By Sharon McIntire
“Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
Theodore Roosevelt made that famous statement in 1901. Therese Rodriguez might have made that her life’s credo.
She definitely speaks softly. Always. With love and compassion. Her stick is mental - a steely combination of focus and determination that can catch the unsuspecting by surprise. Don’t compete with her: you won’t win.
Born in Santa Fe, she moved to Carlsbad as a young girl with her parents, six brothers and four sisters. Her family was very poor, especially when her father died. At 14, she found herself in charge of raising her three younger sisters when her mother was at work. She remembers being clothed by Operation School Bell, receiving meal tickets for free lunches, and Christmas presents from Christmas Anonymous. When her mother was killed in a car accident, she was left to complete the raising of her siblings.
Cinderella married her Prince Charming after graduating from Carlsbad High School, and she and Eddie raised two sons. When the youngest started kindergarten, the couple went back to school. She received her teaching degree and Eddie a business degree from College of the Southwest. Then both traveled to Las Cruces; she received her master’s in administration and he in educational administration from New Mexico State University.
The couple would have done all that somehow anyway, but Eddie’s loving parents, Ernesto and Elvira Rodriguez, were a “huge help” and stepped in to love and nurture the two young boys when their parents had to be away.
She admits she didn’t have a burning desire to teach. She wasn’t one of those little girls who played school and dreamed of being a teacher someday. But she was always thinking about kids, and she chose teaching so she could spend weekends, holidays and summer vacations with her two boys.
And, “I fell in love with it,” she admits. She spent four years nurturing kindergarteners at ECEC and then nine more quietly molding second graders at Monterrey Elementary. She won the respect and friendship of her fellow teachers, but her quiet, unassuming manner made it easy to overlook that big stick. When it was announced that she was leaving the classroom to become Monterrey’s new principal, teachers were suddenly reevaluating their quiet teammate.
Being the boss after being a peer is a difficult hurdle to overcome, but that mental stick she carries made the transition natural and effortless. Admired as a teacher, she won even greater admiration and respect as a principal from teachers, parents, and the administration.
First grade teacher Cathy Roberson remembers feeling “somewhat nervous, almost a bit intimidated at first” by her new boss’s quiet air of authority. “But then I learned that behind that silence was a strong backbone that I grew to love and respect.” Her new principal expected much from her teachers, but was also there to offer help and support. “I felt like I could go to her with anything. She understood my passion.”
“I loved Monterrey,” Rodriguez says with a smile. “I made sure that I knew all 325 of my students by first name and something about each one of them.”
Central Office took note, and moved her from Monterrey to Pate Elementary. Pate was struggling, rated by the state at the time as a failing school. Rodriguez rolled up her sleeves and got to work, making Pate what she considers her greatest achievement. She served as principal there for three years and, at the time she left, the “failing” school had earned a state score of B.
She doesn’t take the credit. “I had an amazing team to work with,” she says. “It’s all about people. We did a good job, but it wasn’t me: it was the entire team. Robin Stevens was my lead teacher and we all worked hard to earn that B.”
“Therese had a way of understanding what needed to be done for success, then empowering and leading staff members and students to make the goals reality,” Stevens recalls. “As a transformational leader, she had the ability to create a vision and plan for improving education wherever she was.”
It was a lot of hard work. But this lady with a big stick has another side. The motto at her schools was “work hard, play hard,” and she plays as hard as she works. Staff holiday parties were long, fun, often hilarious times, and she found times at school to show her lighter side. She always joined in on Storybook Character Day, and remembers one assembly when the PTA was giving away a bicycle to one lucky student. She rode the bicycle into the assembly amid much hilarity.
“She made sure we celebrated successes, laughed a lot, made the mundane fun, and took time to enjoy one another,” Stevens says. “We supported each other on the tough days and laughed together on countless occasions.”
The final five years of Rodriguez’ career were spent as Director of Human Resources. Her resignation letter to Superintendent Washburn was still all about kids and summed up her feelings and her personality perfectly. “I’m retiring for three reasons,” she said, with photographs of her three young grandchildren attached.
“Therese was a great example,” says Roberson, “and demonstrated an admirable commitment to education. She made a difference in the lives of students, their families and everyone who worked with her.”