Onalee Smith: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments. I'm Onalee. I'm the producer for our podcast, and I'm excited to share today's episode of Teachers in America as we sit down with Monica Fitzgerald. Monica teaches reading to vulnerable seventh graders and has taught for 24 years in New York State's North Syracuse Central School District. She received her bachelor's in Inclusive Elementary and Special Education from Syracuse University and a master's in Reading from SUNY Oswego. She is currently working on her second master's in Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation at Syracuse. Prior to becoming a teacher, Monica worked as a weather specialist in the United States Air Force. In her spare time Monica enjoys reading, golfing, and traveling, and she volunteers for Make a Wish, American Cancer Society, and Honor Flight Syracuse. Now let's hear from Monica.
HMH: Monica, thanks so much for being here. Let's start at the beginning. If you didn't grow up in the United States tell me a little bit about your journey here.
Monica Fitzgerald: My journey, my mother's German. Actually, she's still a German citizen. When I was young, about 5, 6 years old, we came to the United States. I think the most difficult part was my mother spoke mostly German and being in school it's mostly English. So just having that understanding was hard for the teachers at times—not understanding the support I had at home. My father was in the military, so we often switched schools, and I think that was more difficult than trying to figure out what was the difference between being overseas and here. I have traveled all over the world since. So I love visiting other cultures, so that piece of it wasn't very strange for me.
HMH: So how many times did you change schools?
Monica: I probably changed schools around 25, 30 times. [Producer's note: Monica later clarified that she moved about 15-20 times in grades K-9 and another ~5 times from grades 9-12.]
Monica: Yeah. From when I was in kindergarten through 9th grade, and then we settled down.
HMH: How did that affect your learning?
Monica: Looking back it was very difficult. You know, you're in one school, you make friends, and all of a sudden you're moving and it's such short notice. And then when you start another school, the language the teachers are using—at the time I really didn't understand because you're coming in at a different point. You know, everyone else has started the year, so there's kind of a procedure and procedures are in place that the students have learned so they kind of understand that. But I think coming in it's very difficult to understand. And then you're expected to really just go with the flow.
[Producer’s note: At any given time, there are 1.1 children of military families in school. These students will change schools 6-9 times on average. Learn more about how this can affect their schooling.]
HMH: Yeah. It's not just the procedures, though, right? It’s the relationships both with other students. I mean, as you get older the peer group is more important than even your family. But also the all-important relationship with teachers. Did you have teachers that you really felt made you excited about learning?
HMH: I did have one teacher in second grade. Her name was Mrs. Criswell. I remember her being very tough on me, in the sense of her demands were very high. Yet I felt a love from her. And she would give me hugs and greet me, and there was a point in the year at the end when she invited me into her home to make a cake for her high school volunteers. And I remember feeling so important, jumping in her car, going to her house. That moment shaped my life forever. I realized then that she really loved me. It wasn't just she was my teacher, or she was nice and kind and hugging. I felt the love. And the next day when we came into school she allowed me to carry the cake in. She was patient. I remember at one point when we were making the cake, I'd never used beaters before. My mom often worked two jobs; that was very difficult. And I remember the chocolate cake and lifting the beaters out of the bowl and chocolate went everywhere. She was very kind about it. She just said, “no worries.” She just cleaned it up. We moved on. It wasn't a big deal. And then just driving me home. You know, that's a memory I'll have forever, to just, you know, end the year with such a moment in her own home.
HMH: Yeah. These pretty simple moments that you experience as a student and also as a teacher can stick with you forever, and they're really not the moments that are about a piece of content, right? They're not the moments that are necessarily about a grade or even an achievement in an extracurricular activity. They are about being seen. And it sounds like that's what happened.
Monica: Yes, yes. And I think I was very fortunate to have her as a second grader. I had another teacher in high school that had the same love for me. She taught home economics and she had asked me the next year if I would be her student teacher. It made me feel important. It made me feel loved and cared for. And it wasn't about learning or content in that sense, but it was giving me confidence, building my confidence. Knowing that I could succeed at something but also knowing that she trusted me. Which allowed me to trust her.
HMH: So when you left school you didn't go into teaching.
Monica: No, I did not. I did not. And the reason why, school growing up was very difficult. I did have these couple teachers that took me under their wing, but learning was very, very hard for me. It was all on me to bring things home, get my homework done. And I'm pretty sure I didn't really know how to do that. So when I entered high school it didn't come together. As a junior I was faced with my first hard decision in life. I wasn't doing well my junior year, yet the middle schoolers went to camp and that was something I'd wanted to do for a couple of years, like I want to be a counselor for these kiddos. And my guidance counselor—so this was 11th grade going into 12th—and he had said to me, if you do this then you're going to be lacking one of your grades and you're not going to graduate. And that was the first hard decision I had to make. So I had to give something up I really really wanted to do in order to be successful. I love that he came to me and talked to me about that. So again another person that cared for me along the way.
HMH: But that's a very hard decision between something that you felt vocationally connected to, right? I mean, you're a teacher now, you can see the through line from wanting to be a camp counselor to being a teacher and yet somehow that was not aligned or sympathetic with a grading system, right? It makes you concerned about what it really means to be at school and what the point of school is, I'm sure. I mean now that you look back. So you decided to stick with the grades and not be a counselor.
Monica: I did at that time and it served me well. I've lived life with no regrets. I always try to make the best decisions based on the people around me and my heart. It's never served me wrong. After high school I did go into the Air Force. That really helped me grow up and gave me guidance.
HMH: Did your father want you to do that?
Monica: He did not. But I had grown up in the military, so I understood it more than I understood […]
HMH: Other jobs. Right.
Monica: And I knew I wanted for me something different. I knew if I didn't do something else it would be a hard track for me. I wasn't ready for college and I did know that. So I thought, well, let me do something that I know really well.