On a January morning in 1996, I walked into the Woodbury Middle School, in Woodbury Connecticut, dressed for an interview. I had on a navy blue suit, a crisp white oxford shirt, red tie, black belt, and black shoes polished to a shine in preparation for my meeting with Principal, Linda Demikat. I couldn’t help but notice, as I stood waiting for the woman who would be my boss, that this was pretty much the same kind of outfit I had worn a decade before as I sat chatting with Shirley Hermansen, the secretary of the Municipal Bond Pricing department at Standard & Poor’s as I was waiting to interview with her bosses. By the end of that day in 1986, it was the day after St. Patrick’s day, Joe Storer and Tommy Harrison had interviewed 16 or so candidates for an entry level position in muni bonds. My future bosses had narrowed it down to me and another recent college graduate. Holding two resumes in his hands, Joe Storer asked Shirley, “Which one do you think?” How could he be so cavalier right? People’s futures were on the line! He’s going to let his secretary make this decision? Studying both resumes, Shirley says, “I would go with Jim Spinner, he had the right suit on.” Of course Shirley would let me know that my Wall Street fate eventually fell into her handsJ (I was just happy she remembered me. Probably because I wouldn’t stop talking to her.) That fateful moment was on my mind, ten years later, as I was waiting to speak to the middle school principal about a new job.
After a decade in the financial arena, hopscotching around the canyons of Wall Street, with a modicum of success, I decided to look into changing careers. With the quiet nudging of my wife (you’re miserable you need to get another job), Maureen and Eddy Grice (Jimmy you would love teaching), my father-in-law John Skorpen and his wife Lucy Calkins (teaching might be a good fit for you), I decided to try my hand at education. Since my move to Connecticut in 1994, my supporting cast hammered home the most important points about teaching: you love to read and write, you love history, I’ve seen you work with kids as a counselor and you loved it, and you were pretty good at it. Eventually, frustrated by a lack of personal fulfillment on the Street, I caved.
There I am, standing in front of the WMS office, the bell rings and I am swept up in the frenetic activity of the changing of classes. It’s been years since I’ve been in a school like this. Most kids whisk by as if I am part of the scenery. Smiling, making eye contact, I give a friendly nod here or there. I hear some of the whispers that a stranger will elicit in a small town school, “Who is THAT guy?” “What do you think HE’S doing here?” And in a school of adolescents they’re sizing me up, some wise-guys and gals even lobbing aspersions at me, “Who are you?” “Nice suit, what are you a lawyer?” It was so easy, natural for me, I jumped right in, “You’ll find out soon enough who I am. I’m going to keep an eye on you.” I knew right then I was “home.”
The only cause for hesitation for me with a career in teaching was the money, to start all over after 10 years on the Street felt like giving up. However, I knew my wife was right, I had changed jobs so many times, the sequence always the same: interview, honeymoon phase, reality phase, disheartened phase and let’s look for a new job phase. Not this time. Not since I became a teacher. After my interview with Linda Demikat, I have been returning to the Woodbury Middle School, daily, for almost twenty years now. Turned out to be the right move, finally. I mean it when I say, I truly enjoy going to work every day. I mean sure, sometimes I hit the snooze button but Kira can attest to the fact that I get out of bed easily and I almost always come home in a good mood. In this time of giving thanks, I thought I would write about finally finding a job that I love, a job that energizes and challenges me. I wanted to write about Why I Teach…
First and foremost, I teach for the possible ripple effect…For the thrill of knowing that something we are doing today, this week, this month or this year might have a lasting impact on someone or something somewhere down the line.
And because I love to learn-I thank my mom for taking me to the library as a kid. I thank all my teachers at Immaculate Heart of Mary and the staff at John Dewey High School for sparking something in me that still burns today.
It’s fun, particularly in middle school. Adolescents are incredibly naïve yet worldly, they are cynical yet vulnerable, irreverent and respectful, stubborn and malleable…what a great age to teach!
Hanging out down the gym with Richie Archambault and Bobby O’Sullivan during my lunch period one day early in my career and this wiry little sixth grader comes in for class. Richie bellows across the gym, “Jeff, You don’t have this class now, you’re in Health, get down to Mrs. Hubbard’s class before you're late.” Without blinking, this little urchin says, “I don’t want to go Health, we’re doing sex in Health and I don’t want to do that anymore.” As Arch always says, “You can’t make this stuff up."
