I am 37, and I just got my K-6 teaching certificate in the state of North Carolina. A lot of people wonder why I am just starting out as a new teacher when I am in my late 30’s. It sometimes feels like a trick question, because I don’t know exactly how to answer. It’s complex. I thought that many of you could relate to having your career plans sidetracked. It seems to happen a lot when you have a child (or children) with special needs. Here is my story.
I graduated college in 1997 with a bachelor of science degree in Elementary Education and received my teaching license in Illinois and Iowa. I fell madly in love with my college sweetheart, and we got married in August, 1997. We moved back to my hometown in Illinois, and I started applying for teaching jobs. I was full of enthusiasm and couldn’t wait to have my own classroom! My husband started his career, and I applied for jobs in several neighboring districts. I thought that my winning personality, my degree, my glowing recommendations, and my heart full of love would win over any principal. But, reality bites (yes, I know that’s a movie title).
One of the districts where I applied had a couple openings, and they invited all potential candidates to apply. When I showed up, there were hundreds of potential teachers. It was like a casting call for a movie role or a speed dating process. We were all herded into the hallway, and you were called back in groups for screening interviews with a variety of staff members. Talk about pressure! I didn’t get a call back, and I left feeling discouraged. I kept applying and interviewing, and I was offered a teaching assistant position because I could speak Spanish. I had applied for the full-time teacher job, but I was given the booby prize. In hindsight, I probably should have taken that position because it could have led to a full-time job in a highly sought after district. Unfortunately, we had rent to pay. I needed a job that would pay for our tiny studio apartment. Tiny, as in under 900 square feet and in the suburbs. We were newlyweds, and money was tight. I turned down that job because we couldn’t pay our bills on the hourly wage that I would make as a teaching assistant. I was quickly picked up as an asset in the corporate world making double the salary that I would have made as a new teacher. I enjoyed my work, but I was not passionate about it. I didn’t feel like I was making a difference in the lives of children, which was my dream since I was a little girl.
In 2001, I was working on the 53rd floor of the Sears Tower in Chicago for a very prestigious investment banking institution. It was an amazing job for someone in your 20’s. It was exciting and challenging, and my co-workers were brilliant. Taking the train downtown everyday and being in downtown Chicago in the heart of the city was thrilling! My dreams of being a teacher were pushed off to the side because my husband and I were making gobs of money. It made financial sense for us to continue on the path of corporate jobs, even if I wasn’t 100% happy with this change in career paths. Besides, I was pregnant with our first child and we wanted the very best of everything for him.
Everything changed on September 11, 2001. My husband and I drove to downtown Chicago in the very early morning hours for my labor to be induced. My due date was August 31st, so I was very overdue. It was a gorgeous morning, and we admired the sunrise over the city as we held hands as expectant parents. We all know what happened on the morning of September 11th, and how it changed the world. I was terrified to think of returning to my job as a new mother in a landmark skyscraper. Every time I closed my eyes to rest, I had visions of sitting at my desk and watching with terror as the pilot steered the plane right into my office. I couldn’t stop obsessing about the fear of returning to work after my maternity leave. I tried to overcome my nightmares and even brought my son to work with me to see if I could tackle my fears head-on. We ate lunch in the company cafeteria as my co-workers cooed over Connor. Although I put on a brave face, I could not stop sneaking glances out the windows to check for any incoming planes. Then my sister called from outside the building. She needed me to escort her into the building through the metal detectors and intense security. I thought I would just be away from my office for a few minutes, so I asked a co-worker to watch my son for me. I descended down two express elevators, an escalator, and a set of stairs to reach my sister. As I swung open the glass doors to exit the building, I couldn’t breathe. What had I done? What if a plane hit the building while I was on the ground floor and my precious son was 53 floors above me and I was helpless to save him? Right then, I decided I would not be going back to work.
