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The Culture Carriers

In this eventful week, a quiet, momentous change is occurring at three of our schools.

This week, three veteran educators retire. And as one of their colleagues, Chinique Pressley, points out, these aren’t just any educators. “She’s the teacher all our graduates ask to see when they come back,” Ms. Pressley said about her St. Mark colleague, Blanca Fred. The same could be said of Francine Rogers and Yvonne Coe. All three are the kinds of teachers who make an indelible mark on the students they teach and the institutions where they serve. And those of us fortunate enough to work with them are pausing to ask ourselves what exactly we will miss when they are gone.

Mrs. Coe, a veteran educator, has taught the last seventeen years at Immaculate Conception. Mrs. Fred has taught at St. Mark’s and other diocesan schools for 41 years. And Mrs. Rogers began teaching at St. Athanasius 42 years ago, in 1978. So not only have they had a deep impact; they’ve been having that impact for a long time.

The stories they tell and the examples they set each day don’t just help teach their own students; they establish the culture of their schools for new colleagues and students. And we who remain as they retire do well to wonder: how do we carry on the legacy of these career teachers, particularly when the very idea of a career in education is becoming rarer?

Francine Rogers, St. Athanasius School

Working alongside and observing these women, their colleagues have gained a clear sense of what they bring to their schools. First, and foremost, these are expert educators. “Nobody came close to what Francine does,” retired principal Marianne Kraft thought as soon as she and Francine Rogers both first arrived in the South Bronx in 1978 as middle school teachers. “She thinks through every part of the lesson.” She took Francine to the first McDonald’s that had opened in the neighborhood and plied her with a list of questions about how to teach as well as Marianne saw Francine doing. “That’s really where I learned how to maneuver a whole group of kids,” Marianne noted.

St. Athanasius dean Fiona Chalmers–who wasn’t born until years after Francine and Marianne started at the school–elaborated on the way in which Francine’s long experience with educational innovations, plus her clear vision, make her even more effective.  “I have been trying to crack the nut on this for a while,” Fiona says. “She has experienced so many different things–the way education has evolved, rolling with all the initiatives–but because she is so true to the purpose of educating the whole child, and keeping that at the center of what she is doing, she’s kept the pieces that matter even as she has seen it all change.”

Blanca Fred, St. Mark the Evangelist School

“Her level of preparation and her high expectations for student work–I want every teacher to have that,” St. Mark principal Dom Fanelli says about Mrs. Fred. And Chinique Pressley conveys how much Mrs. Fred’s example resonates. “I see how she motivates kids to succeed. And she’s tough.” Likewise, Immaculate Conception dean Trista Rivera speaks of what she learns every time she’s visited Yvonne Coe’s early elementary classroom. “I think of joy. She made it a point to ensure that every student was addressed by name and with an abundance of love. That came through with her tone and her actions.”

Yvonne Coe, Immaculate Conception School.

Yet it isn’t just how these teachers do the work that has left a mark on their colleagues; it is the why that seeps through in everything from leading song rehearsals before Mass (Francine Rogers) to being the first teacher to arrive each morning at 6 a.m. (Mrs. Fred) to ensuring her colleagues gather in fellowship regularly (Mrs. Coe).  The mission of a Catholic school can appear on a poster, but younger educators really learn that mission most meaningfully from colleagues like these.

Fiona Chalmers says, “It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole of ‘we’re here, there’s so much to get through today.’ Francine always finds time to make it about the whole child–about being a good person. She makes it about the gifts God has given each of them, and how to use them.” And St. Athanasius principal Jessica Aybar agrees. When it comes to the song rehearsals Francine has led, “it’s about more than the song we are practicing. It’s the message that we’re going to give 100% effort 100% of the time, even in Mass–and Francine was doing that before we named that root belief.”

That mission drives the excellence and the continual evolution of teaching practices they use. Fiona relayed that Francine “rolls up her sleeves and has done everything that needs to be done, like get the microphones for morning assembly while I’m struggling with getting the projector on…she even refused the opportunity to have someone else set up her Google classroom” this spring when distance learning caused sudden changes in decades-long practices. “She sticks to the heart of what matters, and knows that she as a person has something to bring to it.”

Chinique Pressley agrees. “Faith. It’s about faith,” she says she learned from Mrs. Fred–not just through what she says, but through the routines and standards she sets. And Trista Rivera notes that because Mrs. Coe has been instrumental in bringing her colleagues together, now that she is retiring, “we’re going to have to bring that energy on purpose; truly live out our belief that we are made for each other…by showing loud, energetic love for others.”

The mission that their colleagues have internalized from these three women is closely tied to a sense of vocation. And that, Jessica Aybar notes, is perhaps one of the biggest differences between the way many of us come to the profession now and the drive that Francine Rogers, Blanca Fred, and Yvonne Coe convey. From the start, “it’s much more of a calling for them than many of us view it as today. Now you think, ‘I have to get a job’–and then you fall madly in love with it. It grows. They came to a place in 1978 where they steal the tires off your car while you are teaching, but you still show up. Even more than a job, it is a deep, faithful call.”

This sense of calling has taken on new relevance for their colleagues this spring. Jessica says that “knowing the struggles they went through in the past helps make sense of what we are doing now–the resilience of this community.” And when Jessica faced the challenge of talking with students about the police brutality and systemic injustices at the heart of this spring’s protests, she drew on the inspiration of Francine Rogers and others who have shown her the way.

“This is our faith–that’s how much this matters to us and to the world–the social justice aspect of Catholic schools. You can talk about everything because you can talk about what’s in our hearts.” She says she learned from Francine and others who came before her at St. Athanasius that “we have to do everything we can with anything we have. These are the teachers who could have easily left, but they choose to stay with us. And why is that? It’s more than a school or a network–it’s a community.”

Our schools are indeed communities–ones that are the better today for all that Francine Rogers, Blanca Fred, and Yvonne Coe have given them, and ones that can only continue to grow by living the legacy they have handed us.