Angelique Burzynski’s being legally blind wasn’t an obstacle during her 20-year tenure as a special education teacher at South Pasadena High School.
Burzynski retired in June, and looks back on a career in which she inspired students and fellow teachers by using her disability as a teaching aid.
“I wanted my own disability to serve as a model, perhaps even an inspiration to my students struggling with their own disabilities,” she said. “I never hid it from them.
“I always had to use a hand-held magnifier to read the computer. It became a running joke because I would always set down my magnifier, then forget where I put it. It was always a student who found it and brought it to me.
“My students also helped me when I made typos on the notes I was typing on the overhead projector. I wanted them to see that, yes, people with disabilities could lead productive, successful lives, but also that no one does it alone. I think it made them all want to work hard for me, which they always did!”
It was her failing eyesight — Burzynski suffered from a form of macular degeneration — that forced her to end a successful career as an opera singer in 1996.
The soprano sang in both the United States and Europe, where she performed in Scotland, Germany, Austria and Italy. She opened the 1990 season in Graz, Austria, singing the role of Elsa in Wagner’s “Lohengrin.”
When one door closed, Burzynski was determined to open another one. She remembered how much she enjoyed the community outreach to students and decided she wanted to be a teacher.
So she returned to Pasadena, where — helped by the California Department of Rehabilitation — she went to Pasadena City College, graduating as valedictorian, and then Cal State Northridge, where she was also valedictorian and got a master’s degree in special education. Her husband, John, and stepdaughter Elisabeth often drove her to class at night.
All of her teaching career has been spent at South Pasadena High School, where she has worked in many areas of special education including algebra and social studies. She spent a lot of time teaching English and reading development, which was her assignment when she retired.
For those who are searching for a definition, Burzynski defines special education as assisting students who have special needs to find ways to learn and demonstrate their learning.
Some of her students entered her 9th-grade class reading at a 3rd- to 5th-grade level, and left reading at a high school level. She credits their hard work and the program they were in for helping them succeed.
“It’s an intensive class and hard work,” she said. “How many people want to work in areas where they don’t do well?
“We build on strengths to lessen weaknesses. It takes a lot of courage for those students not to give up. The feeling of success is all-powerful.
“You teach to success and it is great to see the results.”
Many of the students in special education classes were classmates with other students since elementary school. Burzynski said other students noticed and applauded their success.
Many special education students not only went on to advanced placement classes, but they also succeeded in college and in all sorts of careers.
Burzynski said some of the parents remember her, and one of them is Lourdes Nonato.
“Angelique has been a tremendous resource for me throughout the years whenever I had a question about my son who had a diagnosis of autism,” Nonato said. “From middle school through high school, Angelique has been willing to offer her insight and years of experience to help support my son.
“Before he became a freshman at the high school, it was very clear that my son was not well prepared for reading and writing at the 9th-grade level. She offered to tutor him without charge every week during the summer. She helped me understand how he learned and she even told me that he would be taking advanced placement classes one day.
“I did not believe her, but long story short, my son is now a senior and will have taken four AP classes by the time he graduates.”
Burzynski’s husband drove her to work every morning and picked her up on the way home to Pasadena in the evening. She noted that her colleagues always made sure that she had a ride to any official meeting, conference or presentation.
She has won federal and state awards for her teaching, but she deflects a lot of that spotlight to her colleagues.
“The public doesn’t realize the level of excellence in this district,” she said, pointing to the national awards won by other teachers. “These teachers are so committed to their school.”
Burzynski said she is retiring because she does not feel she is keeping up with the new technology.
But at 63, she is not done yet. She wants to get a doctorate “in something” and volunteer in literacy.
The pandemic prevented her from getting an in-school sendoff, but it did not play any part in her departure.
“I’m still getting messages,” she said. “I knew what I was going to say when I retired, but that has become an afterthought.
“I’m happy. I left believing that there is more to learn. A teacher is never done learning.”
Editor’s note: Karen Reed, who handles human resources issues for the South Pasadena Unified School District, noted that other people who have retired since January include (with years in the SPUSD): Lisa Robinson, 27 years; Suzanne McNulty, 24; Mike Hogan, 24 (retired during summer); Alex Platz, nurse, 10; Ruth Moonesighe, 17 (retired Jan. 1); and Mary Hylbom, 17 (retired in January).