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“Stay Where You Are and Make History”: The Bond Between a First-Year Teacher and a 42-Year Veteran

Janice Selby started teaching at St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem before many of her coworkers were born. In fact, she taught three current colleagues when they were in fourth grade. As if that’s not remarkable enough, she’s been teaching fourth grade for 39 of her 42 years in the same school.

The reasons why Ms. Selby stayed—and her impact—embody the unique power that schools like St. Charles can have for both students and neighborhoods because they are deeply anchored in faith and community.

Now, it’s worth noting that 42 years in one school wasn’t Ms. Selby’s original plan. Three years, she thought; “I planned to stay at St. Charles for three years.”

She explains, “I graduated from college in 1979. The BOE [now the New York City Department of Education] wasn’t hiring that year, so like a lot of my friends, I headed to a Catholic school.”

She’s not Catholic. A proud member of Convent Avenue Baptist, a half a mile from St. Charles, she nevertheless found something happening at the school that kept her coming back. “I got a chance to strengthen my faith at work at St. Charles. After all,” she adds, “we all believe in the same Jesus.”

It was more than just the opportunity to pray that she found compelling. “St. Charles is a gem, a joy. Not every day is roses and sunshine, but there is always someone there to help you realize that it will be all right. And there were never any ‘haters’; there was always someone there to give you a pat on the back with your successes.

“We have been through thick and thin: births and deaths and weddings. When I talk to other friends who are teachers, they didn’t have that sense of community with their coworkers.”

According to Ms. Selby, that supportive environment extends to the families she has served for over four decades. “I lived in the neighborhood with children and parents. I would run into someone all the time in the laundromat or the grocery store, and that level of respect we had as members of the same community spilled out into the classrooms. I’ve never really had problems with respect.”

After 42 years, she says that it is time for her to retire. Ed Koch was mayor and Jimmy Carter President the last time St. Charles had a school year without Ms. Selby, so it is hard to imagine the school without her. And because cohesive communities are only as strong as the people who knit them together, it can be worrying to consider what will happen to St. Charles when she leaves.

A few minutes with Naje George, though, might make you feel better.

“I love, love, love teaching,” the PreK educator volunteers. And why did she become a teacher in the first place? “I always wanted to be like Ms. Selby,” who—sure enough—taught her in fourth grade.

Ms. George, who is Black, explains that “We had a lot of Black teachers growing up at St. Charles. But there is something about Ms. Selby that made me think, ‘Wow, I could really be here teaching like her, be my true self, and be a role model to kids.’”

Although Ms. George is a life-long member of the St. Charles community and a parishioner of the church, she didn’t start out working as an educator there. “I taught at a special needs school, taught downtown. And when I got to St. Charles, I thought, this is it–I’m here–I’m home.” She sees in the school the same thing Ms. Selby found in 1980: “there is a sense of community. Everyone is on deck to help.”

And while Ms. Selby might not be down the hall next year, she’ll still be helping Ms. George.

“When I’m struggling as a teacher, I think, what would Ms. Selby do? Take the time one-on-one to get to know the student, get to know what they truly need.” Ms. George elaborates: “You feel the love the minute you walk into Ms. Selby’s classroom. Your team, the administration–you also have to love your students. You’re not going to get a class where every kid and parent is nice, but it is a community, and you’ve got to love what you are doing.”

And, Ms. George adds, “I can see myself retiring from here. Although maybe not after a full 42 years…”

“Stability counts,” Ms. Selby explains. “I’ve had kids come back to see me in their caps and gowns from college. It’s worth it to seek kids graduate from high school and college, and to see your students come back to be teachers and principals.”

There are lots of stories this summer about teachers quitting or retiring early, like this one and this one. And as Ms. Selby herself acknowledges, young people tend not to stay in the same jobs the way they used to. But her advice to them is this:

“If it’s a rough year, hang in there. Just when you think things aren’t going to get any better, there is a student or a parent who is going to come back and tell you what you meant to them.

“You can see the fruits of your labor. Stay where you are and make history.”

Winifred Doris, former St. Charles Borromeo teacher.

Last year, we shared the story of a group of St. Charles alumni honoring their legendary second grade teacher, Winifred Doris, who passed away last year. In that story, we quoted one of the teachers who was influenced early in her career by Ms. Doris’s compassion, dedication to the St. Charles community, and high standards. That teacher, of course, was Janis Selby. So the history she is encouraging Naje George and others to make at their school is one she herself inherited.

In a time when so much seems fleeting, these three dedicated women, each in her own generation, decided—as Ms. Selby says—to “stay where you are and make history.” And by doing so, they have created community—and an impact that will live long after each of them.