With an empty nest three years away, Sheri chose to fully commit to her passion for adult literacy by going back to school in order to teach English as a Second Language.
Tell me a little about you before your next act?
I worked as a speech therapist in Minnesota until Steve and I had our second child, at which time I took several years off to raise our 7 kids. During my years as a stay-at-home mom, I helped my husband in his business, did some freelance writing and editing, and volunteered in my kids’ schools and in adult literacy programs.
When did you start to think about charting a new direction for yourself in midlife?
When I first moved to Minneapolis, in 1981, I went through the Minnesota Literacy Council volunteer training and I was placed in a program in St. Louis Park. From day one, I enjoyed being a literacy tutor and it always just felt like someplace I was supposed to be.
About 5 years ago, at the age of 52, I was doing my weekly volunteer shift in an adult ESL (English as a Second Language) classroom, when I found out that the teacher whose class I worked in was going to be on leave for a while. I asked the program administrator if I could step in as the substitute but was told that without the ESL licensure, she couldn’t let me do it.
I knew I needed something significant and meaningful to fill the void once all the kids were gone.
I had so many ideas I wanted to try out in the classroom, and I loved the work, but I realized that if I wanted to implement my ideas, I would need to earn that privilege. I signed up for the Hamline University Adult ESL certificate program. The timing was perfect as I was about 3 years away from an empty nest, and I knew I needed something significant and meaningful to fill the void once all the kids were gone. Teaching adult learners also filled my need to nurture!
What is your next act? Tell us about what you are doing…
It took me two years to complete the Hamline program on a part-time basis, taking some courses online and others in the classroom (Hamline is very flexible about letting you work at your own pace). While there were many students in my classes who were in their 20’s, there were enough others who were in the 40+ range that I didn’t feel too out of place.
When I was taking my last class, I was at a fundraising event for the Minnesota Literacy Council, where I heard there was a part-time position open and asked about the qualifications. The next day, I was talking on the phone with my brother-in-law, who observed that he felt some adults went back to school to “hide out” for a while, rather than to actually secure a job.
If you love the work and find a great sense of purpose in what you do, it doesn’t seem like work.
I recognized a little of myself in that observation. When people would ask what I was going to do when my youngest went off to college, I could always say “Well, I’m in school.” It sounded productive in and of itself. I knew I was at risk for using school as a convenient way to impose meaning on my life; I didn’t want to do that, so I applied for the job.
After sending in the required information (application, resume, sample lesson plans), I was called for a phone interview, then was invited for an in-person interview. A week later, they called to offer me the position. After being out of the workforce for such a long time, my confidence and expectations were pretty low. My first thought was: “I bet I was the only one to apply” (I found out later that was not the case).
I am now starting my fourth year teaching beginning level ESL to adult learners. I have my own class of about 25 students and have also had the opportunity to give presentations at Minnesota Literacy Council workshops and at our statewide Adult Basic Education conference.
Technically, my job is 24 hours a week, but any teacher will tell you there’s no such thing as a part-time teaching job; there is always more work to do (new activities to try, new strategies to test out), and the prep time can be endless. But if you love the work and find a great sense of purpose in what you do, it doesn’t seem like work.
Besides teaching English to help our learners navigate their lives in the US, we provide them with a sense of community: a safe place where they feel they belong. All of my learners are immigrants or refugees: 80% are from Somalia; most of the others are from Ethiopia or Latin America (Mexico, Ecuador, Puerto Rico, etc.).
Watching my learners is a constant reminder of the true value of education.
Many of my West African learners, especially the women, are low literacy, meaning they have had very limited formal education and they barely read or write. Further, because of the civil unrest in Ethiopia and Somalia, many of my learners spent time in refugee camps in Kenya or Sudan after fleeing their country and before coming to America. Many of them have lost family members in the fighting, and almost all of them are separated from many members of their family. Everything here is unfamiliar to them – the culture, the language, the weather. And still, they show up every day, ready to learn.
I cannot imagine a more rewarding job, other than parenthood.
I feel like I learn far more than I teach. Watching my learners is a constant reminder of the true value of education. The effort and commitment they bring to the classroom is a constant source of motivation for me. There are a million little successes that take place every day. I love when I see friendships develop among my learners, particularly if those friendships cross cultural lines. I cannot imagine a more rewarding job, other than parenthood.
Why did you choose this next act? How did you prepare?
There were a couple other paths I was considering. One was writing: I liked the freedom that writing provided. I could work on projects at night or weekends, from anywhere. But it was also isolating, and that’s not an ideal situation for an introvert. Whenever I was working with students, I was energized, and I liked that feeling.