My husband got a job transfer and promotion when I was out on maternity leave, and we packed up all our belongings and moved to Minnesota. I became a stay-at-home mother, and I embraced the role of doting on my son. I was enchanted with his pink cheeks, soft skin, and our mornings cuddling together. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as I was in those years of being a new mother, content to spend my days at the park or playgroups. It was blissful, and it felt right to me. My mind was at rest.
We moved to Wisconsin for my husband’s advancing career in December 2003, and our second son was born the day after Christmas. What a gift! Our family of four was complete, and we had a beautiful new house for our growing family. We decided that I would stay home with the boys until they started school, and then I would start looking for a teaching job. I had my own business, “Art Fun with Amy”. I taught art to toddlers and preschoolers in my home. We combined a hands-on art project, a story, a snack, singing and dancing, and other fun themed projects. My classes were always full, and I could set my own hours and use my teaching background. I also taught swim and gym classes at our local YMCA. I loved getting a chance to teach again, even if it wasn’t in my own classroom. My lesson plans were requested by other instructors, and even my supervisor used my plans as a basis for classes. I was a natural teacher and passionate about making learning fun. Things were just perfect!
Everything changed (yes, AGAIN!) on November 6, 2006. Connor wet the bed twice before 11:00 p.m. (he had been potty trained for years), and he was insatiably thirsty. He drank right out of the faucet in the bathroom. He had lost weight. I remember pulling the sheets off the bed for the 2nd time, and I locked eyes with my husband. He has type 1 diabetes, and I voiced the question that I could see was already in my husband’s eyes. “Do you think he could have diabetes?”. We both knew that answer was “yes” before the blood glucose meter beeped its confirmation of 480. Connor was hospitalized for four days as we learned to take care of him. We got a crash course on how to test blood sugars, recognize hyperglycemia and hypogycemia, how to treat those conditons, and how to administer insulin injections and emergency Glucagon. I poured over the Pink Panther book (beginner diabetes management book), but I still felt horribly inept. We came home from the hospital, and we cared for our son the best we could.
That same month when Connor was diagnosed with diabetes, I took our younger son for a well-child checkup at the pediatrician. You know those screening forms that you fill out in the waiting room? The ones that ask questions about your child’s development? Well, I could feel my face flush and my heart race as I filled out the answers. I knew they weren’t the “right” answers. The pediatrician examined Grant, asked me a lot of questions, and spent a long time just observing him. This is the same pediatrician who had just diagnosed Connor a few weeks earlier with diabetes. Our son was his youngest patient with diabetes. After a long visit, the doctor arranged for Grant to get a hearing screening and a referral for Birth to Three (early intervention services). I had no idea what any of this meant, and I was frankly overwhelmed with Connor’s medical care. Grant passed the hearing tests, and he began in home testing. There were specialists coming in and out of our house constantly. Life was a blur. Finally, the team met at our kitchen table and told us that Grant had Developmental Delays and Sensory Processing Disorder. He started Speech and Occupational Therapy immediately and continued with excellent providers until he transitioned to Early Childhood Special Education and an IEP at a local elementary school when he turned 3. He was thriving with intense therapy and a structured school setting, and his progress was amazing!
And then we moved – again. This time we moved to Tennessee. Grant transitioned to a new Special Education program and continued to make a lot of progress. I started a Mom’s Meetup group, and it grew so quickly that we soon had a waiting list of moms wanting to join our group. I love to organize, plan and make new friends. Connor and I enjoyed his last year before starting elementary school exploring the area with lots of new friends. We picked berries, went to museums and parks, had in-home play dates, and had adventures every day of the week. It was glorious!
