The College Years
My friend Danny told me that he had gotten his master’s degree in special education from the University of Hartford. Their program was quicker than the program at the college where I was taking my social studies classes.
I drove down to the University of Hartford to talk to an advisor the next day. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The advisor laid out a two-and-a-half-year master’s degree program in special education. But I could do it in a year and a half if I followed his plan by taking extra classes and going full-time through the summers.
I remember doing the mental math in my mind of how much money I would save in paying for a year in a half of college instead of two and a half more years. Then I immediately calculated how I would be able to begin making about $30,000 a year earlier if I went this route. To me, it seemed like a home run. Why wouldn’t I sign on the dotted line and begin class at the University of Hartford the following semester? And that’s what I did.
For the next year and a half, I was utterly exhausted. I lived and worked an hour away at Saint Thomas More’s International Preparatory School on Gardner Lake in Montville, Connecticut. Since Saint Thomas More wasn’t a public school, I could teach there without a teaching certificate from the state of Connecticut. It was a great way to cut my teeth in education, and I had some special education students there, too. So, I thought it was terrific. While I was learning to become a special education teacher at the University of Hartford at night, I worked with real students in a real teaching job during the day.
However, there were some challenges to this. One, I was an hour away from graduate school. Several nights a week, I had to drive an hour each way. Also, I worked a lot of hours at Saint Thomas More. Sixty-hour weeks between the teaching, coaching, and campus duties were standard. And every fifth weekend, I had to do a 90-hour week for them. Now, throw in that I was also doing a two- and half-year master’s program in a year and a half, and one can see how I only slept four hours a night for a year and a half. I was so tired; one time, when I was getting a haircut, I fell asleep in the barber’s chair.
The hardship was worth it, though. I remember being excited on the nights that I was sitting in those classrooms at the University of Hartford working toward my special education degree. I remember thinking about how great this was that I would be able to do some good in this world. And I remember being excited knowing that I was taking charge of my life and doing something meaningful and becoming someone who matters.
I loved what I was doing, and I really liked the University of Hartford. My favorite professor was Professor Nelson. And my least favorite class was the reading class. I had Professor Nelson for two classes in my program of study. I remember how he used to call me the cavalier guy because I drove a red Chevy Cavalier back in those days. Like all the other professors I had, Professor Nelson took an interest in me and really helped me make my dreams come true of becoming a special education teacher. I’m saddened to know that Professor Nelson is no longer there today, and neither is the special education program anymore. I’m also saddened that many good future special education teachers are being held back from teaching because they are failing their reading tests.
As I got closer and closer to finishing my special education master’s program, I became more and more worried. I still had to do my student-teaching. This meant that I would have to quit my paid job of teaching and pay money out of my own pocket to teach at another school as a student-teacher. I was broke and couldn’t imagine how paying to work instead of getting paid to work would work out. The part of me that loves to learn and receive good instruction from others was excited about this opportunity to go somewhere different, do something different, and learn. But the part of me that wanted to be able to afford food and my rent felt overwhelmed and defeated by this burden.
Why should I have to student-teach when I have already been teaching for over a year at Saint Thomas More? I had special education students there that I worked with. So, why couldn’t the State Department of Education waive my student-teaching requirement? After a lot of going back and forth with the State, they finally agreed to waive my student-teaching requirement. I was so relieved. I don’t have the words to explain how relieved I was knowing that I could still pay my rent and buy food, and I could start a teaching job in the upcoming September.
The next big hurdle was to pass the State exam for special education. There was a part of me that knew I could pass it. And I did pass it on the first try. However, the problem was that it took a long time for the test results to come back. Natchaug Hospital wanted to hire me as their special education teacher in their school program. But they needed to have those test results first. Every week, they called me and asked about the test results. I was really nervous. It went right down to the wire, but the test results came in. Then soon after that, the teacher certification came in, and I began as a teacher at Natchaug Hospital in September.