After 30 years teaching, Ms. Abdow poised for new adventures

Sue Abdow’s third floor classroom is noticeably different from others.  An entire wall is filled with photographs of students on field trips and end of the year picnics. Their smiles light up the room.

After being an ELL teacher and Department Head at ARHS for 30 years, teaching thousands of students in the process, Ms. Abdow is ready to retire this summer.

Growing up in Rockville, Maryland, and studying French, Spanish, and Arabic throughout her college years, Ms. Abdow reflects back on her life before Amherst.

“I worked in Washington D.C. for an organization called ‘AMIDEAST.’ I was a liaison for students coming from the Middle East to study here, helping them get their applications,” she said.

She went on to get her master’s degree in teaching English as a foreign language at the American University of Cairo in Cairo, Egypt, living there for four years and teaching at the university for two.

Even from a young age, Ms. Abdow knew she wanted to teach language.

“I was always interested in people from other countries and their languages,” she said. Luckily, she was able to “combine [her] interests in travel and languages,” and make it into her career.

After moving back to the states, to Chico, California, Ms. Abdow officially got her teaching license and taught English at a middle school in the same area.

By 1989, Ms. Abdow had moved to Amherst with her husband Steve.

They moved for the good schools and close community. “We wanted to live in a more progressive community,” Ms. Abdow said.

Through the years, she has taught students from around the world. ELL teacher Joan Snowdon worked with Ms. Abdow for 18 years at ARHS before her own retirement two years ago.

She remembers how much things changed during their time working together.

“The school was [still] growing then; the program was growing and the diversity of international students was constantly changing with families moving into town from Cape Verde, China, Korea, Tibet, Brazil, Ethiopia, Turkey, and El Salvador, among many others,” she said.

Ms. Snowdon noted the dedication and commitment Ms. Abdow put toward being Department Head.

“When Sue took over leadership of the department in 1999, she took on a complex role that required not only dedicated teaching but also advocacy for refugee, immigrant, and first generation young people in our school and their families,” Ms. Snowdon said.

The school also gained many useful programs for ELL students thanks to Ms. Abdow.

In 2017, Ms. Abdow, Lisa Zephyr, Ericka Alschuler, and Myra Ross helped create the “Step-by-Step to College” program for ELL students which helps guide them through the long and complicated college application process.

But it’s the students rather than the programs she built for them that Ms. Abdow will miss most.

“It’s really been the students, and developing relationships with students from different countries and experiences and learning about them,” Ms. Abdow said. “[The fact that] the work I do is important and can make a difference in their lives is very rewarding for me.”

ELL teacher Ashleigh Daher has been working with Ms. Abdow for the past three years, but said it’s felt like a lifetime.

“She’s been there for me since I started here. She’s been my mentor and my advisor,” Ms. Daher said.

Ms. Daher will remember Ms. Abdow’s best qualities.  

“[She is] very supportive. She spends a lot of time working with students,” said Ms. Daher. “She’s so patient. I will watch her having an interaction with a student and she doesn’t get an edge to her voice or a tone. She is persistent, patient, and a good listener. I think those are her best qualities. I’ll miss her the most.”

Teaching students who come from so many different places and backgrounds has taught Ms. Abdow that everyone has different experiences. “[You] can’t make assumptions about people,” she said.

Sometimes her students will enroll with very limited education for a variety of reasons, like having been to poor schools, dealing with violence in their home countries, or having to help support their families.

With the support of the entire ELL department and the school, most students quickly aquire academic English and graduate, Ms. Abdow reports. “We have a really high success rate.”

Going into retirement, Ms. Abdow hopes to go sailing as often as possible with her family.

And she is “interested in just learning.”

She wants to continue studying Spanish, do volunteer work, and help support a refugee family in Amherst through her church.

“I’m open to seeing what comes up,” she said.