The first official day of summer for Cubberley Elementary students marks the day teachers return to pack up their classrooms. But for newly retired Stephanie Wright, it was time to sort through the remnants of 36 years of teaching.
By noon, the walls of the room 60 bungalow were still lined with books, but there were already many full boxes labeled art, math and science. On the table were three 2-foot tall stacks of old lesson plans that she would later joke are similar to what you could now find on Pinterest.
It used to be if you needed extra help in school, you would get a tutor. But, nowadays, even tutoring can be accomplished online.
“The sad thing now is that personal interaction is getting to be less and less, so people don’t know how to talk to one another, be around one another, accept other people’s differences; the social aspect of it has gotten kind of gnarly,” Wright said.
But even when Wright started teaching 36 years ago, social skills were a major part of her focus.
“Teaching has always been more than just teaching. You’re a counselor [and] you’re a psychologist,” Wright said. “Everything you need to know, you learn in Kindergarten: how to share, take turns, lineup, follow directions. In the elementary, I really think the kids still need all that foundational stuff.”
Her token approach to teaching was to instill a need in her students to be the best they can be. She told every single student that they are the best. She would teach them about pride, respect and responsibility, and how those would be the key factors in being the best. It motivated students in a way she said shaped their behavior, studying and grades.
“I love myself. I’m a beautiful person and I’m worthy and deserving of all good things. I would have the kids learn that so that when there’s a choice... you would go for the thing you should be doing because you wouldn’t want to bring any negativity or conflict onto yourself,” Wright said.
Wright taught these virtues to students as soon as she was hired by Long Beach Unified School District in February ‘82. She first taught at Webster Elementary for two years before working at Cubberley for 34 years. Prior to her teaching in LBUSD, however, she was first offered a position in Los Angeles but held out for Long Beach after graduating from CSULB and working as an aid for LBUSD.
“I love Long Beach State. I got married there, I met my husband there, I started my career there,” she said. “That’s how I got to know what Long Beach was like, their philosophy, stuff like that, and I didn’t get hired at first. I had to volunteer.”
She received a bachelors degree in liberal studies with a concentration in psychology to better understand the cause of students behavior. She didn’t always envision herself as a teacher, though. Wright had ambitions of becoming an artist, but her mom insisted she get a “real job.”
“Nowadays, you can talk to kids about, ‘What are your gifts? What are your talents? What are you interested in?’” Wright said. “Back in the day, parents weren’t talking like that, it was get a job and have good work ethic. You can hate the job, but you better be on time, and no slacking.”
So, with her instructions to get a “real job,” she signed up for several biology classes where she felt isolated as the only woman. She looked into pediatrics and nursing.
“I was going to be a doctor, because around the time, my mom told me to get a real job I was in girl scouts with my friend Marnetta,” Wright said. “And Marnetta died from sickle cell and I found out that sickle cell was something they didn’t have a cure for.”
She realized that medicine wasn’t something that utilized her natural strengths, and instead focused on a common thread in her career goals: working with children.
“Little kids give you so much. A lot of stuff I’ve learned is from the kids,” she said. “And then as I went more into my teaching, I realized that I was going to have a greater impact on the kids than I thought.”
Now, after a long career, she wants to make up for not having time for adventure in college. She worked two jobs and is reminiscent about how much longer things took when you had to check out books at the library for research and type on typewriters without a delete function. The one time she did have opportunity to travel overseas, she said she was too frightened after seeing the film “Midnight Express.”
She’d like to scratch some typical travel itches like visiting Paris or cruising to the Bahamas. But she has many ideas on how to enjoy retirement locally with some simpler pleasures like sleeping in a Westin Hotel bed and eating at The Sky Room.
“There’s things I’ve never gotten to do in Long Beach, so I want to do Long Beach and then travel up the coast,” Wright said.
She said the thing she’s probably looking forward to the most, though, is being able to visit the restroom whenever she wants. But, as she looked around at her life in boxes, she expressed a feeling of limbo.
However, after years of giving lessons she’s learned a lot herself, including tackling the unknown.
“The thing I will miss the most is the kids. To see the light come on when they get it. Knowing that it’s all going to work out, and helping the parents and the kids navigate that,” Wright said.
“My age has let me know everything is going to be okay, and to not take myself so seriously, and to smile.”