Honoring Friends Select’s Recent Retirees
Having worked with every age group of students throughout her 35-year teaching and librarian career at Friends Select, Paula Cairo has many impressive accomplishments: she started as a fifth and sixth grade English teacher; managed the first middle school computer room; taught and wrote the curriculum for the first sixth grade science lab; invented a 3-D modeling art class for seventh grade; and has been the lower, middle, and upper school librarian. When asked to summarize her many roles, she humbly said, “‘Teacher Paula’ has always been my role!”
Paula’s varying titles are a testament to her desire to be present in the moment with the opportunities Friends Select presents. When asked if she foresaw the school being the place at which she would finish her teaching career, she said,“I have always tried to be focused on what is now. I can’t recall thinking about reaching for any other career than the one I was building with the students here.” Paula added, “When I started, I found there was a lot to explore and a certain appealing richness of opportunity. I wasn’t planning too far ahead but was instead riding the waves of possibility at Friends Select as they came up year-to-year.”
Paula was also instrumental in implementing beneficial changes to school programs through the management of state and federal funding. “At a time when textbooks were becoming increasingly used in classes and were quite expensive, I worked with the community to order class sets of them with state funds, which, with the purchase of other student materials and supplies, was a significant financial savings for the school,” she said. “I also managed a federal fund offered for excellence in educational programming, with which I was able to organize a number of Young Audiences performances for lower and middle school.”
Friends Select’s diverse community and interesting and engaging environment have motivated Paula over the years. “I have loved connecting with children and adults with all of their differences and similarities on a daily basis,” she said. She also feels Friends Select has been a supportive environment, both personally and professionally. “Friends Select has been a place where I could express my creative energy in the service of educating kids of all ages, while being a lifelong learner myself. I really can't think of anything I haven't been willing to try and do, except maybe retire. But here I am doing it.”
Elaine Criden’s love of Friends Select began when her children, David ’87 and Debbie ’88, were students. “My own children are the special people they are because of their time spent at this school,” she said. To show her appreciation, Elaine volunteered in the school library before she ever taught in a classroom.
Her 37 years of service to Friends Select began as the school was starting its assistant teacher program. “I was one of three assistant teachers in 1983, and the program has since grown to 12 teachers,” she said. “Teacher Elaine” worked in the same first grade classroom for nine years. “I’ve also worked in kindergarten and second grade, but first grade is my love and, in total, I’ve taught first grade for 26 years.”
Though technically retired since 2018, Elaine was not ready to officially leave Friends Select; she has been working part-time in lower school classrooms—and has even helped lower school art teacher Dan Deslaurier—over the past two years. “Being with the children and watching them grow into such wonderful and responsible adults is so rewarding,” she said.
A lifelong educator, Elaine plans to continue her work with young learners during her retirement. “There are plenty of places to volunteer, including the four schools within walking distance of my house,” she said. Still, she doesn’t foresee any teaching experience comparing to her Friends Select years. “Friends Select has a special place in my heart, and I will never forget all the treasured memories I’ve made at the school,” Elaine said.
“The best part of my job was introducing science studies to young children. It’s what I’ve always loved to do, and it’s why I originally found the job opening at Friends Select School so desirable,” said lower school science teacher Bob McCarthy. As he closed his 14-year chapter at the school and retired from teaching, Bob reflected on knowing he would complete his teaching career at the school. “I enjoyed my position at Friends Select so much from the start, I knew it would be the last teaching assignment for me.”
With lots of artifacts from nature and several live animals, Bob’s classroom was well loved by students from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. As Friends Select’s first science specialist in the lower school, he created a spiraling curriculum of general science around seminal units of study at each grade level. Bob said, “I am especially proud of the fourth grade unit on raptor migration because it brought students awareness of a major natural event that occurs locally every year.” Bob was also responsible for the school’s partnership with the Drexel University Academy of Natural Sciences. “Lower school students have been able to learn about paleontology and freshwater ecology at an institution that is world renowned for both areas of study. It really is a rare opportunity,” he said.
Bob hopes to maintain his relationship with Friends Select through his position as head coach of the middle school field hockey team, which he has held for the past decade. And, he hopes to continue leading group birdwatching trips through the development and alumni relations office. “I’ll be around,” Bob said. “Retired faculty seem to populate the Friends Select hallways on a regular basis.”
What has been most meaningful to Bob throughout his time at Friends Select are his relationships with those who have filled the classrooms. “The people and the camaraderie within the community make my years at Friends Select worth cherishing. The lower school faculty is such a strong, close-knit group of colleagues; I know I will miss them.” He added, “I will also miss the young folk who bring the fascination of having their eyes opened to all the glory of the universe. Friends Select is about teaching children to be their best selves and preserving their future for them.”
With almost three decades as part of Friends Select’s faculty, Debby Rickards has been a fixture of the lower school. Her time at Friends Select began before she was hired as a full-time employee; in 1990, she arrived as a student teacher as part of her Master’s degree studies. “I was lucky enough to be placed with Anne Thomforde Thomas in 1990 and then substituted through the lower and middle school the following year," Debby said. "My career at Friends Select officially began when Penny Colgan Davis, from whom I learned so much, hired me to teach first grade for the 1992-93 school year. I then went on to teach second, third, and fourth grade.”
