As a first grade student at Malabar Elementary School, Rose Gilbert (B.A. ’40, Hon. Ph.D. ‘84) knew two things about her future: first, she wanted to be a teacher, and second, she wanted to go to UCLA.
“I had a wonderful teacher in the first grade, Ms. Cheany,” Rose explains. “She was the old-fashioned kind of teacher who was both very giving and very strict. She was an excellent model for me in my later career.”
Now 93 years young, Rose – or “Mama G,” as she is affectionately called by her students – has become a role model for many across the district and around the country. As the oldest full-time teacher in Los Angeles Unified School District, teaching AP and honors English at Palisades Charter High School, Rose completed her sixty-third year of teaching in June 2012 and is still going strong. When asked if she plans to retire any time soon she laughs, “No way. I love teaching. I’ll never retire.”
Growing up in Boyle Heights during the Great Depression, Rose worked throughout college to help pay the $27 tuition and fees required of UCLA students, “which was a lot in those days,” she says. Having earned excellent grades at Roosevelt High School, she received a scholarship to UCLA and a coveted job through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s National Youth Administration. Through the NYA, Rose worked first as a tutor and reader for the history and education departments at UCLA and later got a job as a typist in the meteorology department.
Living at home in Boyle Heights all through college, Rose took the streetcar and bus to and from campus. Reflecting upon the look and feel of Westwood and of campus in the late 1930s, Rose says, “Westwood Village was a true college town. It wasn’t built up like it is today but was filled with great little shops like Crumplers Malt Shop, which served the best ice cream, and Campbell’s Book Store.”
With only Royce Hall, Powell Library, Moore Hall (Education), and the Physics Building on the upper hill and the gyms and fields below, UCLA’s campus was also much smaller than it is today. Fewer than 3,000 students attended the University when Rose was a student.
“Everyone knew each other,” she recalls.
In the late 1930s, UCLA was also responding to the outbreak of World War II abroad.
“I remember the organ player at UCLA gave concerts during lunch every day and he played the death march on the day that Hitler bombed Great Britain,” Rose recalls. “Military units were set up on campus to get students to enlist in the Lincoln Brigade and fight with the loyalists against the Franco fascists.”
Despite the looming threat of war, Rose and her classmates had a lot of fun at UCLA. She attended Friday night dances regularly with boyfriends at the University Religious Center on Hilgard Avenue. Football and basketball were also important components of the social scene, and while Rose had to work on Saturdays and couldn’t go to football games except for one game against USC, she did attend basketball games in the gym.
“I can still smell the sweat,” she laughs.
Through the years, Rose has remained an avid Bruin fan and can often be found in Pauley Pavilion at regular season and Final Four games. She has also been a staunch supporter of UCLA athletes and the athletic program since Wooden’s time as coach (what she calls the “Golden Years” of UCLA athletics), when she and her late husband Sam established the Learning Center at UCLA to assist athletes with their studies.
As a student in the late 1930s, however, most of Rose’s time was spent studying and tutoring in what is now the Rose Gilbert Reading Room of the Powell Library. She excelled as a student at UCLA, focusing on Spanish and comparative literature as an undergraduate student before taking the required education courses during her senior year to earn her teaching credential.
According to Rose, the education department in those days was very small and classes focused less on practical training in the classroom and more on the history and theory of education. One of the Education Faculty members, Mrs. Plumber, was particularly “strict,” says Rose.
“She thought the history of education was more important than anything else and made her students memorize dates and facts,” Rose says. “You had to learn the whole history of secondary education in the United States, all the way back to the Monroe School House. But I worked really hard as a student teacher, and that was the most valuable component of the curriculum.”
Rose conducted her practice teaching at University High School, where she taught basic reading to students who, according to her, “were more interested in learning how to drive than focusing on their studies.” Strategizing with her training teacher on how to get her students excited about reading, Rose started with the vehicle code and driver’s manuals, which seemed to be an effective hook for an age group who “wanted so desperately to pass their driver’s tests.” Of course, the manuals were just the beginning.