Teaching is never the same-day, week, month or year- it gets a little crazy. Like most jobs I suppose, we have to think on our feet: assemblies and fire drills, state tests and field trips, and oh those announcements at inopportune times. At WMS we have countless printed schedules: Regular Day, Modified Day, Early Dismissal, One Hour Test at the Beginning of the Day, One Hour Assembly at the End of the Day, Advisory Schedule, sheesh.
I’ve been teaching in Region 14 all these years because it’s a new home for me, because I have become a part of the community. When Kira and I got married, I left my family and friends in Brooklyn and was accepted into the Region 14 family with open arms.
A school is a community building something precious together: parents, students, administrators and teachers in concert, molding young minds.
I teach because of my colleagues and my administrators, because I have had great mentors along the way. Archambault, O’Sullivan, Celello, Grenfell, Slowikoski, Milardo and Jones to name a few. See Alice Jones, you made it, organically. Early in my career, I leached onto Alice like a remora does to a shark. As an intern I told Linda Demikat I had been out of school for so long and I wanted to learn from all of the teachers so I designed a schedule that would allow me exposure to the entire staff. But when I walked into Alice’s classroom and saw, and felt, how she worked her magic, I knew we were kindred spirits. She has been a cherished teacher, mentor and friend ever since. (And you know I’m not a suck up!)
Brainstorming and creating with my peers, my colleagues, is something that makes the job fun and something we all agree, we don’t get to do quite enough.
I teach because the first day of school is still exciting; at some point in early August, I start gearing up to go back. Because on that day I will hear, Mr. Spinner, you had my brother, You had my sister and she says hello… If I’m lucky, someday, I’ll have the kids of former students. The Woodbury/Bethlehem kids are great, a super-majority are still respectful and they come to school because they like it. It’s a great place to work.
Every once in a while someone will ask me why I don’t go into administration. First of all, I’m not that organized, second of all, I’m not that diplomatic but most of all, I like the work we do in the classroom. Because I've changed jobs so many times, the axiom really holds true, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
I teach because I was a Big Brother, and a Camp Counselor.
I teach because I read An Invisible Thread, by Laura Schroff, Patriots by A.J. Langguth and No Ordinary Time by Doris Kearns Goodwin and…
For that Light Bulb Moment, NOW they know how to craft an essay, Now they know why we have freedom of speech and why it should be protected…
I teach because there just might be a student like ( *) in my class this.
*I had to use a fill-in-the blank here because I have had the good fortune to share my classroom with so many kids who made me want to come to school every day. You know who you areJ
I teach because sometimes it moves me to tears. A few years ago we had a very special student haltingly work his way through a singing performance of Katy Perry’s Firework at a school assembly. At the end of his performance, the entire school stood up and gave him a standing ovation.
Because of 9/11. My class that year got me through it. I’m sure they know, based on how many times I cried, but if it wasn’t for: Matt Levine, Ashley Curtis, Alex Maki, Rebecca Martinez, the South twins, Ashley Rego, Kate Murphy and the WMS class of 2002…I don’t know how I would have done it.
I teach 8th grade because it was such an exciting, formative year for me
And because of drugs and peer pressure and bullying, these middle school years are so crucial
For the Freedom to be yourself
Because of Mr. Holland’s Opus and Freedom Writer’s Diary
I’m happier being Mr. Ganeles than Scott Ganeles. This is what I told my bosses in my exit interview from The Carson Group. (Scott is an uber successful friend, former colleague and eventual boss of mine and his dad was a teacher at Yorktown High School for years)
I teach because I can’t imagine my life without reading
Because I am an unabashed patriot, the story and stories of our country are so damned interesting
I have a quirky sense of humor, in an office I was a square peg in a round hole. I told my buddy Paul Schulman, we shared a cubicle for years at The Carter Organization, that I was teaching and I asked , “Do you believe it Schooby?” He said, “Doesn’t surprise me, that office thing was never for you.”
At heart I’m a people person
For the pomp and circumstance of graduation day
I teach because I might get that email, letter, card or Facebook message that says, Mr. Spinner, you had a positive influence on my life.
And contrary to popular belief, it has nothing to do with having summers off.