CAPE ELIZABETH – Andrea Cayer, a teacher in Cape Elizabeth who has long been admired by her students and co-workers, is retiring after a busy 39 years.

Cayer, 66, of Falmouth, plans to visit with her children and grandchildren both in Maine and out of state.

She also would like to relax, reflect on her life and travel around the country, which has been difficult as a single parent with three children, including a son who is now 38, and two daughters, 36 and 29, she said.

And, she said, it’s someone else’s turn to teach and be given the same opportunity she has had at Cape Elizabeth High School.

Principal Jeffrey Shedd, who has worked with Cayer for 13 years, called her “one of the most beloved and highly respected teachers in the building.”

“She’s filled with energy, and has made wonderful relationships with kids,” Shedd said. “Whether they are having a difficult time or just want to share some good news, she is one of those teachers that kids will always go back to, and share bits of their lives with.”

Cayer has taught health, physical education and coached various sports, including varsity field hockey for 11 years, gymnastics, tennis and track and field.

“The one and only Cape Elizabeth state championship in field hockey so far was 1981, one of the years I was coaching,” Cayer said. “That was exciting.”

She started teaching health in 1986, when the curriculum was first implemented.

Technically, she said, she started teaching in Cape Elizabeth 44 years ago when she was 22 years old, but she took a break for a few years to raise her own family.

Her career launched in the basement gym of the Cape Elizabeth Town Hall, where she taught physical education to fifth- and sixth-graders.

According to Shedd, Cayer was the “founding force” behind the school’s Natural Helpers group, a peer leadership and mentoring program. And she has been active in a volunteer-driven group called H.O.P.E. (Healthy Outreach Prevention and Education), which works to enhance the safety, health, and wellbeing of the community.

“It is not uncommon for Andrea to walk up to the social worker’s office with a student who has opened up to her,” Shedd said. “She becomes the bridge for that student, to somebody who can really support them in a meaningful way. It is not often you find that the health teacher continues to be a conduit for referrals long after their relationship with a kid has stopped.”

“She’s completely dedicated to what she does,” Shedd said, of Cayer. “She leaves very, very, very big shoes to fill. It’s been a total joy to work with her.”

Cayer has served as the adviser for Natural Helpers for all 27 years it has existed at the school, as a member of a crisis response team, and has led the H.O.P.E group for the past seven years, she said Monday.

“That’s the way that I’ve stayed connected to kids in a more intimate way other than just in the classroom,” Cayer said of the Natural Helpers program in particular, which focuses on building self-esteem, making healthy choices and educating students and parents about school-wide issues and how to address them.

“For many years, we have been involved and concerned as a community with the choices our teens are making,” Cayer said. “The majority of my work has been done right here at Cape Elizabeth High School, day in and day out,” she said.

For the past 28 years Cayer has been teaching an elective health forum course and psychology development course for high school juniors and seniors.

“I’ve loved it,” she said of her career. “It feels like a very responsible role as an adult in a teenager’s life, who is talking to them about difficult topics.”

As a health teacher, she said, she needs to be “direct, honest and careful.”

“It’s been exciting because there is so much that changes all the time,” she said. “I can’t watch a TV show, pick up a newspaper, pick up a magazine, or look on the web and not think about how this information might help my kids.”

Joyce Nadeau, a social worker at Cape Elizabeth High School, called Cayer her “clinical supervisor.” She said Cayer is “one of those people everyone remembers.”

“She knows students better than any teacher I’ve ever met,” Nadeau said. “Students who haven’t even had her in class come to her to ask for advice about issues. She is so level-headed. It’s almost magical how she connects with them.”

Physical education teacher Scott Shea, who has worked with Cayer for 22 years, said “she demonstrates what health is all about” and that she is always concerned about others. In the fields of physical education and health, he said, “you definitely get to know the students and parents in ways more in-depth than most teachers.”

“She’s unselfish,” Shea added. “She’s touched thousands and thousands of lives. It’s kind of amazing to think she’s spent four decades with the same school system in the same community. That’s pretty rare,” said Shea.

On Monday afternoon, students poured into her office during the school day to say their official “goodbyes.”

“I have been blessed to be trusted by kids to do the right thing for them, and for that I am grateful,” said Cayer, who admits that she has been “quite emotional.”

One of her goals has been to finish her teaching career “as passionately” as when she first began, a goal she feels she has achieved.

“It’s what I do; it’s what I know, and it’s been my purpose,” Cayer said. “I am proud of this career that I have had. I can’t capture it in words.”

Cayer said what she will miss most about Cape Elizabeth High School is seeing the teens every day and collaborating with the other teachers, administrators and adults in the community. She said she is also going to miss “feeling like a part of something really special.”

On Monday, she said she had already warned her students she would be back to visit next school year and to attend some of the sporting events and other school-sponsored activities.

“It will be a process of letting go,” Cayer said. “There is not a day I haven’t enjoyed. I won’t kid you, it’s going to be tough to walk out of here.”

Andrea Cayer

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