One of Debby’s most cherished projects was the creation of journals she used to communicate with her students and their families. The system was so beneficial that other teachers adopted it for their classrooms. “I initiated a system that would come to be known as home and school journals: each week, the children would write in them, and I would respond. Over the weekends, parents and guardians would write as well,” she said. “It was an authentic way to bring families into what was happening in the classroom, and allowed me to build a relationship with them while maintaining a connection with their children. And the journals fostered a love of writing in the children.”
Another important contribution that Debby brought was the creation of the second grade play with her colleague Carol Sime, who passed away last December. These annual plays, including scripts, costumes, sets, and songs, were conceived and developed by the second graders (with some help from the teachers!). This program was so successful in supporting literacy that Debby and Carol were invited to present it at the International Literacy Association Convention in Minneapolis, MN.
Debby felt that teaching virtually during iSelectLearning had its benefits in further enhancing relationships with students and families. She said, “I have gotten to know parents in a much deeper way during the months teaching digitally. When I would talk to one of my students, their families were often sitting next to them wondering how they could help, and it inevitably made us closer.”
A Friends Select parent to Seth ’04 and Ben ’07, Debby is eager to start her next role; after completing her career at Friends Select, Debby will care for her granddaughter, Hannah. When asked what makes Friends Select so special, Debby reflects on the many wonderful people she’s worked with throughout her career, as well as the school’s Quaker values. “Seeing the Light in children and viewing them as whole people are very important concepts,“ she said. “Those philosophies were life changing for me, and I know I became a much better person from my work at Friends Select.”
Anne Thomforde Thomas
As Anne Thomforde Thomas cleared out her classroom, one of the mementos she took home was a framed interview for which she was interviewed by the second grade. “One of the questions was, ‘What will you do when you retire?” she said. “The second graders appropriately summarized my answer with ‘Travel, eat cinnamon toast, read books, and go be grandma.’” Anne is certainly eager to spend time with her grandchildren and the rest of her family—including daughters Abigail Zimmerman '92, Megan Thomas '95, Susanna Thomforde-Garner '05 and Claire Thomforde-Garner '08. “I look forward to working in the garden, sewing, and essentially doing more of the same, without the teaching,” she added.
“Anne TT,” as she is affectionately called by many in the Friends Select community, arrived to teach first and second grade at the school in 1979. “I was looking to work for a progressive school where my ideas and interest in social justice work would be welcomed,” she said. Of all of the programs she’s influenced over her three decades at Friends Select, Anne is proudest of her diversity work; for instance, she was instrumental in the creation of the school’s group Gays, Lesbians, and Allies against Homophobia (GLaH). “At Friends Select, I developed a voice as an advocate for non-violent conflict resolution and anti-bias education,” she said. “I really tout that as an important part of my legacy, and that teaching children that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander.”
A member of Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, Anne was active in the role of Quakerism at Friends Select. She established the first all-school Quakerism committee and lower school Quakerism committee and led changes to the format of the lower school Meeting for Worship. During her 2003 sabbatical, Anne wrote Quaker Testimonies in the Life of Friends Select, which illustrated when and how Quaker values are imparted within the school’s curriculum. The scope and sequence was published by Friends Council on Education and is still used today.
“You don’t have to leave who you are at home,” Anne said, paraphrasing fellow teacher John Colgan-Davis regarding what makes the school so unique. “Friends Select School is a place where both students and teachers can bring their true selves.” And, although not her ideal conditions under which to retire, Anne feels the pandemic-influenced distance in her final months helped her say “goodbye.” “Being with the kids is the best part of my job; the interaction with the students and colleagues feeds me,” she explained. “Being apart from the community helped me distance myself in a way that I might not have been able to do otherwise.”
Martha Van Nuis
Martha Van Nuis’s teaching career at Friends Select spanned 27 years, all three divisions, chair positions in several departments, and two of her own Friends Select alumni—Katharine ’00 and John Fugett ’03. “It was wonderful teaching at the school my children were attending,” Martha said. “We always managed to enjoy the closeness of being here and not get in each other’s way. My children being at Friends Select is the reason I moved from my previous career to teaching.”
She arrived at the start of the 1993-94 school year from a demanding career in urban planning to teach third grade. "I wasn't sure I would finish the first week; I felt I was into something I was was truly not sure I could do, and here I am, 27 years later, retiring from Friends Select," she said.
Even though her role has been to educate, Martha appreciates the many learning opportunities being a member of the Friends Select community has provided. She said, “I value the colleagues from whom I have continued to learn, the varied experiences I have been privileged to have, and the many students who have challenged and inspired me to continue learning to better teach them.” She added that her values were mirrored by those of the school and the people she has worked with. “In my adolescence our country was embroiled in political, racial, and cultural turmoil over many of the same issues that roil current times, and I believed I could choose to do work to change the world,” she shared. “I’ve found a home in a place and with people who share those beliefs and dreams, and who work every day to do just that.”
Martha completed her Friend Select chapter as an upper school history teacher and is approaching her retirement looking forward to tutoring, volunteering, and spending time on the beach in Maine with family; however, her years at Friends Select will resonate. “Friends Select has always been important to me, especially in times of crisis. To be able to gather with the community in Meeting for Worship, whether a word was ever spoken, was always powerful and is something I will miss deeply,” she said. “I am so grateful to have been able to share that time and space with my students and colleagues. And now, as we take to heart the truth of the racism and inequalities of who we are, being able to be present—even virtually, during the pandemic—with searching, passionate, like-minded students and faculty is a great gift.”