An Educator’s Journey Through Special Education Blog 4

Returning to Teaching

Blog 4


After teaching for a decade in New Britain, I resigned and packed my family up to go teach in the business world. I had been offered a very lucrative job to teach in the real estate industry in Florida. Southwest Florida’s real estate market was exploding, and people were becoming millionaires. I figured I would go work there for five years, cash out, take my huge pile of cash back to Connecticut and resume teaching. But this time, I would have a fat bank account, and I could afford to just teach. I wouldn’t have to do a bunch of little side jobs that took time away from my family.

My plan didn’t work out so well. In the late summer of 2006, I finally sold my house and drove down to Florida. It was practically the moment I drove my family over the Florida state line when the real estate and mortgage industries imploded from over speculation and the subprime market. The hardest-hit markets were Los Vegas and Fort Myers. My new job was in Fort Myers.

My high-paying job as a trainer was put on hold. In the meantime, I was offered a 100% sales commission job as a mortgage broker. I couldn’t believe my ears. The job I was promised never materialized.

My family lost everything. The mortgage company I worked for went bankrupt. I was jobless. I was 1500 miles from home. My wife and I and our three kids were homeless. It was a terrible time in our lives.

We eventually found our way back to Connecticut, where I tried to get a new teaching job for the 4th quarter of the school year. The schools I interviewed for didn’t want to hire me because they didn’t want to pay me what I made as a teacher less than a year earlier.

Finally, Eastconn, a special education behavior school similar to Natchaug Hospital, hired me to teach in their special education self-contained behavior classroom. I was desperate. So, I had to agree to a huge pay cut from what I was making in New Britain the year before.

Eastconn reminded me a lot of Natchaug. However, Eastconn’s point and level systems weren’t quite as elaborate as Natchaug’s. I was extremely broke during that time, even though I worked full-time. Still, I often joked around with my friends that special education is like the mafia to me. I threw around that famous line from Al Pacino when he played Michael Corleone’s character in The Godfather III, “Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in.”

Somehow special education kept pulling me back in. Eastconn was good to me, though. The 4th quarter went well, and they offered me the lead teacher role for the following year. However, New Britain called me out of the blue when one of their history teachers retired unexpectedly. New Britain also offered me my old pay level back too. Eastconn was close to my new home, and I liked it, but I had to jump at the chance to get back to my old social studies inclusion job. I couldn’t afford to work at Eastconn any longer.

For the next seven years, I was the New Britain high school social studies teacher who taught the inclusion classes in room 228. And on most days, I was so thankful to have my old job back and put the unemployed, homelessness, and meager paychecks behind me. I enjoyed those seven years of teaching social studies at New Britain High School. The kids were tough, but we all found a way to get along and learn a few things along the way. I felt like I was doing a lot of good as the history teacher who also helped the special education kids in my inclusion classes.

At the end of the 7th year, which was really my 17th year teaching in New Britain, the associate principal called me into her office on the last day of school. She looked nervous and got the principal on the phone in front of me. She asked him if he was coming up to the meeting. After not getting the answer she wanted, she turned to me to break the bad news.

The bad news was that the previous night’s Board of Education meeting said there had to be budget cuts. Every department, including the history department, had to let one person go. My associate principal told me that I was the low person on the totem pole and the one who was cut.

I said, “Liz, with 17 years of teaching in New Britain, there is no way I can still be the person with the least seniority in the history department.” That’s when she told me that yes, I have taught for 17 years, but the way the math works out is that it was 10 years before I left and then just 7 years upon my return. So, as being considered only a 7-year guy, I was the low man on the totem pole in the history department, and I had to go.

I took one more look at room 228, knowing that I’d never teach in that classroom again after a decade of teaching there. Then I picked up the phone, called my wife, and told her that I had good and bad news. She got very quiet on the other end of the phone. Then she asked what the bad news was.

I said, “Today is my last day teaching history at New Britain High School because my position has been eliminated.” My wife was very quiet on the other end of the phone and didn’t say anything. Then I told her that I had some good news, though. With a special education degree and teaching experience, there was a good chance that I would find a special education job somewhere in New Britain. And things would still be okay. Most likely, I wouldn’t be unemployed and homeless again.

