After 33 years, Mrs. French steps down at Roaring Fork High School
Laura French doesn’t think she’s done anything special in 33 years teaching science at Roaring Fork High School.
“You just do what you think you’re supposed to do,” she said.
As she prepares to retire, however, it’s clear that her impact is incalculable.
Tarn Udall selected French as her favorite teacher when she won a prestigious Boettcher Scholarship in 2004, and still considers having her class tantamount to winning the lottery.
“Mrs. French was a gifted teacher who cared deeply about her students’ academic growth, but she was also dedicated to supporting the entire student experience,” Udall said. “Now, years later, I may be rusty on the scientific principles that she taught me, but my appreciation for Mrs. French’s compassion and commitment remains unwavering.”
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French inspires similar respect in her co-workers.
“I still consider her my mentor even after 13 years,” said biology teacher Hadley Hentschel, who shared a Carbondale Teachers’ Appreciation Fund Outstanding Teacher award with French in 2010.
“She’s fully committed to the school on so many levels,” he added. “She always had an open door and was willing to put down whatever she was working on to help someone.”
Her prominence extends beyond the school itself. Longtime Glenwood Springs science teacher Roger Zastrow recalls numerous collaborations with French.
“She was one of my role models and made me be a better teacher,” he said. “All the teachers I’ve worked for over the years certainly respected her — it didn’t matter what field.
“What struck me about Laura is her ability to relate to every kid. She was able to do that better than anyone I know,” he added.
Roaring Fork High School Principal Drew Adams echoed the sentiments.
“Laura French is the most patient, caring and considerate teacher I have ever met and I wish that she were not retiring so that my fifth-grader could have her in the future,” he said. “She will be missed by the entire Roaring Fork High School community.”
BAND AND SCIENCE
French, neé Smith, grew up in Arvada as the second oldest of six children.
“My whole family is really geared toward math and science,” she recalled. “We took apart a lot of stuff.”
Her own high school experience, however, was defined as much by band — where she played clarinet and dabbled on the saxophone — as by science class.
“Those were my favorite rooms to hang around in,” she said.
After graduating, she enrolled at Colorado State University, where she performed in the marching band and initially majored in zoology.
“It was the only (major) I could pick right out the gate to sign up for biology, geology, physics and chemistry,” she explained of her choice in majors.
She eventually opted for a degree in chemistry “because I didn’t know what you did with physics if you weren’t an engineer.”
“I needed to be out of school into a job of some sort,” she said. “I could have been a professional student, but I really wanted to try some of the things I’d be learning about.”
Although she had a job offer at a chemical plant, she opted to hunt down a teaching position instead, having obtained a teaching certificate on the side.
“If you asked my mother, she would say from at least first grade she suspected I would be a teacher. It was what I made my siblings play,” she said.
She ended up at Parker Junior High in Douglas County — not the grade level she was looking for, but close.
Soon thereafter, she met Schy French at a Halloween Party. After teaching on the Front Range for two years, she decided to marry him and settle in a small town.
“People from small towns just seemed to have it together,” she observed. “Kids at big schools grew up around people just like them, but small-town kids were so comfortable with themselves.”
She found a job opening in Carbondale, looked it up on the map, interviewed and got the position. Her sight-unseen decision turned out to be a good one.
“You make that turn as you come into Glenwood, and you see the mountain in springtime — beautiful,” she said.
Although the school wasn’t much smaller than it is now, Carbondale in the early 1980s was a truly small town.
“You had miners’, ranchers’ and farmers’ children. Most of the adults didn’t work in the community,” she said. “The biggest shock was that there were no locks on the lockers. Also, I was used to giving students some space, and these kids wanted you to know who they were and who their family is.”
French taught chemistry, physics and math her first year, and also was expected to coach track — about which she said she knew next to nothing. Later, she took over tennis, with which she had more experience. The team even made it to state once under her leadership.
“At that time, there was no division,” she said. “Everybody played, so you could find Cherry Creek in your first round.”
In addition to coaching, French was the student council sponsor for several years. She also made a point of instilling more than information in her students.
“I think teaching is dual,” she said. “Of course you’re supposed to instill some academic information and how to be a student, but you’re also teaching adolescents to be responsible.”
“When dealing with adolescents, it’s about being firm, fair and consistent,” she added. “Every day when you walk in there, there’s bundles of energy sitting in front of you that are sponges waiting to see what you’re going to do. They’ll challenge you. They’ll laugh with you and at you. And even on your worst day, there always is some kid that says the right words.”
French has been the longest-tenured staff member at Roaring Fork High School since 2005. Although an administrator in Douglas County once told her she’d never make it in teaching, she’s been nominated for the L.S. Wood Teacher of the Year twice and received numerous other honors. Although many of her labs are still clearly mimeographed, she has learned to adapt to the times.
“Education hasn’t changed for a long time, and right now it’s in flux,” she said. “Now teachers are so much more under the microscope, and while the excitement for learning has remained the same, there aren’t as many students with that energy.”
Some of the changes came from the community itself.
“When I started here, we were the high school of the area. It was clear that Roaring Fork had so many strengths,” French recalled. “Somewhere along the way we got a negative reputation. You can’t change somebody’s opinion of a school. You can only model what we have. Some of the parents that had second thoughts were so happy they chose to send their kids here.”
That includes several parents who were themselves students there.
“In many ways, it’s a compliment to know that there’s a person you’ve taught that trusts you with their son or daughter — or is downright excited that they’ll have you in class,” French observed.
She would probably be sticking around to teach their grandchildren, but her own family takes precedence. Her three daughters — Michelle, Renee and Leslie — have all settled on the Front Range, and her parents still live there, as well.
“I am looking forward to being Grandma,” she said.
Just as she married, moved and started her job at Roaring Fork High School in the matter of months, she plans to move back to the Denver area shortly after her final day teaching May 31.
“We never seemed to be able to do one thing at a time,” she said.
“It’s really hard to look out on a beautiful May day and say ‘I’m leaving,’” she added. “At some point it’ll hit me. Maybe not until next fall. It’ll be the first time I don’t go to school in 52 years.
“Most people know Mrs. French. There are not many people that know Laura French. Those two have been intertwined for so long, it’s hard to break them apart,” she said. “Kids say they’re going to miss me. What they don’t know is how much I’m going to miss this.”
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