Head of the Class: A New Teaching Career

How one over-40 woman changed jobs to go back to school — and pursue a career as a teacher.

As told to Janet Ungless
Photograph: Photo: Rob Howard

Education of a Teacher

"I like to say that one of the reasons I left corporate life to become an eighth-grade math teacher is that I struggled so much in school as a kid. I even failed kindergarten. When I tell that to my students, they laugh. But it’s true.

"I was 3 when my parents immigrated to New York City from the Galicia area, in northwest Spain. When I was in grade school, bilingual programs weren’t really offered, and I didn’t understand the language well enough. When my teacher said that we had to read a book in three weeks, I understood it as ‘three days.’ I had a rough time in those first few years because I didn’t want people to think I was stupid.

"My mother and father strongly believed that an education was the key to success, and they instilled that principle in me. I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, but I got a good education because I wanted to succeed. I spent 20 years at IBM, working my way up from an entry-level administrative job to the position of client executive. I was on a great career path and making good money, but I wasn’t thrilled about continuing on that road; I realized it was just going to be more of the same. At 40, I decided that teaching would be my way to give back. I knew it was time to move on and find my life’s work.

"I’ve been teaching math, in English and in Spanish, for five years now at a public school in upper Manhattan. As the daughter of immigrants, I wanted to focus on helping Hispanic kids because they tend to lag behind the most when it comes to math, science, and technology. Ninety percent of my students are from the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico; the rest were born in the United States to Hispanic parents.

"In the beginning, my biggest fear was the financial risk: going from making a lot of money to very little. Although my husband worked, we had a daughter who’d just started college and a son who was in high school. I spent a year without health insurance, and it took four months just to get through the application process to become a teaching fellow." [Editor’s note: The New York City Teaching Fellows program allows professionals from other fields to teach while studying for a master’s degree in education.]

A Demanding — and Rewarding — Job

"I worked very hard at IBM, but I’m working even harder now. If you want to do this job right, you have to give 150 percent of yourself. And there is no downtime: You’re dealing with kids all day whose abilities are below standard; then you have to grade papers and do lesson planning at home.

"To be honest, I didn’t realize how physically demanding this job would be. I was prepared for children with social issues and even for gang activity, but I wasn’t prepared for the drain on my body. I never expected to be constantly dehydrated. Every Friday that first year I’d crash on the kitchen table; my son had to push me up the stairs to bed one night.

"But it’s interesting how fulfilling life can be if you’re doing something that has meaning. I know exactly why I get up every morning now. Each day I see at least one student smile after having an ‘aha!’ moment in class. Don’t get me wrong, there are some ‘not good’ days, but I refuse to call any of them bad. I instill in my students the notion that you’ll be successful because you’re smart; that you can be rich and lose everything tomorrow, but no one can take away what you have in your brain.

"I’ve helped many students get through hard times, but I also have a lot of fun with them. One day, I was reprimanding the class because they were being disruptive. I said, ‘What do you think, I’m dumb? I’ve been around the block a couple of times.’ And one student responded, ‘Miss Temprano, what block you been around?’

"I had one of my best days that first year when two of my students got a 99 and a 100 on their tests, and the class as a whole did well. This was a first for me, and I paraded with those tests right into the principal’s office — boy, did I have a huge grin on my face. I knew that moment was the turning point I had been hoping for.

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