Alabama Teacher of the Year Resigns– The Backstory, Part IV
On November 20, 2015, I drove from southern Louisiana to central Alabama in order to interview 2014-15 Alabama Teacher of the Year, Ann Marie Corgill, whose resignation three weeks prior, on October 30, 2015, made national news.
I had the privilege of interviewing Corgill for several hours. She detailed an intriguing story regarding her 21 years in the classroom, a story to which I could not possibly do justice in a single post. Therefore, I decided to write a series of posts about Corgill.
This is number four in that series.
The first post concerns how Corgill’s resignation became public. The second details the exasperating events that led to her deciding to resign. And the third post follows Corgill on the path to becoming Alabama Teacher of the Year for 2014-15 and a top-four finalist for 2015 National Teacher of the Year.
In this fourth post, I offer the section of our interview in which Corgill discusses her years as a public school teacher in New York City– both what enticed her to go to The Big Apple and what prompted her to return to Alabama.
Our discussion of Corgill’s travels to New York transpired near the outset of our four-hour interview. Therefore, in this post I begin at the beginning of our talk, which leads to Corgill’s New York travels rather quickly.
As I did the second and third post of this series, in this post I present Corgill’s words as indented and my interaction as flush with the margin and in quotation marks.
Here we go.
“Introduce yourself. If someone were just meeting you, what would you say?”
My name is Ann Marie Corgill. I am the oldest out of three kids. I’m from Thomasville, Alabama, and I have been a teacher for my whole [professional] life.
“In New York?”
I started my career in Birmingham (Alabama) at Brookwood Forest Elementary in Mountain Brook and was there for seven years.
“What year did you start?
1994. August of ’94. I graduated from the University of Alabama that May; got a job that summer, and started work in August.
Elementary. First grade. I taught at Brookwood Forest for seven years, and while I was there, I taught first grade and third grade. And then, I moved to New York City. I had been reading about these people and studying the work of a lot of professional authors since I became a teacher, and much of what I had read had been written by these people in New York City.
This school is called the Manhattan New School. …Manhattan New School is P.S. 290. And it was started, Shelley Harwayne was the principal, and many of her teachers had been people that I heard speak at conferences, and I have read the books they’d written, and I wanted to be a part of that. I knew, small town Alabama girl, can I really do this?
So, I went up for spring break a couple of years before I moved up there, and we visited the school, some friends of mine [and I], and I came out thinking, “I really want to be here” because of my need to connect professionally at national conferences and to continue to learn professionally.
I met, actually, I was at the National Council of Teachers of English in Denver that year and was introduced to her (Harwayne) by a friend of mine, Ralph Fletcher, who is also a children’s author and writer and I had the privilege of teaching his child.
Shelley said, “You should teach at the Manhattan New School,” and I thought, “Really? She’s asking Alabama Girl to come to New York City?”
“Is this before you thought, ‘I want to go to Manhattan,’ or is this after you said, ‘I’ve heard all of these people’?”
This is after.
“You had thought you wanted to go there, and then you met her (Harwayne)?”
Yes. I met her in person, [and] I was thinking, “This is, this could really happen.”
[On a] Monday, I got this big packet in the mail from Shelley Harwayne, from the New York Board of Ed., [with instructions to] fill out the paperwork, do all this… so I did. And I got a call, and I flew to New York and interviewed and got the job.
So, I took a huge risk and a huge leap of faith because I was in a great place (at Brookwood Forest Elementary in Mountain Brook) where I was teaching, but I took a leave of absence and did that (taught at Manhattan New School) for a year– and realized after I came home that I wanted to be back in New York.
“You were in New York for a year and came home, but you said you taught…”
I came home, and I taught second grade the year I came back to Brookwood Forest. I took a leave of absence from that school that I had been in. [At Manhattan New School] I was teaching fourth grade, and at the end of the year, I didn’t really want to come home, but I knew that I had committed to coming back to my school and had signed the leave of absence and had come home.
By Christmas, I knew I needed to go back. Didn’t have New York out of my system.
“When you were hired at Manhattan New School, they knew you would be there for a year?”
Yes. They knew it was a leave of absence. And I’m sure they thought, because I remember by the end, they were encouraging me to stay.
I don’t think that they knew I was really going to say, “Yes, I’m staying for a year.” Sure, they thought they could encourage me to stay, and I thought too by the end of the year, I might change my mind. But I didn’t; I kept my commitment, and then knew that I had to go back (to Manhattan).
What was interesting was, the year that I came back to Birmingham was the year of 9-11 (the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks). So, I missed all of that (the resulting chaos in New York City), and that was really weird and hard to be back home in Birmingham, having made all of these close friends, thinking of the children there and all that was going on in New York City, and I’m in my second-grade classroom in Alabama, not able to reach these people or be in touch with them that day. It was just really strange.
Obviously, my parents were happy that I was not in the city (New York City) that year. But I did move back the next year and got a teaching job in second grade, which is the grade that I adore. It’s my favorite one, I think, of all of the grades I’ve taught.
“So, you have an Alabama teaching certificate, K through 3, and they allowed you to teach fourth grade?”
