by Antonina Zielinska
After almost a half century of service as a Catholic school teacher, Roberta Willard is ready to go back home to New Jersey to enjoy her retirement.
Before she departed, the community of St. Saviour H.S., Park Slope, wanted to make sure Willard understood just how grateful they were for the 31 years she dedicated to their school. The students profiled her in their school paper, Skyline, and in their yearbook. The principal designated Roberta Willard Day during which all students received a homework-free day.
“I feel as if I still have to live up to some of the compliments I’m receiving,” she said.
Willard said the overwhelming affirmation she has been receiving for the past few months proves that simple acts of kindness can really have a strong and lasting impact. Although she is grateful for all the recognition, she said what truly impresses her is seeing her students grow.
Spending her career at St. Saviour afforded Willard the opportunity to watch her students mature.
“I meet them as young girls and when they graduate they are young women,” she said.
Graduation is not the last time she hears from many of her students. She said students keep active in the parish community long after they graduate, some even become her colleagues or send their own children and grandchildren to St. Saviour H.S. Being able to see the long-term effects of her work taught Willard that inspiring her students is just as important as providing them with information.
“Most of the students are serious about bettering themselves,” she said. “And they know from their teachers and their parents that it’s not going to be easy. There will be tears and frustrations, but it is within reach if they dedicate themselves to it.”
Among the ways she tries to help the students achieve their goals is by helping them foster a passion for learning. As a science and religion teacher, she said she provided her students with a lot of facts and information. However, she also tries to make them think critically and to make them thirst for knowledge.
Among the things she will miss most about her teaching days is “the joy of the students and their questions and their fears and their many little moments of accomplishment.”
Because St. Saviour is a Catholic high school, Willard said she is in a better position to guide her students through the overwhelming amount of information that is available to them and to help them understand the context of the decisions they must make.
Part of her way to help provide context for her students was to create the Seek Club, which she named after the Bible verse: “And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9)
The mandate of the club was to look for opportunities to be kind. Members performed many service projects including: visiting the elderly with gifts of painted pumpkins; writing letters of encouragement to the students of St. Saviour grade school; collecting coats for the New York Cares Drive; making reindeer out of clothes pins for the patients at Methodist Hospital; and volunteering at Covenant House and C.H.I.P.S.
Although many things have changed since she was a student, she said the spirit of Catholic education has not changed. It is still centered around the Christian call to love.
Among the moments she is most grateful for is when the teachers and faculty agreed to give her one of the parking passes they received from the police department, before raffling the rest, in order to alleviate the amount of walking she would have to do with rheumatoid arthritis.
The moments she will not miss are having to wake up at dawn and grading tests and homework under crunch time. She looks forward to a slower pace in retirement when she will be able to enjoy more quality time with her mother in New Jersey, who she visits on the weekends.
Willard started her career in St. Peter’s School, Parsippany, N.J. She moved to New York and taught at St. Matthias, Ridgewood, for nine years. She then began teaching at St. Saviour H.S., where she is finishing her last days of her teaching tenure.
The joy of looking forward to a well-earned retirement coupled with St. Saviour’s appreciation has made Willard feel truly blessed.
“I am so happy,” she said. “I cannot imagine even greater fullness in heaven.”