Beloved teacher retires after 48 years at St. Peter School

By Christina Gray

Catholic San Francisco

Generations of St. Peter School students gathered at St. Peter Church June 5 for a Mass of appreciation for longtime teacher Cyndi Gonzalez who is retiring after 48 years with the Mission District school.

Gonzales, 72, born and raised in San Francisco, has lived within blocks of the parish her entire life. After earning her degree and teaching credentials and a short stint as a teacher at a public school, she was hired as a teacher at St. Peter School in 1974.

“I signed on right then and there and have never looked back,” she said of her role as a third-grade teacher to multiple generations of St. Peter students. She also taught second and fifth grades at intervals.

“I taught many children who I also taught their mother, father or both,” she said.

Sandra Jimenez, principal of St. Peter School, said that Gonzalez is beloved by her students, many of whom returned to thank her at the end-of-the-school year Mass in her honor.

Cyndi Gonzalez

Raquel Rangel, 44, is one of them. She laments that her young son who enters third grade in the fall will not have the same opportunity to learn from Gonzalez as she, her husband, her younger siblings, cousins, friends and older daughter did.

“I am so sad he will not get to experience Mrs. Gonzalez,” she said.

“Everyone hates math, but she made it fun.”

Raquel Rangel

“Something that has stuck with all of us is our math skills,” Rangel said. “Everyone hates math, but she made it fun.” She described “super competitive” math drills that were so rewarding that “we actually took the time to learn our math.”

“She loves her students, they always remember her,” said Jimenez. “At the same time, you don’t mess with her.”

Gonzalez said she knew she wanted to be a teacher from the first day she entered a classroom as a student herself, inspired by her own teacher, Mrs. Jewel.

She said her mother told her she played “schoolteacher” in her bedroom or in the basement, all the time.

Her former students have reflected to her a portrait of teaching style.

“They tell me I’m very strict, but I’m not mean,” she said with a laugh. “I’m very organized, and I do make them toe the line.”

She said from the first day of school on, there were strict procedures and processes that helped maintain a sense of order and expectation so she could “concentrate on the curriculum.”

“I was not hired to be your friend, although am your friend and love you,” she sometimes told her students. “I was hired to teach you and in order to do that we can’t have chaos. Chaos is a big word in third grade.”

The school family population at St. Peter School, which is 98 percent Hispanic or Latino, has always been “very respectful of the ‘profesora,’ she said. In the classroom, students are expected to speak English.

Cyndi Gonzalez, walking with St. Peter’s students

“I don’t want them to lose their own language,” said Gonzales, but in the classroom they must speak English, she said. “It builds them up to be able to speak two languages.”

Gonzalez, who converted to Catholicism to marry her husband of 51 years, Frank, also a St. Peter School alumnus, “has always been a model of faith,” according to Jimenez.

You could always count on her students to be the loudest and most enthusiastic in church, she said.

Mercy Sister Marian Rose Power, former principal and a still active member of school community member for 44 years, agreed. She added that Gonzalez excelled at preparing her students for the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

“The priests here always commented on how well she prepared them and how comfortable the children felt,” said Sister Power. “She herself would say, ‘I’m not so good, I’m just a convert’,” she said. “I told her it’s probably exactly because you are a convert.”

In her final few years as a teacher, the COVID-19 pandemic forced Gonzalez, like other teachers, to become a new learner herself to adapt to online learning via Zoom.

“I’m a pencil and paper kind of teacher, but I had to learn it, with the help of my kids,” she said. “I say the new four-letter word is Zoom.”

With the increasing expectations for teachers, Gonzalez described why teaching is still the best career ever and why she loved her work right up until retirement.

“You can impart so much love and faith and support to all these people who really and truly need it,” she said. “We can help them to be able to get out of the barrio, and to be able to lift themselves up and go for it.”