I got an emergency certification through New York because I had to apply for a New York State teaching license. But they were like, “No big deal. We’ll give you an emergency certification. You can work towards this.” And actually, the year that I went to New York, I had just completed my National Board process. I spent a year out of my life writing, and reflecting, and video taping of my teaching, and I had taken the test, sat for the test. …
I was waiting to hear if I had even passed. And I had found out that I had passed the National Board standards process while I was in New York City. Then, I was in the middle of doing my New York certification, and at that point, it was so early in the [history] of National Board certification [that] New York didn’t even honor it at that point because they didn’t know [what it was]; very few people in the state [of New York] were [National Board] certified. And nobody at Manhattan New School knew about it (National Board certification).
“This is 2001?”
No. This is 2000.
“You came home for 2001 and went back in 2003?”
2002. And I was teaching second grade [at Manhattan New School] and was fortunate to do that because my mentor/mom-friend, Sharon Taberski, was teaching second grade, and I’ve admired her work and read her books on reading and literacy and had studied the things she did with her classroom and kids for years. So, I was going to be her colleague.
It was an opportunity of a lifetime, really, to go back and do this. So I did, for six more years.
*** And now, a brief, pictorial interlude…
Student self-portraits lining part of the classroom library. Corgill was in the room that was the old school library, so she “was in heaven with all those shelves to fill with great books for those young readers and writers!”
*** And back to the story…
“You stayed six more years beyond the first year?”
“[At lunch today] you told me that you came home– part of it was that you missed home, but part of it was a cost-of-living issue because you wanted to live where you were teaching.”
Right. I did. I made the commitment to myself when I said, “[If] I’m moving to New York City, I want to be in the middle of it. I want to live in Manhattan.” I’m small-town, Clarke County, Alabama, Thomasville, Alabama girl gone to New York City. I want to live it up. I want to be the single girl in the city and do everything I’d imagined that I could do in that place: Learn, grow, be exposed to cultures I had never been exposed to.
I all of a sudden had a whole lot of friends who wanted to come and visit New York. So, I had a lot of guests in my little, tiny [flat]. …My friend Heather used to say, she called it my 500-square-foot studio [apartment] “the room.” I said, “It’s not ‘the room,’ and we’re not living in a hotel. This is my home. We’re not going back to ‘the room.’ We’re going home.” She used to make fun of [how small my apartment was].
The first apartment building I lived in did look like a hotel. I mean, it’s thirty stories high, and [to a person] from Birmingham, it did look like a hotel.
“But the cost of living was a problem.”
Yes. I think my cheapest apartment rent was $1900 a month. And I lived in four different apartments in six years just because of cost, or buildings would go co-op, and then they’d give you the option to buy. What teacher has $2 million to buy a one-bedroom?
“So, you kept that $2 million?”
Yeah, I kept that $2 million in my pocket so that now that I am unemployed, I can, you know, live. (We both laugh.)
“You touched on something that is an issue for some teachers, especially in affluent areas, is that they cannot even afford to live where they teach.”
You’re right. A lot of [Manhattan New School] teachers live in Queens, or Brooklyn, or would drive in [from elsewhere]. Very few people lived close. And the people who did live close either were married, you know, with a husband who had another income, or worked other jobs. And there were some teachers I knew who were working two or three jobs in addition to classroom teaching. A lot of us tutored on the side, which was good money because parents [who lived in Manhattan] could pay.
But I realized that I couldn’t be the teacher I wanted to be and do two more jobs.
“Had you tried?”
I did. I did. At one point I decided that I could make some more money and do this (tutoring).
Also, one thing I did, and I didn’t mention this in the six-year process because the memories for that year are special because of the children and the parents and the class I had: I moved schools the last year that I was in the city. I wanted to stay in Manhattan, but I needed to make more money, and I knew that the schools In XX County paid thirty grand more [per year] than schools in the city. So, I got a job teaching at XX Elementary School in XX.
It was a 45-minute commute on the train. But I could make a significant amount more and still live in the city and not have to do [additional jobs to make ends meet].
Money is not everything, note to self, because with that chunk of an increase in pay, I went to a place that was not Manhattan New School. I had very different beliefs and ideas about how kids learn and about the things that I wanted to do as a teacher than that XX Elementary administration. I felt like… I was losing what I had learned from Manhattan New School.
Money became the thing at first, and then it became, “Why am I so far away from family?”
In 2007, I moved back home.
Had Corgill been able to afford Manhattan, she might have continued her career as a Manhattan New School teacher, where the intellectual stimulation from being among a faculty known for their scholarship was obviously appealing to her. Indeed, in October 2008, Corgill published her own book, Of Primary Importance: What’s Essential in Teaching Young Writers, “not a how-to manual as much as it is a celebration of the idiosyncratic journey of teaching young children to write.”
It seems that “idiosyncratic journey” is a fitting description for Corgill’s own experience as an elementary public school teacher.
Sometimes, however, idiosyncratic teachers like Corgill are pressured to fit into a “make no waves” mold.
More to come on that front in Part V.