Building a foundation of faith and learning

Building a foundation of faith and learning

“A true leader of faith and a wonderful example for all our students.”

That is how Tim Stebbins, principal of Holy Cross School in South Portland, describes William Ridge, who was honored with the 2023 Maine Catholic School Teacher of the Year Award.

“There is no one in my school who has more respect than Bill Ridge,” Stebbins says. “He loves to teach and gives his heart and soul to Holy Cross every day.”

Ridge has been teaching middle school students at Holy Cross for 15 years and says he wouldn’t want to do anything else.

“I am thrilled to death every morning when I get up and come to work. I love it,” he says.

The reason, he says, is simple.

“It’s the kids,” he says. “The kids are the best.”

Ridge credits the students for not only bringing joy to his job every day but says if he deserves the teacher of the year honor, it’s because of them.

“What I tell the kids is that good teachers require good students. Great teachers have to have great students. So, if somebody thinks I’m a great teacher, then the kids who have sat in this classroom for the past 15 years are the reason for that,” he says.

Ridge says he always tries to treat his students with respect, and he expects the same from them. With an easygoing nature, he says he doesn’t impose many rules in his classroom, but that is one of them.

“Rule number one is that we are going to treat each other with respect. If I’m talking, you’re not. If you’re talking, I’m listening. And if one of your classmates is talking, we’re all listening to them,” he says.

Ridge says he always tries to establish relationships with his students, so they feel comfortable talking with him.

“And not just in class, but there are times during the day when they might come up and stand at my table and just talk about things,” he says.

The students say he is someone to whom they feel they can turn.

“He is a person that everyone comes to for anything, for any reason. He is one of the people that can always turn a sad moment into a happy moment and make you smile or make you laugh,” says Payton Coffill, an eighth grader.

“He’s very supportive,” says Andrew Borrelli, also an eighth grader. “Just about anything that can help you, you can ask him.”

“He teaches history with a positive attitude, but he teaches us how to be better people also. He gives us really good life lessons,” says Jovanna Nkongolo, an eighth grader.

Ridge says while it’s rewarding when students retain the subject material that he has taught them, he believes it is also vital that they are given the foundation they need to  make good decisions in their lives, something he says Holy Cross provides.

“It gives them such a foundation that when they get to high school, and they get to college, and they’re adults, and they go to make decisions, they’re not doing this blind. They’ve got a solid core of what the right thing looks like,” he says.

Ridge says what sets Catholic schools apart is the Christ-centered values that are integrated into each school day.

“Religion isn’t a subject we teach. It’s the way we live. It’s the things we do every day. It’s how we conduct ourselves in the gym playing competitive sports. It’s how we deal with each other passing in the hallways. It’s how we interact with teachers and other adults in classrooms and in the cafeteria. Everything we do is centered on Christ,” he says. “It sounds a little trite sometimes to hear that in today’s world, but it really is. For the teachers and the staff people who are here, faith is their life, and here, they get to live it openly. They get to talk about it. And I don’t think you go through some number of years as a student here at Holy Cross and not have that impact you,” Ridge says.

Ridge says his own Catholic education made a significant impact on his life. Growing up on Portland’s West End, he first attended Sacred Heart School, and then, when that closed, Cathedral School. The Sisters of Mercy were his teachers at both schools.

“I loved the Sisters of Mercy,” he says. “Sister Edward Mary, who was later the principal of [Catherine] McAuley High School for 30 years, she was my middle school social studies teacher, and to this day, she is one of my favorite people.”

When he attended Cheverus High School in Portland, Ridge says the Jesuits’ call to service struck a chord with him.

“Everything I’ve ever done in my life, I think the foundation for that was set in those four years at Cheverus with the Jesuits,” he says. “I gravitated towards the Jesuits’ call to service, that we should be of service to others, and to the fact that they did it in a really high-performing academic setting.”

Ridge says while it was his mother, an active member of Sacred Heart Parish, who first showed him what it meant to serve others, that ideal was reinforced at Cheverus.

“The whole idea of being of service really comes from her, but the Jesuits made it something I really understood,” he says.

Ridge became an altar server in the fourth grade, something he continued until he went away to college. He was also heavily involved in the Catholic Youth Organization (CYO), becoming state president and receiving the Outstanding Catholic Youth Award when he was a high school senior.

During college, he was studying political science when he received the opportunity to work for Senator George Mitchell, who had just been appointed to fill Edmund Muskie’s seat. After almost a year assisting the senator, Ridge returned to Maine and took a job with the Portland Police Department.

“It was kind of the family business,” he says.

Starting off as a patrolman, he was then assigned to the Detective Bureau, where he specialized in investigating child abuse cases.

“They were difficult cases, but it was, perhaps, one of the most rewarding jobs I ever had because if you did it well, you ended it,” he says.

He continued to receive promotions, and for his last 10 years at the department, he served as a deputy chief.

During his time in the police department, he continued his schooling, eventually earning two master’s degrees. He also taught a criminology course at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine in Standish. It proved so successful that it grew into a degree program. 

Ridge says it was always his intention to retire from the police department after 25 years, which is when you could receive a pension.  He was looking to teach at a public high school when he learned of an open position at Holy Cross.

“It just dawned on me that this job would be perfect,” he says. “I was familiar with the school. My kids had come here. My wife had come here when she was a little girl. She lived across the street here, and we were very involved when the kids were here, so it was really coming back.”

After two days of retirement, he began his new job. He says the transition went smoothly.

“I don’t see these jobs as fundamentally different. The only difference is that as a policeman, for the most part, you’re going into a situation that’s already gone bad, and you’re trying to do the best you can to help people, and in education, you’re hoping to impact the kids, so they never get to the point where they are in a bad situation,” he says.

Ridge teaches world history to fifth graders, U.S. history to sixth and seventh graders, and geography and economics to eighth graders. He also teaches Latin, and he serves as assistant principal, athletic director, and technology coordinator.

“He is the ‘go to’ person whenever someone has a question about anything Holy Cross-related,” says Stebbins, who took over as principal this school year.

Ridge has helped to start some faith-related traditions, including praying the Rosary on Wednesdays in October and May, which are months dedicated to the Blessed Mother.  He also invites middle school students to attend first Friday Masses with him, something he and another teacher started more than a decade ago.

“I have 45 kids in the middle school, and on the first Friday of March, I had 35 of them sitting in the church with me at 7:30 a.m. on a Friday morning, long before school started,” he says.

Days at Holy Cross start and end with prayer, which he says the eighth graders in his room do without prompting.

“I do the Sign of the Cross, and I stop talking, and they do our afternoon prayers: an Our Father, and a Hail Mary, and a Glory Be,” he says.

As the students leave for the day, he says they all pause to wish him well.

“If you leave here after that not feeling good about things, you’re not paying attention,” he says. “These are 14-year-old kids who have enough respect for you that they stop to wish you a good day as they leave.”

For the students, it’s a way of showing appreciation for a man they describe as an amazing teacher.

“He makes everything relatable and funny,” says Vivien Parsons, an eighth grader.

“He is one of the most supportive teachers here,” says Emily Frabotta, also an eighth grader. “He is the best.”

Bishop Deeley presents William Ridge with the Teacher of the Year Award.
William Ridge's eight-grade class.
William Ridge with his collection of yellow ties.