Where Are They Now? Interview with Dr. Monica Norton Coyle
Post date: Apr 15, 2018 5:37:54 PM
I retired in 2009 after 43 years of teaching in North Bergen High School
Since retirement, what have you missed the most about our wonderful profession? I've missed most being part of the North Bergen community: the community of students, the community of teachers, and the community of the North Bergen Federation of Teachers I miss the difference in a class between September when we come in as strangers and develop by winter and spring into a community who know one another and share the challenges of learning. I miss the routines we develop as a group. I miss looking at the world through my students' eyes, both in the class and outside it. When I taught, any experiences I had, whether it was while traveling, reading a newspaper article, going to a museum or sitting on my couch watching a T.V. show - my students were always somewhere in my mind and I was anxious to share those experiences with them. Everything was a learning opportunity for them and for me. Of course, I continue to learn, but I miss sharing that with them and hearing about their learning experiences. The longer I taught, I realized I was learning from them every bit as they were learning from me. I miss that reciprocity.
What Schools did you teach at? What subjects? Which was your favorite school to work in if you would like to share?
I taught at North Bergen High School for my entire career. I'd say I grew up there, as an adult and as a professional. I had great colleagues who inspired me. Some have become lifelong friends, and others who I see less frequently remain happily in my thoughts. I taught English, freshmen and juniors primarily. I often told students I wasn't old enough to teach seniors. However, during my last ten years, I did teach seniors and juniors in Creative Writing (I guess I did age into that) . Those were by far my favorite classes to teach. Not because the students were better or different from others I'd taught in traditional English classes. However, the mandates and restrictions and time constraints were very different. The class sizes were more manageable; the subject matter truly was the students themselves and their writing. We had time to develop and share their ideas and develop their styles. One of the terrors for most teaches is time - time to prepare, time to confer with students, time to read and mark papers thoughtfully. That's always such a big issue for English teachers. In the Creative Writing classes, we had that time, and it showed in the students' growth as writers, the care they showed when they were working on a piece that they had ownership of, and the care they took when responding to the work of another writer in the class.
Can you share a memory that stands out the most while you were still in the classroom?
There are so many moments that stand out from all those years working with kids. The best moments were when they bypassed me and engaged directly as learners with one another. And that took time and it certainly didn't happen for every student, but when it did happen, I felt Id done my job.. I miss being around all that possibility on the brink of happening. Early in my career, I was a class advisor, and working with the kids on class projects after school was a great way to get to know them and have fun with them. Some of those students are friends of mine today. Similarly, during the last several years of my teaching I was advisor for the literary magazine, Bruin Bards. It was a natural outgrowth of creative writing, and sitting in a circle at the end of the day with students who loved writing, reviewing the submissions of other student writers was very special. As I'm writing I'm thinking of one early learning experience for me as a student teacher at North Bergen. I taught all sophomores during that semester, and I was about four years older than most of them, feeling every bit the impostor. There was one bright and bored boy in one of my classes who always seemed to challenge me and give me a hard time. And of course, it was to his class that my supervisor came to make his first observation. I was naturally nervous but particularly worried about this particular kid. We were doing some lesson on Silas Marner (never taught that book again). Once our discussion began, the troublesome kid kept raising his hand and enthusiastically answering questions, grinning as though we were in on a shared secret. I was amazed. He literally got me through. That was an early and happy lesson in how the classroom really is a bit like family. We may have our dysfunctional moments, but we're a unit if things are working well. It taught me early gratitude for my students.
What have you been up to since retirement?
Since retirement, I've learned to appreciate the luxury of time and making my own schedule. At first, this made me nervous and sometimes it still does (although increasingly less). I've learned not to feel guilty if a day is not "productive" in the ways I'd been accustomed to working. That took a few years. Sometime around October or November of my first year of retirement, I watched two people talking in a grocery store about how grateful they were that it was Friday. I know this will sound strange, but I do miss that Friday feeling. I miss the punctuation of the week, but I do not miss that Sunday night feeling. I've traveled a lot, especially in the fall and spring, and that's a luxury. I get to the gym regularly and actually enjoy it. I have much more time to read, go to lectures, go to theater, see all the oscar-nominated movies and meet often with family and friends for lunch, dinner, drinks, any opportunity to share. I also volunteer at our church's food pantry and participate in a few other ministries, including a monthly book group I've just started. The volunteering is an important element for me because I realize I was lucky to spend my working life in a profession that involves giving to and serving others. That was very fulfilling and the volunteering gives me that same sense of community and reward.
What Advice would you like to tell our novice teachers? What advice?
There's so much, but when I look back at my 43 years, I realize I became a better teacher as I went along. Part of that is just from getting out there and teaching. But the doing won't necessarily make you better unless you find some way to reflect on what you're doing. That requires time and distance. Try to carve out some time each week to really think about what you're doing and why you're doing it, especially for the things that are not working in your classroom. The distance comes from reflection, either in conversations with your colleagues (not complaining or whining) or from some form of journaling. Putting what you're doing and why you're doing it down in writing or out there for a colleague to share helps you see it better. It's not just swirling around in your head. It's nice to have the autonomy of your classroom, but too much isolation will prevent you from growing. Do whatever you can to break the isolation and share professionally with someone in your grade level or subject. Also, find ways to keep learning, either in graduate classes or professional development opportunities or getting a subscription to a professional journal in your field, anything that's going to stimulate you. You can't excite your students about learning, if you're not excited about it. You're their model. Try not to use all the state mandates and paper work as an excuse not to be your best teaching self. I know that's hard, but it's an important challenge. And of course, keep your sense of humor, but I'm sure you know that already. Some days, you just have to laugh.
What advice would you like to give to those who may be close to retiring? Advice for those close to retirement.
First, I'd say - rather than counting the days to retirement, make the days count. I know that sounds cheesy but it's true. Start noticing the things you've become accustomed to and will miss, and enjoy them while you're still teaching. Then, enjoy retirement. I'm sure many of you have friends who are already retired and you see the fun they are having. I think teachers make good retirees. We learned how to handle and appreciate free time in summers, and most teachers I know have an abundance of interests they're really looking forward to pursuing.
So many people have so many reasons to thank you for all that you did, You gave so much, what did this profession give to you?
What did the profession give to me? Not enough space here to tell you. It helped me grow as a person as well as a teacher. It taught me perseverance, commitment, perspective, compassion, patience, curiosity, cognitive dissonance (just had to throw that in), It gave me wonderful friends and colleagues. It gave me the luxury of renewal that most professions don't get. If a year wound up being particularly challenging, it ended in June and I had the opportunity to learn from it and start fresh in September. I think it kept me young, being around kids every day, learning from them. In addition, I had the privilege of being a member and officer of the North Bergen Federation of Teachers for those 43 years. I learned from my second year of teaching, walking a picket line, that it's important to stand up for what you believe in. Through the Federation, I had many more opportunities to do that over the years. As president of the Federation during my last ten years, I had the privilege of spending many afternoons in the other schools, not just the high school. I'd been in the district for over 30 years at that point, and I finally had the opportunity to see the amazing work that teachers do each day at all levels in all the schools of North Bergen, and I felt so privileged to represent them. I have so much gratitude for all of that.