After 33 years of teaching, beloved Oyster River High School (ORHS) teacher Cathi Stetson is ready to retire.
Stetson has done it all since she began teaching in 1990. She has taught a wide array of subjects, starting with business, short-hand, and typewriting, and later moving on with the times to teach photoshop, graphic design, and typing. She’s expanded past these subjects too, as the director for ORHS’ musicals!
Stetson always knew she wanted to be a teacher. “I was four years old, and in our kitchen was a chalk board on the wall, and I’d do math, and teach my family verbs during dinner,” Stetson said. “Last year, I was in the top ten semi-finalists for New Hampshire’s Teacher of the Year program.”
Stetson graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1980 and remembers being active in her school’s marching band of over 250 students, playing the trumpet. “We’d go to Patriots games, and we’d be sitting on the sidelines when we weren’t marching,” Stetson said. Memories of high school band would follow her and remain positive. Stetson even says she will be participating in an alum marching band at Portsmouth High School sometime soon.
At first, Stetson followed her love of music and majored in Music Education at Plymouth State University (PSU). Stetson surrounded herself with like-minded, music-obsessed young adults. One day, though, things clicked. “I wanted to be a business teacher,” Stetson said. But things weren’t exactly set in stone. “I changed my major three times in one semester,” she added.
Not ready to let go of music, Stetson kept a Music minor while at PSU, continuing to learn more about her creative side. “One day it was just sort of like, ‘oh, I can sing,’” Stetson said. Finding a love in singing was Stetson’s gateway into musical theatre. Stetson participated in the chorus at PSU, but wasn’t keen on musicals yet.
“I didn’t really get into musicals until I was in my thirties,” Stetson said. She found herself participating in productions with her husband and son, and theatre soon became a big part of Stetson’s life.
“The biggest show I ever did was the Titanic musical, and I got a personalized passenger in real life. We all had people’s names and identities—it just stuck with me forever,” Stetson said. “During musicals, you become that person, and sometimes it takes a while to get out of that.”
Aside from her love of theatre, Stetson has an obvious love for teaching. “I learned how to teach typewriting and short-hand before there were a whole lot of computers,” Stetson said. “I did my student teaching at Winnacunnet High School and hated every minute of it. I swore I would never teach,” she added. “So, I got my accounting degree, and was a bursar for a community college in Pennsylvania for 12 years, but then I got my teaching bug around 1990.”
Filling in for professors turned into long-term substitute teaching, which quickly turned into a full-time position as a business teacher at Conrad Weiser High School in Pennsylvania, where she worked for almost 20 years. When Stetson moved back to New Hampshire, she was lucky enough to find a job quickly as the technology integrator at Oyster River Middle School (ORMS). For three years, Stetson worked with kids and faculty members at ORMS, teaching everybody how to utilize technology, before transitioning to teaching classes at ORHS.
Here at ORHS, Stetson teaches Introduction to Adobe, Introduction to Programming with Python, Introduction to Programming with Java, and Introduction to Computer Science. Aside from teaching many classes, Stetson has also advised many clubs here at ORHS, past and present. When asked about her biggest contributions here, Stetson said, “I’m sorry to quote a musical, but, ‘I’m just a girl who can’t say no.’”
“My first clubs were a photography club, then we had a Women in Leadership club… I’ve been the Dance Team’s advisor for awhile,” Stetson said. “I also do Code Runners, and our Computer National Honors Society. Oh yeah, and the musical,” she added.
The musical may be the most time-consuming of the bunch, involving hours of planning and rehearsals. Stetson’s first musical here at ORHS didn’t exactly go to plan. “My first musical we had at ORHS was called The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which was in 2020, so, you know, COVID shut that down,” Stetson said. “The year after, we didn’t do anything because we weren’t really in school, but last year we got to do Charlie Brown,” she added.
This year, however, the ORHS production of Beauty and the Beast fulfilled everything Stetson (and the community) had been waiting to see. Without any restrictions or barriers from COVID, the musical exceeded the expectations of many, including Stetson herself. “We start working on the musical in October, so it takes hundreds and hundreds of hours to prepare. Last week, I said to someone, ‘I just can’t stop thinking about Beauty and the Beast,’ because it was just so wonderful and so special. I feel like I left that little legacy behind for them.”
Cast members and choreographers Amelia Rury (‘25) and Grace Kasper (‘25) agree with this sentiment “Her legacy and everything that she’s worked for lives within us,” Kasper said.
