An English Teacher by
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Teaching high school English circa 1968

In 1963, the year I started college, the movie version of the 1960 musical Bye Bye Birdie was released to great fanfare. The plot was based on Elvis Presley’s induction into the army in 1957, with Conrad Birdie as the Elvis-like figure. Birdie’s promoter, Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) wants to get his song, One Last Kiss, on Ed Sullivan with Conrad bestowing a final kiss before departing for the army on a teenaged Ann-Margaret.

To me becoming an English teacher was a punchline. And yet, that is just where my college path led me.

The English teacher bit enters the plot as a running joke. Albert’s long-suffering secretary and love interest, Rosie (Janet Leigh in the movie, Chita Rivera on Broadway), begs him to give up all of this nonsense to become something truly respectable: an English teacher. Thus, the song An English Teacher, lyrics below.

You were going to college, and get ahead
Instead of being a music business bum
You were going to NYU
And become, an English teacher!
An English teacher, an English teacher
If only you’d been an English teacher
We’d have a little apartment in Queens

You’d get a summer vacation
And we would know what life means…
It could have been such a wonderful life
I could have been Mrs. Peterson
Mrs. Albert Peterson
Mrs. Phi Beta Kappa Peterson
The English teacher’s wife!

To me becoming an English teacher was a punchline. And yet, that is just where my college path led me. When it became time to declare my major, I chose English. I loved to read and write, so it made total sense to me when I was nineteen and had finished my distribution requirements. No way was I going to take my mother’s advice and enter the School of Education to become an elementary school teacher. Although I loved little kids, I couldn’t imagine taking kiddie music and math. Instead, was going to read The Canterbury Tales in middle English and write glorious essays on Shakespearean plays.

All of that was fine for college, but senior year I realized I would actually need a job. I was with the man I would ultimately marry, and he was planning to go to medical school. Someone had to bring home the bacon, and that someone was me. Thus, I took the classes I needed to earn a certificate in secondary education, spent my last semester student teaching split-ball-throwing sixth graders, all to become… an English teacher.

Nothing I studied in college, nothing I learned in the few education courses I took, and certainly nothing I gained in trying to manage rowdy eleven-year-olds prepared me for this job. I have no idea why I was hired to teach in a good high school in a suburb of Chicago, the same school from which my husband had graduated and which his younger sisters still attended (awkward). I had high hopes of teaching students to read the classics I had loved, but first, I had to capture their attention. Not easy. My first year, I was assigned a senior homeroom. I was only three or four years older than these students. The only advice I had been given was to pretend I had taught before. As a wrote my rules on the board, stating, “This is how I do things,” I heard mutters of “new teacher” reverberating through the room.

Rosie was wrong. No one respected rookie English teachers. None of the “Basic English” (translation, unmotivated kids with poor grades) students assigned to me that first year cared that I was Ms. Phi Beta Kappa Levine. It quickly dawned on me that very little I had studied in college would matter to my non-college-bound boys who were headed to Vietnam as soon as they graduated, if they graduated. And no one had prepared me for the workload of English teachers back then. In addition to creating lesson plans that would be meaningful to my students, while still teaching them to read analytically and write a good five-paragraph essay, I had to grade 125 compositions every week and read their journals.

After having three kids and staying home with them for ten years, I couldn’t imagine going back to the demands of teaching high school English. Plus, I had cashed out my pension to bridge the gap between when I had to stop working due to getting pregnant a bit too soon and my husband earning a salary. Rather than paying back that money, I decided to teach preschoolers this time. Ultimately, I went back to school to earn a Masters in early childhood education, became a preschool director, and started my own school.

This was my mother’s ultimate victory. She insisted I get the secondary education certificate to have something “to fall back on,” and I did just that in my stint teaching high school English. Ultimately, however, I spent most of my career with the little ones I loved. Not at all what I imagined in college, although I must admit that having a career wasn’t something I thought about at all back then. This was the blessing of life in the late sixties and early seventies. Somehow, life would work out. And somehow it did.