There wasn’t a lot of preparation time. It was pretty much just jump in and swim. In the few short weeks between getting hired and starting work, I observed the classroom in which I’d be teaching a few times, talked with the other teachers, and spent time in the resource room gathering ideas and materials.
What challenges did you encounter?
On a professional level, my biggest challenge was preparing daily lessons. Very little curriculum was provided although I did have access to many good resources. I was up way too late every night preparing for the next day.
The other challenge was that part of my job involved teaching a Basic Math class. Teaching math terrified me, because I’m not a math person, but it’s turned out to be one of the most rewarding parts of my job. What I teach is really more Numeracy. I define it this way: Math is the ability to perform operations with numbers; numeracy is the ability to look at your answer and say either “That looks about right” or “That’s preposterous!”
Many of my students don’t realize how much math they actually know. For example, my students will tell me they don’t know how to divide. But if I say to them: “Ok, we have 27 students today, and I want to have three groups; how many students should we have in each group?” Most students will tell me, without hesitation, “9.” They know the math, they just don’t know that they know the math. Connecting these dots for them gives them a wonderful sense of confidence.
I think my family and friends are very proud of me and, to be honest, I’m pretty proud of myself.
On a personal level, I was by far the oldest teacher in the organization. I felt out of touch and out of place. At monthly staff meetings, I felt like the kid no one wanted to sit with at lunch. In retrospect, I know that some of this wasn’t age related at all, but a product of being the “new kid on the block.” It took a while, but eventually I started feeling like part of the team, and the generational isolation began to fade.
My family and friends were supportive and excited for me, although it was hardest for my husband and youngest daughter (who was the only bird still left in the nest). My daughter had to come home to an empty house many days. She was perfectly capable of this, but not accustomed to it. I felt, and still feel, bad about this but, on the other hand, I like that she sees me happy and fulfilled. I think sometimes youngest children feel bad about leaving the nest, because they worry about the loneliness their parents feel (particularly their moms, if they were stay-at-home moms). I’m glad Bekah doesn’t need to feel that guilt. She knows I miss her, but she also knows I am doing work that I love.
Age should not be a barrier to following a dream.
I think my family and friends are very proud of me and, to be honest, I’m pretty proud of myself. I hope I’ve given other women my age the motivation – or perhaps the “permission” – to forge a new path for themselves, if that’s something they want to do. Age should not be a barrier to following a dream.
Were there times when you thought about giving up? What/who kept you going?
Oh, yeah! I got through the first year by giving myself permission to leave if it didn’t work out. I figured I could go back to writing and continue to volunteer in adult literacy programs. But whenever I got overwhelmed, I just tried to focus on the main reason I was there: my students. Each one of them had remarkable stories of survival, loss, and hardship; if they could show up every day ready to learn, then I would stay and help them.
What words of advice do you have for women seeking to reinvent themselves in midlife?
Do not listen to the voices – your own or others’ – that tell you that you are “too old” to start something new. If you believe those voices, you can be sure you will project it in an interview or in a new job. Instead, focus on all the things you can do now that you have a little more time and freedom.
If you’re just re-entering the workforce after spending years at home raising kids, remember all the skills you acquired and honed during those years. Capitalize on them.
Do not listen to the voices – your own or others’ – that tell you that you are “too old” to start something new.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
I happen to think that I have the best job in the world. I can honestly say that, in over three years, I have never once felt like I wasn’t exactly where I was supposed to be at this time. The Minnesota Literacy Council excels in training volunteers and finding a good match for their interests and talents. I couldn’t exist without my incredible volunteers; many have been with me since I started over three years ago. My best suggestion would be to contact your local literacy council and ask to observe some classes.
Find something that fills you with purpose, and find a way to make that your life’s work
Also find out what the requirements are for teaching ESL in your state. I was able to get a job with just the graduate certificate, rather than the master’s degree, because I already had an undergraduate degree in Education. Still, I am not licensed to teach in the public schools at this point, and would need more schooling for that.
Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.
My work is challenging but it provides a sense of purpose beyond anything I can imagine. That’s my advice. Find something that fills you with purpose, and find a way to make that your life’s work. Like Confucius said “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” I hope you find that.
What’s next for you?
I’m thinking about it. At some point, I think I’d like to train teachers, but not yet…
What resources do you recommend?
Call your local colleges to find out where to get your ESL licensure.
In the Minneapolis area, I recommend:
Thank you to Sheri Pollack Lear for sharing your story.