Friday, October 25, 2013

Elaine Green and Fran Wilcox

Elaine Green (left) and Fran Wilcox
Elaine Green and Fran Wilcox are the Special Education teachers at Lamar High School. Together they manage a class of students with a variety of learning and physical disabilities. They also work closely with their students’ parents to plan for the transition into further education or employment after graduation. Elaine has been a teacher her whole working life, but before teaching, Fran was a professional musician, playing the horn in orchestras and bands internationally.

What are your stories, Elaine and Fran?

ELAINE – When we both first came to work together at Lamar, I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me. We’d met once because we both worked in Special Education, but to be honest I was a bit leery. We would be sharing this classroom for eight hours a day and what if we didn’t share an educational philosophy? It could not work out well, but actually, it has.

FRAN – Our strengths are totally different and it is totally brilliant the way we work together. Green’s a detailed person…

ELAINE – … and she’s a global person. There are times when I say, “I just can’t see that…” but she just gets it immediately. It is almost a marriage made in heaven. We haven’t had a spat yet and this is our 15th year together in this room. Strangely enough we found that we both have the same teaching philosophies and these days, I can say something and she will have been ready to say the same thing or vice versa.

We had met once before. I was at Fondren Middle School for about 100 years – ok, for 23 years – and we used to put on this little dance at Christmas which the kids loved. We we invited the participating high schools and that was when Fran was at Lee High School, and the day she came over for that was the only time we’d met before we had to work together.

FRAN – Yes, and you had on that really nice dress. I remember thinking, wow, she’s very dressed up. Maybe I need to tidy up my act a bit!

ELAINE – We both decided to come to Lamar at the same time and we’ve worked out well.  At first, we had a struggle because people expected us to do the same thing as the previous teacher. But I’m sure when we leave here, people will say, “Miss Green and Miss Wilcox used to do blah blah” too.

Anyway, I’m a native Houstonian. I am a mother of two, a widow of ten years, and my kids are 33 and 28. One is in Dallas, he’s an artist and works for the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth as an educational curator, so he somehow got into education too. My other one went into architecture. He’s a project manager in construction here in Houston. I take a lot of pride in them both. You know, you want your kids to be happy first of all, whatever their area is. I do take a lot of pride in knowing that they are ok and that they’ve found their niche.

When I was at school, and before I even graduated from Westbury High School, I just knew I wanted to be a teacher. I was in the Future Teachers of America back then and so I went to college to train and somewhere along the line I thought that I’d like to do Special Education. I didn’t have a cousin or a sibling with special needs, I didn’t know anyone, but I just really wanted to do that. Then I decided to get certified in Special Education and Elementary Education at the same time. When I started teaching Special Ed, I thought I’d do that for a few years and then go to teach elementary. Well, forty years later, here I sit. I’ve never done anything else. But she’s got a much more interesting story!

FRAN – I was born in New Jersey and had an undergraduate degree in Music Education, K through 12. I wanted to have performance degree but my parents would not allow me to do that, they said I had to have something to fall back on. But I knew was never going to be a Band Director. I did my student teaching with the band and I had no patience. I was really fortunate when I did my student teaching that I got to work with some students with hearing impairments and I absolutely loved that room. The kids in there were great and asked if I could do that full time instead, but they wouldn’t let me. But I knew right then that if I could never play my horn again, I would want to work with kids with special needs, I just knew it. But I went to Rice with a music fellowship and then played professionally in Colombia, South America, for a while. When I came back, I played with the Houston Ballet, substituted with the Houston Symphony and did the Opera tour. Then I developed Bells’ Palsy in my face and that pretty much ended my career overnight. I was 31.

I still play in a Czech band – my dad’s side of the family is Czech so it’s one of those ‘get in touch with your roots’ things – but these days I’m at the back only playing the up-beats. I put the PAH in the oompah! I think I could keel over back there and nobody would notice!  You see, because the Bells’ Palsy affected the nerve at the front of my face, sometimes I sound horrible and sometimes I sound great and think, hey, I wish I could still do this!

So I needed to find another career and it was always in the back of my mind that I had really enjoyed those kids from student teaching. I ended up working in vocational rehab and from there to managing a workshop for adults with hearing impairments and addictions and some folks with mental health issues. It was there that I was really introduced to the Life Skills population. I didn’t really enjoy it, but two women I worked with asked why I didn’t become a self-contained teacher because I loved working with all the clients, but I wasn’t very good at managing the staff. I did my Alternative Certification instead and ended up at Lee, then Houston Community College, and then I came to Lamar and that’s history.

On a personal level, because I was a musician, it took a long time for me to really settle down, but now I have a very important relationship in my life, and my sister and her family are down here and they are super important to me. I’m very close to my nieces, my sister and her husband and then I have my family at home in New Jersey. I’m the oldest of six. My sister Cathy is a teacher’s assistant working with special needs kids, and I am very proud of her.

Why do you do what you do?

ELAINE – At the moment we have 20 kids in the class, but we’ve had 34 at one time, it was nuts in here! We’ve never wanted this classroom to be a ‘holding tank’ so to speak. Our goal is to get the kids involved with the school and not to be the ‘group down in the basement’. We want to make them as independent as possible and that’s been our goal from the very beginning.  I guess if you get to the point where you don’t get some kind of gratification from that work, then it’s time to say ‘hang it up’, but we still both do. When one of the kids does something wonderful, it’s still very rewarding, and that’s the bottom line. We do it because we both love it.

FRAN – Yup, we just love these kids.

