Brooklyn is where Elizabeth Mendoza born and raised, where she went to high school and college, and where she spent her entire teaching career — including, for the past 35 years, at one middle school in the borough’s Bay Ridge neighborhood. At first, it was the salary that drew her to the school. But what kept her there all those years were the people: her students, her colleagues, and her principal. On the heels of her retirement this summer, Mendoza spoke to Chalkbeat for our special retirement edition of How I Teach (read more from the series here). In a wide-ranging conversation, she explains what people get wrong about teaching middle school, what still made her nervous even after decades in the classroom, and why, despite her special education license, she considers herself an “everything teacher.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to retire now?
This was my 41st year of teaching, and I wanted to hang out with my family. My parents are still alive. I wanted to be able to do more things with them, to travel with them to [their native] Puerto Rico and other places. I love teaching, and if I had another 20 years of youth, I would have kept at it.
Speaking of youth, what made you start teaching all those years ago?
As a little girl, my grandmother would speak to me about becoming a teacher because I would be able to raise a family while working, with summers off. After graduating from college, I taught at a Catholic school in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn for six years. I was getting paid $7,400 a year, and worked second jobs at UPS and at the telephone company. A great friend of mine said, “I’m teaching in this wonderful school in Bay Ridge/Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and the starting pay is $18,000 a year.” That was a biggie — the opportunity I’d been looking for. So in September 1984, I joined the staff at McKinley I.S. 259 as a special education teacher.
How have the expectations for teachers changed since your first started teaching there?
My license is in special education, but when I started teaching, the principal was able to assign you to an area of need. I taught special education, Spanish, English Language Arts, bilingual [education], social studies, math, science, and resource room, [a separate remedial classroom for students with disabilities]. It kept my career interesting, and I got two master’s degrees — in special education and school administration — and many certificates. I consider myself an “everything teacher.” Just before retiring, I was a co-teacher in an integrated sixth-grade English Language Arts classroom; of the 30 students, 12 had IEPs.
Another change is that when I first started teaching, they threw you in a classroom and said “teach.” Now you have a mentor who can help you with structuring your classroom, with discipline, and timing. It’s not easy being a new teacher, and it makes a big difference. I’ve never been a mentor, but I consider myself an informal mentor — welcoming new teachers and offering help. Positive reinforcements can help keep teachers the school system.
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What advice would you give to teachers who are just starting out in their careers?
I remember in my Special Ed textbook, it said, “Don’t take anything personally.” That’s my advice to new teachers. This child may be reacting, but they are not reacting to you. Maybe it’s something at home or with a peer. When you detach yourself, it will allow you to be more effective as a teacher.
You’ve spent almost your whole career teaching junior high and middle school. What are some common misconceptions about working with this age group?
People think they are older than they are, that they should know more, socially and mentally, than they really can at this age. They’re still babies. This is a transitional stage, and they need guidance. Teachers can provide structure when so much is changing, but they cannot do it alone. You need the guidance counselors, the cafeteria workers, the person who greets you at the door, the deans and administrators. They are in it with you. At some point or another you’re going to need to work with someone to develop the whole child.
What’s one thing you won’t miss about your job once you retire?
I won’t miss getting observed by the administrators and being rated by the city and state to prove that I am a great teacher. No matter how many years I had been teaching, it was an area that would make me nervous because I had to perform and make sure the students did their best. Administrators don’t enjoy observations either. They know who is doing their job and what they need to do it better.
And what will you miss?
Watching students become more mature boys and girls due to the positive influence we’ve had on them. Students still come back and share what they learned from me. I was recently at an anti-vaping rally, and one of my former bilingual education students came up to me and said, “It’s because of you that I’m becoming a teacher.” On a day-to-day basis, you don’t realize how you’re making a difference. But then students will come back and say, “Thank you for always saying ‘good morning.’ ‘Thank you for telling me to join the honor society or the chess club’.”
I’ll miss walking in on the first day in September and catching up on summer adventures, creating imaginative curriculum for the school year, and teaching after-school programs that allowed me to connect with my students on a more personal level. I’ll miss the teachers’ room, where there is conversation and collaboration to be had. I’ll miss my principal, Janice Geary, a dear friend and colleague who makes McKinley “the pride of Bay Ridge.”
What makes her an effective principal?
She has an open-door policy. You can walk into her office anytime, and speak about anything. She always tells you like it is. If she likes what you’re doing, she’ll tell you; if she doesn’t, she’ll tell you. She’s always asking teachers, “What do you need?” and walking around making sure things are working. She’s not a “gotcha” person. She wants her teachers to be happy. She always made sure we received the materials, staff development, and support to provide students with a rigorous education so they can succeed and compete in life.
When you think about the future of teaching, are you hopeful?
Yes, the future of teaching is promising. We need more teachers who are properly trained and really care about children and want to make a difference, who instead of criticizing the system make a positive change in the areas that do work. We need teachers who represent every part of society — different backgrounds, nationalities, ways of life. Students need to see themselves in you. Be a teacher. You won’t regret it ever.