I was correct. Phew. I was brought back to New Britain the following year as a special education school teacher. I was the new 2nd-grade self-contained special education behavioral teacher. After teaching high school history for about a decade, this was a huge change. Once again, I thought of Al Pacino in the Godfather III.

I had a huge learning curve trying to get those small children to behave and learn something. But, I was determined to succeed and have some fun at the same time. I decided that my goal was to teach the kids how to read a small book to their parents and grandparents by Christmas. The future satisfaction of knowing that I taught these troubled kids how to read is what kept me going. That and some goofing around, too, made my job bearable. It was a very stressful job, so I tried to crack jokes and play around with those kids when the chance presented itself. I thought I was doing a good job, but maybe I wasn’t.

The principal asked me to stop by her office after school around Thanksgiving break. I got butterflies in my stomach like I was still a kid who was being sent to the principal’s office. When I finally walked through her door at the end of the school day, she and our district’s assistant superintendent waited for me. Both of their presence made the butterflies worse.

I was told that the high school wanted me back as a special education teacher. I was happy to go back, but I felt terrible for my present 2nd-grade students who I was teaching to read a book to their families by Christmas. I said, “Maybe I should stay with my 2nd graders and go back to the high school the following year.”

I was told that wasn’t possible. There was an unexpected opening at the high school, and I was to go tell my 2nd-grade students at the end of Friday next week that I was leaving. Friday came, and I told my students that the high school had called me back to service for the following Monday. They all threw themselves around my legs holding on for dear life and crying their eyes out, yelling that I couldn’t leave them. My eyes teared up, and so did both of my paraprofessionals. Everybody was crying. It was a terrible departure.

On Monday, I was back at the high school in the Intellectual Disability (ID) room with students with severe learning problems. Because learning seemed super hard to them, many felt like it wasn’t worth the effort, so instead, they would just act up. Sadly, it was another behavior classroom that I had to delicately maneuver through while still trying to teach them something.

The following year, the school district bounced me to another self-contained behavior room for kids that were inwardly depressed. These weren’t your outrageous want-to-fight-you type of kids, but they were depressed and wouldn’t participate in class or do much of what I asked them. And if I pushed at them and tried to get them to do something beyond what they wanted, they might lash out with a pretty bad attitude.

My next job the following year was interesting. I was a special education vocational teacher. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I taught my self-contained classroom all day. I brought them out into the community for their work experience on Tuesdays and Thursdays. They actually had jobs in the city where they earned work experience and credit. I checked up on them all at the many different job sites. And they usually were doing a pretty good job.

I also spent a lot of time finding new work experiences within the community to give our students more options. It was very different from any special education job I had had up to that point, but I welcomed the change of pace and learning something new. I thought the special education vocational program was very beneficial to our students.

Then the following year, they moved me into an inclusion position where I was the special education teacher this time. In this position, I went into the English classrooms. I hadn’t spent any time in the high school English classes, so I thought it was cool to be there and learn some new things. A couple of the books they read were about the military and war, so I felt pretty good sharing my military experience with the classrooms, and the year went reasonably well.

However, the following year, the new school superintendent felt like she needed to shake up the school district, so she involuntarily transferred 150 school teachers to other jobs around the district. I was transferred to our district’s alternative high school, where I became the special education teacher who did the special education stuff while also teaching the school’s history classes. I felt like it was the best of both worlds for me.

As the time of this writing, I have been there for four years, and I have big windows in my classroom again that I love. I am once again working with small numbers and with more support than I got at the high school. It almost feels like I’ve come full circle. I started off in an environment like this at Natchaug Hospital. Twenty-something years later, I’m back in this familiar environment once again in New Britain. And just like I had a younger, pretty cool principal at Natchaug Hospital, I also have a young pretty cool one here at Brookside School.

I could see myself maybe finishing up this decade of my teaching career here. Or then again, maybe not. Who knows where I’ll end up before my special education journey is all over… After all, we have a new superintendent and assistant superintendent coming in next school year…