At a Lamar High School Pep Rally - October 2013

What advice would you give to someone coming new to teaching in Special Education?

FRAN – Volunteer first! Because Green and I have such a good relationship, we can spell each other.  Sometimes if she needs to do paperwork or call a parent she’ll go into our office, and I’ll cover the class room. We figured that out for each other, but if you were just a single teacher, I’d don’t know how you would do it.

ELAINE – That’s right, keeping on top of the paperwork can be very daunting. There are so many state requirements, even for the regular teachers. My niece came and volunteered in here with us a while ago and then decided she wanted to become a teacher too. Because she had volunteered first, she knew what she was getting into. I guess that would be my advice, you need to know that all of the stuff, the paperwork etc, can take away from what you want to do. Sometimes I say in meetings, “If we didn’t have the kids, we could keep up with all the paperwork! These darn kids just get in our way!” I’m joking of course, but that’s how it feels sometimes. The kids must be our priority, and although this other stuff is essential it must come second with us.

FRAN – I’d say if your passion is to work with our guys, just keep it pure. And you do have to have a passion – we both still have that passion. Even on days when we know we are dragging, the kids just spark us and we get so much from them. To share their “Aha!” moments and their laughs if they get a joke is just wonderful. We had a few minutes spare today and we played Hangman together on the board. Everyone was involved and laughing, it was great.

How to do you find, or seek to find, balance in your life?

ELAINE – We both have friends, but we are also friends with each other outside school too. We go out together sometimes after school and have Mexican food and a margarita. We talk about the day and try to work out how to fix things. We’ve even, at a restaurant, got a napkin and drawn up a list of pros and cons for a problem.

FRAN – Sometimes we get our toenails done too!

ELAINE – We also take yoga, and that’s our gift to ourselves. We don’t let anyone interfere with our Tuesday afternoons. We have a group of ladies that get together to do yoga and then go get dinner after that. We all get our balance and then we get our food!

FRAN – As well as that, I love to ride my bike and I used to run marathons, because of that I have this whole world of friends. I’ve just bought a kayak so that’s a new adventure. I paddled to the Christmas lights down in Dickinson last year – you decorate your canoe and paddle at night which was the most fun thing. And I love bird-watching. I’m real diversified and I have all sorts of groups of friends.  I’m really not a wild child or anything, but I don’t stop still very often.

What does Houston mean to you?

ELAINE – For me, it’s roots. I didn’t pick Houston, I was born here, my parents were here and my husband’s parents were here, so it’s about roots. I met my husband in high school and when we got married after college and I guess Houston means family to us. We bought a house ten minutes from where we each lived because we wanted to be around our parents as they got older, which we were. We were just a phone call away and we had many of those between the two sets of parents as they got older.

Now my children may break the link to Houston, but that’s ok, I want them to be happy. They are both of them looking further afield, and that’s fine because it’ll give me some nice place to visit.

FRAN – I loved playing my horn because it allowed me to travel. I travelled around Europe on a rail pass with a brass quartet and we travelled all over. I also love all things British and I did once apply for a scholarship to a school in London. I had a dream of living in one of these little villages where Miss Marple would have lived, where you could ride your bike and there were flowers everywhere, that would have been my ideal, even if New Jersey was always my home. At first Houston was just about my job, but now I have a lot of friends here, and I like Houston now, though it took a while for me to settle.

Where is your happy place in Houston?

ELAINE – Probably at my home with my family and my dogs, that’s my happy place. And also on my yoga mat. It’s very easy for me to find a happy place at yoga. For ten years we’ve been doing it and we consider it a gift to ourselves. It took me about two years to get to that point where things weren’t buzzing around my head, but now I find that spot on my mat and all of that other stuff outside is gone for an hour. Occasionally I have to fight to get it out but most times it’s just gone.

FRAN – I have several. On the couch, just being quiet, or sitting on the back porch watching the birds at the many bird feeders we have. We feed the hummingbirds and we see all the migratory birds come by, which is really cool. And I love being out on my bike in the country and actually, I’m happy in the classroom too, and also with my sister and her kids. You know, I have lots of happy places, I’m just quite a happy person.

What is your favorite restaurant?

FRAN – Carmelita’s on Bellaire Boulevard is right between both our houses, and then there’s El Ranchero and …

ELAINE – Basically, we just love Mexican neighborhood restaurants!

What is your Houston secret?

ELAINE – I think a secret that many people don’t know about is the beer can house. I saw it years ago as a child and then again recently with the kids. It’s off Washington, right in the middle of all these homes and people come from all over just to see it. The man who made it has gone but it’s still maintained by the same people that run the Art Car Parade – and that’s another Houston secret that everyone should know about, it’s fantastic!

And of course, there are the bats on Waugh Drive. Unlike in Austin where the bats go away on migration, our bats never leave. Bats all year round! Aren’t we lucky?

FRAN – It’s not really Houston, but a great day out from here is to Brazos Bend State Park to see the alligators, it’s just fantastic, and there’s amazing birdlife too. Also, there’s the Azalea Trail here in the spring which is also a wonderful thing to go to. We rode our bikes one year, and ate at every stop! The azaleas have such a short blooming time, it’s really worth going to see.

If you could change one thing about Houston…

ELAINE – the summer heat, it’s just too hot. When even the kids can’t go out to play, it’s just too much, even for us natives.

FRAN – Absolutely right, and because it’s hot most people don’t get to know their neighbors very well because we stay indoors for the greater part of the year, which is a shame.

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