By Kathryn Lee
On a bright, sunny Friday afternoon, Mrs. Kathy McAleer walked into Great Neck South High School for the penultimate time in her teaching career. The halls were empty and quiet, eerily devoid of the usual stomping and chatter of students. Making her way to her classroom in the language hall, she settled herself in for a long few hours of cleaning out her classroom. But after more than 20 years of teaching in the district, she soon realized that it would take much more than one day to sort through all of her memories.
“It’s an odd feeling,” said Mrs. McAleer of returning to the school, smiling wistfully.
Knowledge of ASL is not something that most people have, but Mrs. McAleer grew up with it. “I have a deaf sister, so I’ve signed my whole life,” she explained. However, this knowledge of sign language did not translate directly to teaching. In fact, Mrs. McAleer went through several careers before becoming a teacher, including a position that allowed her to help people with disabilities find jobs.
Finally, in 1992, when New York State approved ASL as a school language course, Mrs. McAleer settled on her fourth and final career. “I taught at local colleges. I [also] taught at East Meadow [before] I jumped ship and came to South!” She reminisced, laughing.
But it soon became evident that Mrs. McAleer was not to be any ordinary teacher in the school district. Because ASL does not involve some of the conventional components upon which students in other language classes might be evaluated (such as reading and writing), Mrs. McAleer had to work together with sign language teachers across the state to create a standardized curriculum. Additionally, her duties are divided between North and South High, a decision that was made 10 years ago.
Under Mrs. McAleer’s guidance, ASL at Great Neck South has flourished. She advised the ASL Club for 20 years, coordinating events involving groups such as the Little Theater of the Deaf and raising thousands of dollars to be donated to local Deaf associations. Her ASL students also won a myriad of awards from the Long Island Teachers Association’s ASL Competition, “often swe[eping] the category [and taking] every medal.”
However, it was not just Mrs. McAleer’s dedication to her classes that made her such a beloved figure in the school and among her students—it was also her warmth and humor. “Hopefully the ASL program will continue. They’re looking for a replacement and hopefully we’ll be able to get someone […] But I know I’m irreplaceable,” she joked.
Mrs. McAleer still has much she wishes to do. She plans on continuing her interpreting job in the Northwell Hospital system, as well as training her dogs to become therapy dogs for Veteran Affairs centers and nursing homes. And though her plans to travel are on hold right now, she hopes to be able to visit countries she has not yet been to in the future. She also looks forward to staying connected with the school. “I’d still like to come to all the events. Concerts, plays, international night [….] You’re not getting rid of me that easy!”
Despite leaving in the midst of a strange time, Mrs. McAleer looks back on her experience at South fondly. “I just loved working in Great Neck,” she said. “It’s been an honor, a true honor. Working with students that are so motivated to succeed and do well. I’m very, very fortunate […] it’s been a great honor to work in such a fantastic school district.”
And as a few last words of advice to her students, she offered the following wisdom: “[Be] culturally sensitive and open-minded to all people of all backgrounds […] see everybody as abled, doing things in a different style […] never lump people in categories.”