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Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: been there, well written

Comments

  1. Marian says:

    I hear you about having things work out. In the years between when you graduated and when I did (college in 1975), the demographics changed and the teaching field shut down–what most folks saw as a setback but I knew was a blessing for me. Glad you have the gift of working with kids, very much needed. I’m hopeless with children in groups, but it’s been rewarding tutoring motivated adults.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Marian, the important thing is that we found our career paths regardless of college majors. I’m a firm believer in the Yiddish expression “beshert.” Things turn out the way they were meant to be. Motivated adults need tutoring, so glad you are there for them.

  2. Suzy says:

    When I started thinking of songs about careers for this prompt, “An English Teacher” was the first one that came to mind. It has been running through my head all week. So I’m delighted you used it.

    This is such a great story, how you dreamed of Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare and ended up just trying to keep your students engaged long enough to graduate and go off to be cannon fodder in Vietnam. I remember in another story you talked about using popular song lyrics to teach them about poetry. I bet you were a really good teacher!

    I also love your last two sentences. In those days, and for our demographic, life did work out. For kids getting out of school nowadays, I’m not so sure.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Suzy, I think our demographic was blessed in many ways. We could afford to be far more mellow and less intentional about life. It was a simpler time with far fewer things we needed and many more paths to success. Like you, I worry about kids trying to enter the workforce and to get started as adults these days. I see how my kids struggle with things that simply fell into place for me. We live in much more stressful times these days.

  3. John Shutkin says:

    A terrific story, Laurie, especially as it not only worked out, but you actually soared in the educational field. But, as I ponder possibly doing a little law school teaching, I am suddenly realizing just how much preparation and performance is required — and this is for adults. No wonder you shied away from doing it again post-kids. And I hate to sound hackneyed, but you do so well illustrate the fact that things often work out not as planned but just fine.

    And thank you for the great reminder of the English Teacher song from Bye-Bye Birdie. I had memorized the whole show when we put it on in summer school in high school, but I forgot just how prosaic the aspirations of it were.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Regarding Birdie, 1957 and 1960 were times of limited aspirations for women. But I loved that musical in both the stage and film version. You are so right about teaching being part performance art. I guess I was a much more natural performer for preschoolers than high schoolers. Not at all sorry how things turned out, but being director of a preschool with 250 children and over 30 staff members turned out to be much harder work than making lesson plans and grading papers.

  4. defensemn1 says:

    I enjoyed this article/column. I was also a “bad boy” in one of your first classes at that high school with which you indicate you had some struggles. I can attest that I have no doubt I was a source of considerable consternation for which I sincerely apologize. Upon reflection I have fond memories of your class and you were one of my two favorite teachers. The other teacher was Gerry Oswald. 😊

  5. Absolutely “An English Teacher” was way better than “We Love You Conrad”. And I am in awe of your ability not simply to survive but to thrive in both secondary and early education. My younger son, Tom, tried teaching at both ends of the spectrum, but as he would be the first to say, he lacked the innate ability to connect with students that makes all the difference. Clearly you have it in spades.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Tom. I tried with high school but I’m not confident I succeeded. It was challenging and I was inexperienced. But preschoolers… that’s a different ballgame. I have always been able to connect with them, so ultimately I made the right choice.

  6. Risa Nye says:

    Laurie, I enjoyed reading about your path to teaching little ones. As the child of two teachers and the daughter-in-law of another, I can appreciate the ups and downs of wrangling kids of any age. My few stints of teaching adults was enough to make it clear that I wasn’t cut out for it…so hat’s off to you for finding the right fit in your “fallback” career!

  7. Betsy Pfau says:

    Laurie, I was in “Bye, Bye Birdie” in 10th grade, so I know that song very well, and as I write in my story, I, too, got my secondary English teaching certificate (in MA), but no jobs were to be had in 1974 (as Marian points out). And, as we’ve discovered, since we are both petite, trying to wrangle older kids would not have been fun for this 5′ tall person. So perhaps it was a blessing for me too, that I didn’t get that teaching job. You seemed to master it all and figured it out when you came back as a teacher of the little ones. We’ve read about that too, and your determination to start your own school, quite successfully, so we know you have the gift. Well done!

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I’m just enough older than you to have benefitted from a good job market for teachers when I started in 1967. I wonder of the war in Vietnam drove lots of guys into the teaching profession back then because I think it was an exemption for a while. Might be wrong about that. You’re right about trying to command the attention of students who towered over me. Not much a problem with preschoolers!

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