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She listened, they learned: Retiring Flagstaff teacher knew how to reach at-risk students

Cathey Retires From Teaching

Michelle Cathey is retiring from a long career as a teacher in Flagstaff.

Michelle Cathey’s eyes, peering through a new pair of bifocals, didn’t just scan the email printed out and handed to her. No, she absorbed its contents, rapidly moving down the page with an occasional gasp of recognition, a stray murmur of assent. An open palm rested on her breastbone, maybe to regulate her breathing.

It was a missive from an old student, a voice from the past that Cathey remembered well. But the email was sent not to her, but to The Daily Sun, an unbidden query for the purpose of passing along that Cathey was retiring after three decades teaching in Flagstaff public schools and perhaps some recognition was due.

Personal and heartfelt, the email from Kellsey Jane, a fifth-grade student of Cathey’s at erstwhile Weitzel Elementary School in 2003, detailed the caring and compassion that has marked Cathey’s career, which will end today when she closes the classroom door at Summit High School’s Teenage Parent Program for the final time.

Jane, now a school teacher herself, talked about how when Jane fell off the monkey bars at recess and received a nasty forehead gash, Cathey carried her to the nurse’s office and then rode with her to the hospital in an ambulance. She shared, too, how after her parents engaged in a bitter divorce and Jane had to ride her bike 4 miles to school, Cathey would “go out of her way to drive me home and sometimes we’d stop for ice cream.” Several years later, when Jane had to testify in court about a family member who had molested her, “Mrs. Cathey took a couple days away from the classroom to be a support for me in the courtroom.”

The lengthy email went on, effusively, about how Cathey lent advice and materials to Jane when she first began her own teaching career in 2019 in Yuma.

When she had finished reading, Cathey gently placed the print out on the desk, as the bifocals slipped down her nose. She apologized for lowering her mask, saying it fogged up her glasses. One could excuse Cathey, at that point, if her glasses were misting for another reason.

“Oh. My. Gosh. Kellsey!,” Cathey exclaimed, then picked up the paper and handed it back. “You’re not going to get much more of a response out of me other than blubbering.”

In fact, Cathey kept it together, emotionally. At 57, she is ending an enriching, if heretofore unheralded, career that saw her teach everything from pre-K to high school at several Flagstaff venues, along with sabbaticals, so to speak, in Hawaii, Qatar and Bogota, Colombia.

Come Monday, she will board a flight to Hawaii to live and work for at least a year on the farm belonging to her middle child Scott and spend time with his two young daughters.

“I feel that draw,” Cathey said, “to make sure I have that relationship with those grandchildren like I do (with students) here.”

Cathey long has been one of that breed of educator — it’s debatable whether it’s “vanishing” or not — who has dedicated her career to reaching students who perhaps need some extra attention, who need their wounds salved, whether it be actual gashes to the forehead or psychic wounds from a difficult home life.

Kellsey Jane is just one of many students Cathey has influenced over the over.

There are too many for her to mention, but she talks about a girl she once taught who overcame a horrific childhood and now is a professional opera singer; of a troubled boy she taught who now is serving 30 years in prison but still reaches out all these year later; of a smart kid named Ryan Chee at her first teaching job on the reservation at Leupp Public School, who now is the principal at that very school.

'Taking time to really listen'

What the Flagstaff Unified School District will miss upon Cathey’s retirement is not just a wealth of experience, but a seemingly bottomless pool of empathy toward the students in her care.

Some may say that, perhaps, Cathey got a bit too close to her students over the years, that taking Jane out for ice cream and showing up at the girl’s court appearances might be stretching the teacher-student relationship beyond its boundaries.

But Cathey respectfully disagrees and, in something of an exit interview after a career she admits she stumbled into back in the 1990s, she shared her thoughts and philosophy on teaching and interpersonal relationships.

“I’ve heard the comment that you shouldn’t befriend your students,” she said, waving a dismissive hand. “I don’t feel I’ve ever befriended them, although I consider some my friends at this point. I really believe if you spend the time to learn from them, they’re going to lead the way to what their needs are.

“It sounds cliché about the Golden Rule, but after my year of student teaching what I realized was I need to love, honor and hold accountable students the way I would my birth children. It’s not about putting them in the box and a pushing them down the road we determine.

“The things that bother me is (people) saying, ‘Well, when you get to the real world …’ Well, this is the real world for them, the students. They are carrying, sometimes by far, more than adults. Adults have a say in their lives; these young people don’t have a say. If you take the time to get to know each student, it gives you that direction to teach to that student. Without that, you’re just a talking piece at the front of a classroom, I think.”

Once, a fellow teacher asked Cathey, “Why do you get all the ‘challenging’ students?”

In retelling the anecdote, Cathey answers by simply pointing a finger to her ear.

She listened to her students.

“That’s the key, taking time to really listen,” she said. “Take time to connect with each student, especially in those first few weeks of school. We can’t know what their life has been like or is currently like, but if you can get to that point and reach them, the successes they will achieve will be greater. You have to make the effort. I didn’t go into the teacher’s lounge on breaks and bitch about, I don’t know, our lack of pay. I stayed in the classroom and met with my students and listened to them.

“We don’t spend enough time in education looking for that. We’re jumping through the hoops of test scores and assessment. I learned that from Brad Gerver, who I student-taught for. Watching him honor these young people turned that light on to what teaching should be.”

New lessons ahead

Cathey, interestingly, never was one of those teachers who knew from a young age what her calling would be. But as an undergraduate at Northern Arizona University, she was drawn to the career.

“I went into my first methods class and the professor said, ‘What do you want to do with this career?’” Cathey recalled. “I wanted to sound intelligent, being all of 18, and blurted out, ‘Teach on every continent.’ It’s weird how you say something and then it sort of sparks something.”

Though Flagstaff has pretty much remained home base over the decades, Cathey has ventured farther afield to teach. She did a two-year stint in Hawaii and -- once children Nick, Scott and Marissa had grown and fled the nest -- she and husband Doug taught at international schools in Colombia and Qatar, as well.

But she’s always returned to Flagstaff. Her last four years teaching the Teenage Parent Program at Summit High has been a highlight, “the icing on my career,” because “I think this school is the purest form of education I’ve experienced in more than 30 years of teaching.”

It’s time to move on, though. Cathey wants to help her son raise pumpkins and squash in Hawaii and help rear her two grandchildren. She also wants to thru-hike the Arizona Trail and the Camino de Santiago in Spain, if she can find the time.

And one more thing.

“I’m going to go to Africa to teach at some point,” she said. “Then, I can truly say I’ve lived on every continent.”

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Feature Writer, Community/Calendar Editor

Sam McManis is an Arizona Daily Sun features writer and the author of two books: “Running to Glory: An Unlikely Team, A Challenging Season and Chasing the American Dream" and “Crossing California: A Cultural Topography of a State of Wonder and Weirdness.”

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