School in Bedford. At all those schools, she mostly taught junior high classes.

Then she became principal at St. Patrick’s School in Newry. Her latest role has been at Altoona Central Catholic, where she will start her 26th year working for the diocese this fall.

Her years in teaching are one year less than Cathy because although they both went to Shippensburg University, Beth wasn’t sure at first she wanted to be a teacher. She started out majoring in social work but after a year switched to teaching as a career. They both credit teachers in their life for inspiring them, both attending Catholic elementary schools and Bishop Guilfoyle High School.

When it came to where they wanted to teach, there was no decision for the twins, whose mother was also a twin. They both opted for Catholic schools.

“It’s a calling,” Beth said, adding that she started teaching on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. “We were called to be where we are. It’s where we were meant to be. It’s also a commitment.”

Cathy agrees, saying her years at St. Rose make her feel that she has become a member of an extended family.

“With the families, the kids and the staff, it’s like they’ve automatically become my family,” she said.

Cindy Sharbaugh of Altoona, who’s known both sisters for several years, said if the diocese had a Teacher of the Year award, the Damiano sisters would be the top candidates. Sharbaugh has known the sisters since Cathy taught Sharbaugh’s son, who’s now 31, in first grade. She said the sisters are always giving back, whether it’s to the schools or to their community.

“They’re two of the most wonderful, devoted teachers I know,” she said. “They’re just wonderful.”

Cathy has taught at St. Rose of Lima School for her entire teaching career. She began in first grade for her first 10 years then had a brief stint in fourth grade. But her primary task since then has been as the art and physical education teacher for the entire school, grades kindergarten through eight. She is also responsible for all the scenery at the school’s annual spring concert.

“I enjoy having everybody in K through 8,” she said. “You get the innocence of the little ones, and the older kids have a different kind of respect that they have for you at that age, which is nice.”

Cathy said she’s looking forward to her new job as the St. Rose’s principal.

“When [the Rev. Brian Saylor] asked me if I wanted the job, I said I would proudly accept and I would be most honored,” she said.

In addition to teaching, the sisters have also coached basketball at the schools for several years, even coaching against each other in one game when Bishop Carroll High School played against Bishop Guilfoyle. It started in college when they helped out with basketball clinics for youth camps in Harrisburg, they said. Then when they started teaching, they began coaching school teams.

When they coached the same game, it got very confusing for the student players, because the sisters’ voices sound similar, Beth said.

“They’d hear voices, and they didn’t know which one of us was yelling at them,” she said.