Even at the end of her career, portraits of Carol Sanders’s favorite historical figure, Henry Clay, were still displayed in her classroom. Clay was a senator from Kentucky who became the nation’s ninth secretary of state under John Quincy Adams. The portraits were gifts from her former students — tokens of the lasting impression she made on them and her love of history and politics.
That passion has burned brightly since she was a student at MacArthur High School in Levittown in the 1970s.
“I loved it from Day One,” Sanders, 61, said in her quiet voice, her eyes beaming, as she sat at a desk in her classroom at East Rockaway Junior-Senior High School. “I wanted to communicate. I wanted to share ideas that I had and learn from the students.”
Sanders did just that over her 30-year career in the East Rockaway district, from which she recently retired. She grew up in Wantagh and now lives in Baldwin, but her teaching tied her to the East Rockaway community. Throughout her career, she taught many Advanced Placement courses, including government, economics, psychology and U.S. history.
She said her philosophy has been to treat her students like adults, to be tough and fair and to never yell. Though she demanded the most of those students, and would frequently meet with them if she thought they weren’t reaching their full potential, she hasn’t written a negative referral since 1995.
“I don’t raise my voice,” Sanders said. “I don’t yell. It doesn’t work. I didn’t like that as a student when I was growing up, and being mean doesn’t work. Kids aren’t coming here to be spoken down to or disrespected. They’re coming here to be supported.”
Two students who felt that support were sisters Amanda and Julia Trantel. They both described Sanders as tough, but also said she was one of their favorite teachers. They each said they learned a great deal from her, and her courses were intense, but they appreciated the nurturing classroom environment she created.
“She made a lasting impression,” Amanda said. “I adored her as a teacher. She spoke to us as adults, maintained that our opinions carried weight, and she always treated us like we mattered. That’s one of the things that I’ve carried with me.”
Amanda graduated from East Rockaway in 2010, having taken classes taught by Sanders in her sophomore, junior and senior years. She credited Sanders with inspiring her to pursue a career in psychology.
Amanda said she stays in contact with her former teacher, and attended the June 13 Board of Education meeting at which Sanders was honored. She added that she enjoyed taking Sanders’s classes because she created dialogue about current events and often held debates, permitting the students to choose the topics. She called Sanders one of her biggest inspirations.
Julia Trantel graduated from East Rockaway in 2014, and had Sanders in her junior and senior years. She described her former teacher as someone who would instill lessons without interjecting her own opinions, enabling students to formulate their own.
“She was someone who understood and didn’t underestimate kids,” Julia said. “She made sure we respected our own intelligence, and she respected it, too.”
Sanders’s career in East Rockaway began with a phone call from administrators three decades ago, but her love of history developed long before that. She said she is enamored of the people behind the history, the psychology of those who are immortalized in textbooks and lesson plans.
“That’s what I’m so interested in,” she said. “When you take a time period, for instance, like World War II, and you look at the three leaders of the Axis powers, they all had issues. They all came from abusive households, alcoholism, so it’s the people who shape the history. That’s really what it is.”
In addition to teaching, Sanders has served as the district teachers association president for six years. She will remain in the post for one more year, before retiring entirely from the district. In this role, she addresses the issues and concerns of building representatives at East Rockaway’s two elementary schools and the junior-senior high school, and brings them to the attention of administrators. Before being elected to the position by her colleagues, she served as a building representative for 15 years.
“Carol is a person of integrity,” said Donna Smith, who has worked as a special-education math teacher in the district for 30 years. “She’s a voice for all of us as the East Rockaway Teachers Association president. . . . She’s probably the smartest person I know, so she really offers a lot of insight to her students because of her vast knowledge.”
Sanders noted that much has changed in the classroom over the past 30 years. She said that even though the students now have smartphones, she doesn’t mind, because they often use them to keep up with the news. She also said she finds that students are listening to and supporting one another more than in the past.
“They’re very accepting, the students here,” she said. “I’ve had wonderful, wonderful students, and now I have children of those students sitting in front of me. So it sort of came full circle.”
Sanders said she looks forward to traveling in Europe during her retirement. She has not missed a graduation in years, she added, noting that she never had children of her own, but was proud to be able to make an impact on her students.
“They were my handful,” Sanders said. “And it’s bittersweet to say goodbye.”