I have been celebrating my recent 70th birthday in bits and pieces…by choice. When I turned 60, my family gave me a wonderful surprise party with all my close friends present. Turning 70, however, felt different. It was cause for celebration, but I was in a quieter mood. Unable to make a decision regarding a party, I settled into mini-celebrations instead, so I could spend quality time, at intervals, with friends and family. So far it has worked out splendidly. I’ve been having a few quiet lunches with old friends, a splendid dinner this past weekend with immediate family members, and more lunch dates on the horizon. My family has begun referring to this as my “Jubilee Year.”
Having also decided to write this mini-autobiography in small installments, I am enjoying reflecting on chunks of my life in preparation for writing the next installment. Like any author, I am guilty of picking and choosing the incidents in my life I choose to portray and the details I do or do not include. But mostly, this is a very abridged but honest accounting of my life as seen through the lens of turning 70. Who knows? My 80th birthday rendition might be completely different! (Certainly more risque, because at 80, what do you have to lose?)
So where were we…. Ah, yes. Early 40’s….unemployed, discouraged, two young children I am hopelessly in love with, a husband struggling to provide, and no clue where to turn. At a similarly devastating turning point in my early 20s (see my previous post), I sank into a deep depression which took me several years to overcome. Now twenty years later, I knew I had to take charge of my life and create a new narrative, one that would allow me to succeed rather than give up.
I soon began work as an adjunct teaching a basic Communications course at a community college. I wasn’t making much money, but I was developing confidence. A few semesters went by until I hit a wall. As a favor to my chairman, I had agreed to travel to a a second campus where they needed an additional instructor for the same class. Within weeks of my arrival I was approached by the department chair who asked me abruptly for my resume. I complied and a week or two later, he told me I could no longer teach the course because my Master’s degree was not in the field of Communications. (Mine was in English). I knew he was “out to get me” from his demeanor and lack of civility, so I began to devise a plan.
Someone had once impressed upon me the importance of visualization in achieving one’s goals. I began to visualize how I would conduct myself in my final meeting with this ogre. I thought through the entire process, knowing it would end in the culmination of my job. But instead of being humiliated, I would turn the tables on him. The day of our final meeting, I requested that we meet in a classroom rather than his office (to get him off his throne). As we sat at student desks, side byside, he passed me my evaluation to sign, and I said, “no problem.” I read his evaluation (which was less than enthusiastic, as I had known it would be) and signed it. I think he was surprised at how easy it all seemed. Then I turned to him, looked him directly in the eye and said, “There’s something I want to say before we leave.”
“I have spoken to many of your colleagues including the Dean and several of your peers, and they all agree on one thing…that it is a shame that I had to run into you because you are considered a b—–d by all of them.” His threw his head back, shoved his palm in front of my face and, red-faced, stammered, “Don’t say another word.” I replied, “I’ve said all I had to say,” and with great self-control and dignity I left the room.” Mission accomplished. I was taking back my life.
I was given a new home in the English Department of the community college as a consolation prize and taught there at night almost every semester for the next 20 years. But I still needed a full-time job. I had ended my career at Stony Brook working in a writing center for engineers, where I became interested in teaching second-language learners. I researched opportunities for getting a Master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language and ended up eventually in the TESOL program at Stony Brook where I had also gotten my BA in English, and my Master of Arts in Liberal Studies. It took me three years and was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but I did complete the program. The third time’s the charm they say. In my final semester, I applied for a job on LI, was hired and taught ESL there for the next twenty-two years.
Finally I had a career I could sink my teeth into. I love cultural diversity and learning languages, so I was meant for the job. I also believed I could make the most difference in a young immigrant’s life by teaching them at an early age. No one told me I would be considered the bottom of the teacher pecking order in terms of prestige, resources, support of any kind and no appreciation whatsoever for all my efforts, but I enjoyed my students so much, ten to fifteen years flew by. Toward the end of that period, the isolation of being an ESL teacher was beginning to take its toll on me. I was running out of steam and enthusiasm.
Then, one day, she walked through the door. M. was a literacy coach hired by the district to convince the elementary classroom teachers that they needed to revise their methods for teaching reading and writing. Determined not to be excluded from this major undertaking, I asked to be included in the monthly training that was being offered to the mainstream classroom teachers. I became really excited about the ideas and methods that our consultant was sharing and demonstrating and got my second wind as an ESL teacher.
Long story short, I began to include the new methods I was learning in my own practice as an ESL teacher in an effort to make my teaching more compatible with what was being taught in the classrooms. The kids loved the new changes, and I felt renewed. The consultant actually appreciated my efforts and told me so. She also told my principals what a good job I was doing. She invited me to “present” my work with her at an upcoming literacy conference and then there was no stopping me. I was no longer the oft-forgotten and certainly under-appreciated teacher in the ESL room. I was enjoying teaching again, making a name for myself and in 2009 was actually awarded the honor of Most Outstanding ESL teacher of the Year by a local college, and ESL Teacher of the Year by NYS TESOL.
I stayed at my teaching job for five more years. In the third year, the new Common Core Standards were thrust upon LI teachers, and teaching, as we knew it, changed abruptly for all of us. The freedom to decide as a professional what to teach and how to teach it was virtually eliminated, replaced by a curriculum devised by higher-education academics and business professionals who had no knowledge of how to teach young children in classrooms that are diverse, and often contain many children with cognitive disabilities and/or emotional baggage. My students, who also couldn’t yet read or write in English, “underperformed” on the NY State tests, and suddenly I was labeled a Developing (underperforming) teacher. I knew it was over; a year later I resigned.
My glorious teaching career was over. I dove into it with complete enthusiasm, worked hard to become the best ESL teacher I could be, enjoyed the creativity and freedom I was afforded for most of my career, achieved professional status in my field on my own and left feeling saddened by the turn of events. But little did I know that I was soon to face an even bigger challenge.
(To be continued…thanks for hanging in there with me, friends.)