Longtime Cathedral School teacher Maria Yeager shaped hundreds of young lives with grace and gusto
by Addie Ladner | photography by Bob Karp
Tucked into the lower level of Cathedral School is their prekindergarten classroom, a cinderblock-walled space lined with posters and weather wheels, nursery rhymes, alphabet charts, and an impressive amount of craft projects hewn by a gaggle of four-year-olds.
For the last 30 years, Maria Yeager has greeted her students here with grace and gusto, a friendly, reassuring presence for generations of children at the downtown Catholic school. In June, Yeager taught her last class, alongside her co-teacher of 18 years, Lou Ann Amato. Yet, the curriculum she developed and the impression she has left on hundreds of children will leave a mark forever.
Four- and 5-year-olds can be tumultuous to teach, with their strong opinions, newfound independence, and big emotions. But Yeager sees these as the glory days, full of opportunity. “They want to learn. They want to please you,” she says.
Among those is my middle child, Charlotte, who defines the phrase “fiery redhead.” At home, she can be incredibly emotional and spirited — but when Yeager speaks, she calms with respect and attentiveness. I’ll never forget our confusion at her first report home: in a column of expectations for school, like I can follow instructions and I share, she’d gotten nearly-perfect marks. “Do they have the right kid?” I asked my husband.
For Yeager, this is par for the course: the kids are sponges, ripe with potential, and always up for a challenge. “They can rise to the occasion,” she says.
Yeager was born in the Philippines, where she and her family lived until she was eight, before they moved to Pennsylvania. Yeager describes her younger self as a timid girl, attached to her mother. When she was in kindergarten, her mom would have to sit with her at the start of class to alleviate her separation anxiety.
“My kindergarten teacher was so sweet and kind and helped me a lot. I empathize with kids who have difficulty separating from their parents and those who are quiet and shy,” she says. For Yeager, teaching is about getting to know each of the kids in her class on a personal level. “That’s really what I aim for.”
The plan was to retire four years ago. “My husband and I had a deal for a while that when our son finished college, I’d retire,” says Yeager. “But I stayed on for four more years! I love it.” Yeager credits many things to the longevity of her teaching career — one that involves lots of noise, juggling, and children — but among them is the fact that she and her husband never discuss work. “We come home, we walk the dog. We like to exercise,” she says.
One of five sisters, and the daughter of a doctor; Yeager initially planned on being a nurse. But going through clinicals made her realize it wasn’t for her. She changed her major mid-way through college to lower elementary education.
“I remember being so worried to tell my dad, but he was fine!” she says. After graduation, she followed her soon-to-be husband to Raleigh, where he had a job offer. She started working at Aldert Root Elementary as a classroom assistant, then was offered the job of pre-K instructor at Cathedral School in 1991.
Over the decades, Yeager has supported young children through all manner of life events: illness, divorce, loss. Sometimes she has shared her own heartbreak; last year she lost her sister to a brain aneurysm. “I talked about it a lot to my students, about how special she was to me, why I was gone for a few days, and that grown-ups can feel sad too,” she says.
Yeager’s methods have changed with the times. “I remember when our principal was really pushing technology, I was like, gosh I don’t know if I want this,” she says, “but when the Smartboard came in our classroom, the kids embraced it.” Today, those innovations are just a natural part of the job. “Kids know so much,” she says, laughing. “They’ll pretend to take a selfie on toy phones and know how to swipe credit cards. It’s funny.” Though even with new technology, the age-old core — learning the alphabet, counting, and shapes — dominates the curriculum.
Last year, Yeager taught through a pandemic. Cathedral was one of the few schools that went in-person in fall 2020. Virtual learning was an option for grades kindergarten through eighth, but not pre-K — so Yeager had a class full of students.
“There’s no way we could have done virtual learning at this age,” she says. She taught her 4-year-olds to social distance and mask up all day — not easy for kids this young, but for a teacher known for her delicate balance of gentle instruction and quiet authority, it stuck.
One Cathedral parent appreciated Yeager’s knack for easing her son’s fears of going to school. “My youngest had a hard time transitioning to new things. She made him feel welcome and loved each day.” For her older daughter, who also had Yeager for pre-K, it was about expanding her horizons. “What Mrs. Yeager taught her was that diversity matters and that every child is different. I could tell my daughter grew in a different manner that year, not just academically.”
“I always marveled at how these young students would come in and need to get adjusted on the first few days of school. But by the end of the first week, they would all be lining up, saying please and thank you, and pushing in their chairs,” says Donna Moss, who was the school principal for 19 years. “I used to say she was the best-kept secret in Raleigh, down in the basement at Cathedral — every day she would show up with her special brand of ‘Maria Magic.’”
In normal years, Yeager could be seen parading her troupe downtown like a mama duck and her ducklings, on field trips to the Duke Energy Performing Arts Center or the Raleigh Central Fire Station, where watching a firefighter slide down the pole always impressed.
This year, there weren’t any field trips — but students got to experience other parts of the world by way of parent presentations and craft projects. They learned about constellations, they journaled, they made counting charts from found objects. Beyond their letters and numbers, the kids learned about the food groups, human anatomy, and historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges. And, within a full day of playing and learning, they all rested for part of the afternoon. (Well, usually.)
It’s different every year, says Yeager, but kids are kids: “They are loving, they want to be heard. You can mold them.” Especially this year, she found herself telling them, “This is something you can do. I will never give you anything you can’t do.”
And as her students move on to kindergarten and beyond, Yeager’s grateful she could prepare them for the next step. But to her: “I will always remember the kids as they were in pre-K, they’re etched in my memory.”
This story originally appeared in our July 2021 issue.