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LI teacher thanks late wife for career change

When he grew unhappy with his career in customer service, his wife pushed him to follow his passion for teaching.

Tony Felpo, a teacher at Wyandanch Memorial High

Tony Felpo, a teacher at Wyandanch Memorial High School, with a photo of him and his late wife, Diane. Photo Credit: Brittany Bernstein

Tony Felpo was 48 years old and in a rut.

He said he spent 20 years as a customer service and collections representative bouncing between companies that kept closing or relocating. His wife, Diane, told him enough was enough. He had to make a change.

“If there was a new employee I would teach them the computer system. So she said, ‘Why don’t you do that? Become a teacher.’ ”

Felpo, who had a bachelor’s degree in psychology, decided to go back to school. While working on his master's degree in special education at Dowling College, he became a substitute teacher in the Central Islip, Jericho and Connetquot school districts. His first full-time gig was at Wyandanch Memorial High School in 2003 as a special-education teacher.

He’s “forever grateful to my Diane,” who died in August at the age of 50 after battling health problems for two decades. Diane not only pushed him to become a teacher, but was the sole breadwinner as a bookkeeper for the Town of Islip while he completed his studies as a student-teacher with no income for four months.

Felpo, 65, says he found teaching full-time harder than he expected. He’d come home with headaches and complain to his wife, who was always there to listen.

“She would encourage me,” he said, adding that later he tried to do the same for her. “It got to the point where my wife started to get sick and she’d complain to me. [I thought], ‘Why should I burden her with my problems? I’m going to listen to her and encourage her like she used to do for me.’ ”

Without Diane’s encouragement and the support of a teacher’s aide, he said he likely would have quit his first week on the job.

“They can teach you stuff in college and classrooms but when you get out there it’s a whole different story,” Felpo, of Central Islip, said.

Felpo said he had one student in particular who often gave him a hard time that first year, asking inappropriate questions and disrupting the class. The student graduated and Felpo didn’t feel he had made an impact on him. But the following school year, the student returned and gave him a big hug.

“He turned out to be a great kid. He told me he learned a lot from just the way I would present myself to the classroom,” he said. “They would say to themselves, ‘We can’t rattle him.’ ”

“You get these stories about when the kids mature and you can laugh about the time that you had them when they were really young,” he said.

“If you love working with kids, you just have to persevere. That’s all there is to it … it will be rewarding in the long term.”

Editor’s Note: Newsday.com is talking to Long Island teachers who were in another career before going into education. Do you have a story to share about finding your way into the classroom? Send it to brittany.bernstein@newsday.com.

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