Connor started Kindergarten in 2007. We expected his teachers and staff to embrace him and love him the way I had as his mother. Isn’t that why educators become teachers? His experience at school was a disaster, and he was not safe at school. We sought the assistance of the American Diabetes Association to get a 504 Plan in place for him. We were met with resistance (and even hostility) every step of the way. My time at home was spent researching and educating myself about the rights of children with diabetes. My new career was a full-time advocate and a parent to two children with special needs. There was no time for me. Also, getting a teaching job in a district where I had made many enemies as I advocated for my son was not likely. I had to put my career dreams on hold again. Connor was diagnosed with ADHD in 2nd grade after repeated infractions for bending sporks, tearing styrofoam trays into pieces, and other impulsive actions. His grades started to decline, and he was out of control at home too. I spent more time educating myself about his neurobiological disorder, educating friends and family, setting up a 504 Plan to include school accommodations for another disability, and finding a good medication dosage for our son.
Eventually, things started to get smoother at school so I could look for a part-time job. Grant’s Special Education teacher (I love that woman!) recommended me for position as an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) tutor for newly diagnosed children with autism under age 3. I had no experience working with kids with autism, but I was willing to learn how to connect with these children and teach them skills like making eye contact and manipulating cause and effect educational toys. Along with those new found skills came language, which was an unexpected joy! I had a special gift of finding a way to engage children with autism, and I felt very blessed to be part of the lives of those children. Unfortunately, I was limited to working close to the school where my son was attending school in case of a diabetic emergency. My hours were dependent upon the needs of newly diagnosed children in the community, and I was finding myself with fewer and fewer hours.
I supplemented my hours as an ABA Lead Tutor (I got a promotion!) with a part-time job as a Merchandiser. I stocked the shelves of many gas stations and home improvement stores. My added “perks” with that job included a very sore back and a stack of magazines that I never had time to read. I continued my advocacy efforts my my son and started to advocate for other families of children with diabetes throughout the area. The Executive Director of the American Diabetes Association noticed my efforts and encouraged me to interview for a job there. After being out of the workforce since 2001, I finally started a full-time job again. My boys were in school full-time and Grant had transitioned out of an IEP (he met all his goals!), so it was a good time for me to begin a new career. I also had the opportunity to use my organizational, advocacy, and teaching skills again. I was very involved in the family programs, and the job was a good fit for me. I loved working for the ADA and the world of non-profits!
And then (can you guess?) everything changed. Yes, AGAIN! My husband lost his job, and we moved again to another new state so he could start a new position. He is the main breadwinner in our family, so I sadly gave up my new career and transitioned to yet another new location. Our boys had a hard time changing elementary schools this time, but their medical and academic needs were met. We were lucky enough to find an excellent school to meet their needs, and things were relatively calm.
I finally had an opportunity to find out what I would need to do to get a current teaching license. My previous licenses had expired, so I figured that I would need to take some classes and exams. Luckily, my high ACT score and GPA from college meant that I could skip the Praxis exams. My licenses from Illinois and Iowa would transfer to North Carolina without any additional course work! I applied for my license in November, 2011 and received my K-6 Teaching License in March, 2012. The Board of Education approved me as a Substitute Teacher at the end of March. I’ve been observing in a 2nd grade classroom, and absorbing as much as possible from a phenomenal teacher. I hope to absorb everything I can from her before I get my own classroom. You know what’s cool? The teacher that I am spending so much time with? The one who has a Master’s Degree in Special Education? She has ADHD. How cool is that? I love meeting people who are successful in their careers who share the same disability as my son. It’s awesome!
Although my career path has taken a very bizarre and windy path, I feel like I’m right on the edge of something BIG. I’m about to start a new career as a teacher as I quickly approach the dreaded 4-o. I’m not that same young and inexperienced teacher fresh out of college. I still have that passion and love for students, but I now have something much more valuable. Something that will make me an exceptional teacher. I have empathy, understanding, a drive to bring out the very best in every student regardless of their ability or disability. I’m wiser. I’m more humble. I can speak in front of a huge audience or one on one with a parent without hesitation. I am confident. I am strong. I will be the teacher that I never knew I could be. Here I am, ready for whatever challenges await.