I Have Survived, Part 2 - National Council of Teachers of English
Back to Blog

I Have Survived, Part 2

This is a guest post by Ellen Shubich. 

Ellen Shubich

For those of you who have come through traditional educational channels to become teachers, the path taken by many in Mexico years ago may seem unusual and most probably unacceptable. Yet today, many graduates just out of teaching programs, even those with some type of practicum, mention encountering difficulties for which they say they were not prepared.

So, I ask you to soften your critical hearts as I return to the beginnings of my professional journey.

As I had mentioned in Part I, my experience in teaching gerontology to nurses did little to prepare me for my first experience as a middle and high school ESL teacher in Mexico. With no inkling of where to begin and no support system in my first school, I fell back on what I knew and gave my high school students a simplified gerontology course . . . but IN English.

Feeling insufficiently prepared, I tried once more to return to my nursing career—unsuccessfully. The school nurse position I went to interview for had already been taken, but of course they were in desperate need of an English teacher. So again, I was to teach English, and even more worrisome, literature. To add to my woes and my students’ bleak prospective academic future, I was soon named middle and high school English coordinator! This, simply because the school fired the person who previously held the position, English was my native language, and they needed a USA prototype. So they picked me, a novice 5’2’’ blonde from the Bronx.

The next few years were like basic boot camp. As I mentioned in Part I, I owe agreat deal to my elementary teachers, who made sure I learned how to read Dick and Jane. Self-taught (thanks to “How to Manage a Classroom for Beginners” books), when applied to surviving in a classroom replete with students who have PhDs in passive-aggressive behavior, is an understatement. They had me figured out before my wrong foot got in the door. They taught me!

Yet somehow, gradually, I began to get the hang of it.

As part of my new job, hiring English teachers was a shared responsibility with the school psychologist, a real tough lady. Candidates inevitably left the interview in tears with her recommendation “to be or not to be” an addition to our staff. But the most foreboding challenge was finding the candidates. Years ago, in Mexico, there just weren’t any. If there had been, I never would have become the coordinator.

English teachers made the rounds. If one school wasn’t happy with them or if the teacher didn’t like the school, they simply rotated into another one. Candidates blatantly advised me that if I didn’t hire them, the next coordinator would.  I often had to choose between a Mexican teacher whose English level was weak or a native English speaker with little or no teaching experience. In those days there were no “teacher nomads” who had taught in various countries before reaching Mexico. There were just those wandering souls who had found their way into the country for different reasons with undetermined plans as to how long they would stay. “It depends” was the routine answer.

In response to the dearth of candidates, my hiring strategies resorted to questionable tactics. I surreptitiously copied names and addresses from the USA Benjamin Franklin Library visitors book and tried to locate them. I would accost, introduce myself to, and informally interview unsuspecting human beings on the street or in restaurants if I heard them speaking English. My desperation knew no ethical bounds.

Among some of the more memorable staff members was a Vietnam veteran who wrote poetry. I hired him assuming that if he survived the war, he could handle the students. Soooo wrong. Then there was a young American gentleman who spent most of his time lying on the couch which matched the wallpaper in my office. When questioned as to his teaching plans, he replied that he was doing in-depth comics. Not funny.

I hired an Australian woman who dressed in all white. She claimed to be teaching “life,” a definite sign that I was in trouble. Then, one Friday, she advised me that she was off to San Francisco and would be back on Monday. Of course she wasn’t, and neither were the expensive texts that disappeared with her.

Please do not judge me harshly, nor the system that existed then. There were the best of times and the worst of times. We did what we could, though admittedly, it is advisable to know what you are doing.  And, incredibly, somehow the students enjoyed most of it and learned a great deal of English.

Ellen Schubich was born and raised in the Bronx and moved to Mexico 48 years ago when she married. She has a B.S.N. degree from Cornell University-New York Hospital and a Masters Degree in Educational Administration from the Universidad La Salle. Ellen has held many different positions: nurse, gerontologist, teacher of nursing, English teacher, coordinator, principal (Elementary and Middle School), and English principal. She is married, has a son and daughter and three grandchildren.