Scattered throughout St. Mary of the Assumption School in Upper Marlboro are desks, shelves, cubbies, step stools and statue pedestals that were created in the woodshop of Steven Showalter, the school’s principal. Showalter has a goal to build at least one item of furniture for every classroom in the school, and he is well on his way to that goal.

“It’s a practical thing, but it’s really a work of love,” said Showalter. “When you love what you do, it is easy to give more and more.”

This fall, he created a light table for the preschool classroom. The table, which features LED lights on the inside that light up a frosted piece of glass at the top of the table, provides an inviting surface for students to look at shapes, colors, and other objects they can learn from.

Lily Phillips, the preschool teacher, has wanted one of these tables for a while, but the school could not afford one.

“It was my passion and my dream,” said Phillips.

So, like all of the other furniture he has built, Showalter offered to build them one that they didn’t have to pay for.

Two years ago, Phillips studied the Reggio Emilia philosophy, which is an approach to teaching that focuses on bringing out students’ natural thinking. The light table is an important piece of putting that into practice, in addition to a raised garden that one of the preschool families is putting in place to allow the students to plant their own food.

“I felt there must be a better way to teach children and respect children,” said Phillips.

A big part of this teaching model is interviewing students and allowing them to explore things they are curious about. When they were learning about shapes, she asked them, “How would you like to learn about shapes?” and one student said he wanted to learn about shapes with colors.

That student soon remembered that the classroom had magna-tiles, which are small colorful shapes with magnets in them that allow students to study either 2D or 3D shapes. He ran over to get them, and students took turns looking at the shapes on the new light table.

Students can also bring in items they find at recess that interest them, and on a late September day, the students were using the light table to view some of the first leaves that had fallen.

Showalter’s love for the children and the faculty at St. Mary’s, where he has taught for 25 years and been principal for 12, is what fuels his work, he said. 

“There’s not much of a story here except a principal who loves his kids,” Showalter told the Catholic Standard. “Over the years, I’ve just learned to love these kids very much.”

Desks he has made line the wall of the STEM lab, fill the classroom used for Spanish and math, and are present in many other classrooms throughout the school. When one teacher needed a stepstool for her Smartboard, he made her a big one and painted it with the logo of her favorite football team, the Steelers, as a surprise.

Showalter is a self-taught carpenter, and the first substantial piece of furniture he built was a crib for his daughter, Rebecca, who was born in 1984. Recently, Showalter completed another crib for Rebecca to use for her own child.

Most afternoons, Showalter gets home from school and goes straight to his woodshop. As he begins working on his project, he says a novena to St. Joseph, his patron saint. He has a five-foot statue outside of his woodshop that depicts the carpenter, who was the father of Jesus and husband of St. Mary, the school’s patron saint.

Showalter said he sees the physical effort of carpentry as a mirror to his spiritual effort of growing in relationship with the Lord, because in both areas he is continually trying and falling short of perfection.

“There is a mistake in everything I’ve built,” said Showalter. Every time there is an imperfection in the wood or a hammer falls on him, Showalter said it is a reminder, “Steve, you’re not perfect. Be humble.”

Two of his favorite projects were building a tabernacle stand and confessional partitions, which the students use when the school has Confession every Friday.

“It is really neat when a sacrament is taking place with something you built,” he said, adding that he likes being “a part in a small way of dispensing of God’s grace.”