Community members, families and friends of actors and students alike flocked to the auditorium to see the production. Without Stetson’s hard work and dedication not only to the musical itself but to her students as well, the production would not have been so memorable for everyone.
Cast members from Beauty and the Beast described unconditional support from Stetson through the entirety of the production. From auditions to rehearsals, from curtain call to curtain close, Stetson was a continual advocate for each of the students’ needs within the group.
“When we were starting to get into the show, I was taking on a lot more responsibility than I expected. I ended up doing a lot of costuming and behind the scenes work for the show, and Mrs. Stetson reached out and told me she always wants her students to feel credited for the work they do, which led her to sort of promote me to the role of student director,” Rury said.
Kasper agreed with this, saying, “she’s just the kind of person that you feel like you can talk to when there’s a lot going on. She’s really understanding and makes sure each person feels heard,” Kasper said.
Rury stressed the importance of having a personable director such as Stetson. “She threw herself into the show and, by the end of it, [the cast] definitely felt like she was somebody they could go to,” she said.
This support is not just reserved for students participating in clubs that Stetson advises. Eleanor Raspa (‘23) and Deepthi Onkaram (‘23) have been participating in an Extended Learning Opportunity (ELO) with Stetson this year. Raspa had signed up to take a Graphic Design class with Stetson, but there weren’t enough students signed up to officially run the class.
Expressing this disappointment to Stetson only once—and on the first day they had met—Stetson offered to run a Graphic Design ELO, just for Onkaram and Raspa, which required giving up some of her own planning time.
Onkaram, who has taken all of the classes Stetson teaches at ORHS, said, “there’s very minimal struggle in Stetson’s classes and in this ELO. She’s very laid back and I’ve always felt that if we needed help with something she was right there.” Onkaram added, “I was already comfortable with her as a teacher and knew how she supported her students.”
Raspa echoed Onkaram, saying that Stetson’s “support is very self-directed. So, she helps us, but also lets us do what we’re interested in.”
Raspa and Onkaram both agreed that Stetson is unique in the sense that not many teachers would offer up an ELO to a student they didn’t know, let alone only to two students.
“I feel like a lot of teachers probably wouldn’t take the time to do an ELO with only two students, so Mrs. Stetson definitely stands out in that way,” Onkaram said.
Aside from classwork, if you’ve met Stetson, you know how kind and personable she is. “[Stetson] could definitely be somebody I go to if I needed support. She’s very transparent with her students, which allows for them to feel more comfortable with her,” Onkaram said.
Aside from students, Stetson has cultivated friendships with many faculty members in the building. One notable example is Ms. Olberg, the chorus teacher at ORMS and ORHS.
“She was my first friend [in the district],” Olberg said. “Her office was right down the hall from my room when she used to work at the middle school eight years ago,” She added.
In preparation for the musical, Olberg and Stetson worked together closely, rehearsing the songs within the production. Olberg commented on her own contributions, saying, “Generally, I would come in and work with the music, watch run-throughs [of the musical], stuff like that.”
And don’t worry, similar to how Kasper and Rury believe that Stetson’s legacy will live on in future musicals, Olberg believes so as well. “She’s one of the most important teachers I’ve ever met. She’s just always trying to help and empower people… I’d like to believe that she’s built something really strong. I think once you start something like that it doesn’t necessarily fall away because of one human, if you have the right humans in place to hold everything,” Olberg said. “It’s hard to know where it’s going to go, but I would hope that we carry on what Stetson started,” she added.
In terms of retirement, as most people close chapters of their lives, they hope they have left good and lasting impressions on those around them. This hope is incredibly high in teachers, given that many retiring teachers have educated generation after generation, holding hope throughout the entire endeavor that they’re leaving some kind of impression. Stetson said, “I think every teacher hopes that they’ve given you something that you can take out into the world. I just want everybody to have a happy career and happy life. I just hope they remember me as somebody who made them laugh.”
Post-retirement, Stetson plans to continue working. “I am a photographer and I work for a photography studio. I usually do senior portraits, families, and newborn photography,” Stetson said, expressing excitement about these new plans. “Some of these babies can be just a couple of hours old. Being a grandmother of 10 [kids], I’m thrilled.”
Aside from that, Stetson says she also plans on getting her drone pilot’s license so she can do real estate photography as well.
So, after 33 years, Stetson is ready to lose her “teaching bug,” as she called it. “I’ve only been teaching up here for a few years, but it’s time to retire,” she said. “Onto my next dream job.”