Thursday is the last day of school in Miami Dade. It will also mark the end of my 34-year career as a high school English teacher. Hard words to say, yes, as I leave the profession I picked for myself as a 6-year-old, when I made my kid brother play school with me.
My first teaching job was at Miami Senior High School, where I was hired sight unseen when a secretary called and asked if I could report to school the following day. “But, but, don’t you need to interview me?” I asked. “Oh, my dear, there’s no time for that. I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
I’d like to say, all these years later, with humility and gratitude, that she was right. I have been fine because of a handful of good, even great, teachers who stood before me as I grew up in Dade County Public Schools. I didn’t realize that they were inspiring me to be as accomplished as they were in the classroom; I only knew I loved going to their classes and learning their subjects.
And, I have been fine because of the humor, creativity, brilliance and tenderness shown by hundreds of students over the years. When I came home from that first day in the classroom with a group of 10th graders at Miami High, one of my sisters asked if I was scared. I realize now that the classroom was exactly where I was supposed to be, because I said then, surprising even myself, “Oh, I forgot to be scared!”
Early on, I realized the power of being a teacher and making a difference in young lives. From my start at the bustling Miami High in the mid 1970s, where an influx of eager-to-learn Cuban exile students forced us to have double-shifts, to my many years at the rigorous, high-achieving Miami Palmetto Senior High, where I have taught whatever was thrown at me — mass media, creative writing, speech, English for Speakers of Other Languages — that what went on in the four walls of my classroom was up to me, not to the administrators, not to the dictates of whatever current trend was in vogue, but to me.
For the most part, I feel I have been successful at creating an environment where kids are comfortable, challenged, and nurtured as they pass through these halls and into the next steps of their journey. People have been asking me this week to choose the highlight of my career. My answer is always the same: seeing that look in students’ faces when they get it.
Many people work with machines, or numbers, or the public in general; they have a difficult time realizing how magical young people can be. Yes, challenging, silly, exasperating and obnoxious, but magical. I have worked at various jobs since I was in high school, and I like to think I did them well, but there is nothing more joyful than working with and learning from the hearts and minds of young people.
What will I miss besides my students? The camaraderie of my fellow teachers in Miami-Dade, especially my colleagues in a talented and generous English Department, which has been a gift from the education gods.
As I pack up my room, enter the last grades in my computer, help an anxious kid overcome a seemingly insurmountable problem and welcome yet another who has come to wish me a happy retirement, I’m satisfied that I did the best I could for my students. And here’s the rub, as Hamlet would say: They have made a difference in my life, too, and for that, I am grateful.
Stephanie Loudis is retiring as an English teacher at Miami-Dade Public Schools.