Already the pangs of retirement tweak at Steve English.
Last week he cleaned out his technology classroom at Waterville Junior-Senior High School. This week he will finish polishing the commencement speech he will give to the WCS Class of 2020 at Saturday’s graduation on the lawn of the school. Next week he wakes up for the first time in 23 years without being a teacher.
At age 66, English said it’s time for him to retire and spend more time with his family. As someone who came into the profession later in life, at age 42, English said he takes no regrets but some sadness at no longer teaching Waterville students.
“Always in the back of my mind,’’ English said, “was why didn’t I go into teaching? It was what I wanted to do. I’ve learned in the last 23 years this is where I belong, in a classroom.’’
English grew up and graduated in the Fayetteville-Manlius District, where he lives now with wife Teresa, the only girl he dated since the two became a couple in high school at F-M. This year the parents of three and grandparents of three will celebrate 45 years of marriage.
English went to college at Oswego State, majoring in industrial arts with the intent of teaching. But right after college another job opportunity came up in Denver; he headed there to give it a try.
“After two, three months I came back and told Teresa this is not for us,’’ he said.
He started his own painting company, Rainbow Painting, in Syracuse and owned and operated it for 11 years. In 1990 he spent six years working at Marsellus Casket Co., then took a job for a year at a machine shop that ran on high intensity.
“I looked in the mirror one day and said can you do this for the next 20 years?’’ English said. “I knew the answer was no.’’
A good friend, Mike Hoose, who is now superintendent of Cortland City School District, urged him to get into the classroom. At the time, as is the situation now, the education field needed tech and industrial arts teachers.
After going back to school for his master’s degree, English became a rookie teacher in 1997 at Waterville. He was hired by then-superintendent Jim Van Wormer.
“I will always be grateful to Jim for taking a chance on an older beginning teacher,’’ English said. “His confidence in me meant the world.’’
With a couple of careers and decades behind him, English ran his classes the way he thought they went best for students, not necessarily by the traditional methods. “Now hands-on project learning is the thing,’’ he said. “But when I started out that way it was not done very much.’’
He also chose to open his classroom as a gathering place for students between his and their classes. At times during his free periods up to 30 kids would be in the room.
Mostly they came to hang out and talk, finding a place where English said they could be who they are without worry. “I always had kids in here every period, sometimes even ones who had graduated,’’ English said. “I wanted every kid to know they were always welcome in my room.’’
He called his room the Positive Energy Zone, telling students to leave negativity at the door.
He is quick, though, to point out he got as good as he gave. Through illness and surgery, through the death of his brother, Waterville students reached out to him to make sure he was doing Ok.
“Every day I got something from those children,’’ English said. “They made me a better teacher and person.’’
At first he wasn’t sure his teaching method measured up. When a student said they had a problem on something, rather than offer solutions English would ask what had they done to fix it.
As the students learned to work through problems and figure them out, he saw their confidence and skills grow. “After some time I started to think maybe I’m a better teacher than I gave myself credit for.’’
Since school buildings closed in mid-March, English has spent every day working on the Senior class video, which stands at three and a half hours of material covering the 66 members of the class and various events this school year. One section is titled The Lost Spring.
He also videotapes and edits the annual CD given to students who participate in the March musical. “I do it for the kids, so they have these memories of what they did.’’
He tackled something special this year as Waterville mulled how to celebrate the Class of 2020 under coronavirus restrictions. State regulations allow the district to gather all 66 students for a drive-in ceremony Saturday at the school with a limited number of guests.
In case there had to be a virtual ceremony, English spent a day photographing all the seniors one at a time in their commencement regalia.
“It allowed me to see them one more time, one on one,’’ he said. “That was special.’’
He had planned to retire a year ago, but the death of Jason Pomeroy, who was a member of this year’s senior class, changed his mind. He decided to stay one more year and leave with Jason’s class.
“His friends in the class were hurting. There’s a connection and love between us,’’ English said of his relationship with students. “That is my career. Not what I taught but making that connection with kids.’’
He’s known since the fall he was the class’s choice as a graduation speaker, an honor English did a few years ago. He had his speech done by the fall.
“About three weeks ago I woke up at 3 a.m. and realized I have to throw it all away because it doesn’t fit anymore,’’ English said. “So I’ve redone it.’’
In assisting this year with some of the videos for the Positivity Project at Memorial Park School, English said he began to realize what retirement will mean. “I’m never going to get to know those kids,’’ he said. “Leaving some of the freshmen and sophomores is sad to think about. It’s hitting me already about the downside of retiring.’’
So he focuses on the upside, such as spending more time with his two sons who live in Syracuse and the two grandkids locally, and taking time so he and Teresa can get to Oregon to see their daughter and granddaughter. A trip planned for next month had to be canceled because of the Covid-19 risk.
That, he said, will be rescheduled when it is safer to travel. “Hey, I’m retired so we can go anytime,’’ he said.
“It’s time for other things. Teach the grandkids to golf, for one. Everyone has their time and for the past 23 years mine has been here. Now time is mine for other things in life.’’
Former students keep in touch with him and he said he hopes that never ends. As he prepares for the transition to retirement, English said he is certain of one aspect of his career.
“I love the kids I had here and always will. They’ll always have a friend in me because they made me the best teacher I could be every day.’’