“The principal came into the classroom one day to observe,” remembers Rose. “We were reading love poems and the kids were having so much fun. [As a student teacher] I learned that the best teachers find a way to reach their students through their own interests, and then the kids don’t even notice they’re learning.”
Although Rose had hoped to start teaching full time after graduation, jobs were scarce when she graduated from UCLA at the Hollywood Bowl in the winter of 1940. Having registered in the employment office at UCLA as a senior, Rose received a call from a representative at MGM Studios who was looking for a student who could translate “Viva Zapata” from Spanish into English. With all the necessary skills – Rose could tran
slate, type, and write shorthand in Spanish – she was hired and placed in MGM’s legal department, where she transcribed documents, typed contracts, and discussed salaries and benefits with union actors including stars like Katherine Hepburn, Eleanor Parker, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, Spencer Tracy, and the “gorgeous but shy Greta Garbo.”
Rose was working at MGM when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Suddenly, she says, the studios started making publicity and recruiting films for the armed services. She left MGM shortly after the United States entered the war.
“I had had enough and didn’t want to work there anymore,” Rose reflects. “You have to give up your whole life for the stars, and the studios work you so hard.”
Rose took a job writing contracts for Department of Defense, and while she was well paid for a woman, she was paid considerably less than her male colleagues. Returning to teaching in 1956 after taking some time off to start a family, Rose taught English for four years at University High School, where she also served as a mentor in charge of the student teaching program. In 1961, a new school opened up in the Pacific Palisades – Palisades Charter High School – and Rose left Uni High to become part of the first cohort of teachers at the school where she still teaches today.
Looking back over her 51 years to date at “Pali,” Rose makes note of a few highlights. She was grateful to be among the first set of teachers and was proud to assist in establishing the standards of instruction and assessment that came to distinguish Pali as one of the highest-performing schools in the district. In addition to teaching AP English and World Literature Honors, Rose served as the coach of the Academic Decathlon for 26 years, leading her students to victory in every single year that she served as their mentor. During the Vietnam War, she remembers, Palisades High School closed down for two days as teachers and students marched together in protest of the war. Rose agreed to teach 30 students out of her home at their request, much to the chagrin of the principal at the time.
A much beloved teacher among her students and colleagues, Rose has achieved legendary status across Los Angeles and nationwide for her passion for and commitment to education. She has won many awards and accolades throughout her distinguished career, including LAUSD’s Lifetime Teacher and Golden Apple Awards. She was recognized as Harvard University’s Impact Teacher of the Year in 2004 and has been profiled in numerous magazines and local and national media outlets. Perhaps most rewarding, she continues to hear regularly from former students who remember her as the best teacher they ever had, even when compared to their college and graduate school professors.
Reflecting upon how the profession of teaching has changed over the last 60 years, Rose says, “Now is the age of entitlement, where students feel entitled to get an ‘A,’ entitled to go to Berkeley… and teaching methods are changing accordingly. This attitude of entitlement has to be overcome.”
Rose characterizes her own teaching method as “off the beaten track.” Often wearing a fireman’s hat in the classroom to get her students “fired up,” Rose suggests that the critical qualities of an exceptional teacher are earnestness and enthusiasm.
Rose reflects, “Students have to feel the electricity from their teachers. I find that if you are open and accessible to your students and get excited about teaching, your students will get excited too and become invested in their own learning.”
Rose’s passion for teaching rivals her generosity and spirit as a philanthropist. Her support for UCLA extends across the campus and reflects her loves of students, athletics, literature, and education. She and her late husband Sam have established multiple fellowships for faculty research and scholarship funds for students, including one fund honoring her late daughter, Maggie, who was also a UCLA graduate.
When asked why she continues to support the university, Rose says simply, “UCLA has been very good to me and helped to launch my career as a teacher and my love of learning. It is a joy to give back.”