UMSL alumna Cathy Cartier

UMSL alumna Cathy Cartier has been teaching English at Affton High School in south St. Louis County for the past nine years. She turned to teaching after starting a family and leaving a career in social services. (Photo by August Jennewein)

A warning bell rings, marking the upcoming third period at Affton High in south St. Louis County. A group of sophomores begin to gather in a cozy classroom. The walls are lined with posters of Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. As the students hurry to their seats, a smiling Cathy Cartier greets each one and hands out a photocopied article from the Associated Press.

It’s business as usual, except for one thing – a new piece of furniture in the corner of the room. It’s a well-crafted wooden chair, a congratulations gift to Cartier from the Affton High School District. The engraving reads, “2012-13 Missouri Teacher of the Year.”

The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education selected the veteran English teacher in August and honored her at a dinner in October. Cartier was chosen from a field of six finalists following personal interviews that were conducted by a 12-member selection committee.

Asked en masse, Cartier’s students are quick to explain why the award came her way.

“Mrs. Cartier makes the subject matter, matter to me,” one says.

“She’s serious, but hilarious,” another says.

“It’s not just what she teaches, it’s how she teaches it,” a third student chimes in.

Case in point: The same students are studying the groundbreaking novel “Things Fall Apart” by Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. It was a summer reading assignment, and the pupils know the characters, plot and setting well.

But the teacher pushes for more. Through several questions, Cartier has them reach beyond the story and focus on what it really means and how the novel relates to them.

Don Henning, a teacher’s aide with the Affton School District, has observed Cartier’s classes.

“She’s very dedicated, and she strives for excellence in teaching,” he says. “She’s also very passionate about what she does, and that shows.”

Teaching wasn’t always on the horizon for Cartier. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 1977 and began a career in social service. It wasn’t until after she began her own family that the teaching bug bit.

“I was asked by board members to join the staff of the private school affiliated with my church,” she says. “That really began my teaching career. My most important teaching job came when I started raising a family. I stayed home until I began subbing in the Affton School District in order to see exactly what the public schools had to offer my own children.”

More than 12 years later, Cartier still teaches in the district, where she’s served as curriculum co-chair for English language arts and spearheaded preparation for the high school’s end-of-course testing.

She returned to UMSL to earn a master’s degree in secondary education in 2007.

“My experiences at UMSL have prepared me well for my life in the classroom,” says Cartier, who’s also a teacher consultant for the university’s Gateway Writing Project, a conference for teachers.

“The fact that Cathy Cartier is an excellent classroom teacher is evident in her selection as Missouri State Teacher of the Year,” says Nancy Singer, associate professor of education and director of the Gateway Writing Project at UMSL. “However, she is also a gifted teacher-leader, one who is willing to share her expertise with others and one who leads by example.”

Cartier attributes her success as a teacher to two things – student relationships and achievement.

“I am a lifelong learner, and I recognize the importance of building relationships with my students,” she says. “Secondly, I know that students achieve so much more in class when they trust and respect their teacher. I know that I can set the bar high if they know that I am on their side.”

This story was originally published in the fall 2012 issue of UMSL Magazine.

Jen Hatton

Jen Hatton