Althea Hunter is the school secretary for payroll, the principal and procurement at Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology in the Bronx. After 29 years working in schools, she still loves her job.
How did being a secretary become your chosen lifelong career?
My mother worked at Riker’s Island and was friends with a secretary at the school there. My mom asked her friend for an application and brought it home to me. At first I wasn’t interested because I thought, “school secretaries are all old ladies, grouches with glasses.” I was already working as a secretary in the corporate world with Fortune 500 companies, but the hours, stress and demands were weighing on me because I had two little boys who had their own demands on my time and attention. So I chose my kids and my sanity.
What’s your main responsibility?
Payroll. People work, they have to get paid. They have families, bills, responsibilities, vacation time, maternity leave. I make sure they get paid. Way back when I was new, I forgot to put the paperwork in for someone. I felt so bad I told her I would go to the bank and pay her from my own money and she could pay me back when she got her check.
How do you keep track of everyone’s comings and goings?
I monitor teachers coming in. We have a good bunch here, but there’s always one or two who want to sneak in late. I’ll say, “Good morning, Mr. So and So,” in a sing-song voice. I try to be fair and respectful, and I’m treated the same in return. I’ve got a job to do and so do they. A lot of our teachers are young, and I’m like their school mom. I help them, I give them advice, I lecture them, the usual mom stuff. I let them know that I have some good days, and I have some bad days. I let them know that it’s never personal with me.
Could you describe a typical workday?
I live and work in the Bronx. My hours are 7:30 a.m. to 2:50 p.m., so I get up at 5 to catch a 6 a.m. bus. I get to work early, about quarter to 7. I get coffee and put it on the radiator behind me to stay warm, but I don’t necessarily drink it until after my colleague Marie Reyes and I deal with getting substitutes to cover for whoever is out that day. Then I check my emails because I am the principal’s secretary and she is an email type of gal. She is a professional, and I appreciate that very much. From her, I have my marching orders for the day. After that, I may have to order supplies or other items, or sign for them when they arrive. I make a copy for this teacher. Get a bandage for that student. Answer phones. Work on payroll. See, it always comes down to payroll.
Where do you go for a bit of privacy or a moment of silence?
I go in the supply closet and close the door behind me.
What aspect of your job is most consistently rewarding?
I’m proud of what I and other school secretaries do. Schools are the cars and secretaries are the engines that keep the vehicles on the road. I like to mentor younger secretaries and help them learn about the job. They represent principals and schools inside and outside of these buildings. They have to have a sense of pride in their work and a sense of humor. Secretaries need to be able to laugh — mostly at ourselves.
About what, in your case?
At a school before this one, we had something called Condom Distribution Day. I found out when I opened the box and nearly fell over. All colors, all flavors, you name it. Thank goodness giving them out to students was not my job. More recently, my principal told me we were going to do Survey Monkey. I thought, “OK, I’m not sure what surveying monkeys has to do with education, but I’m a team player so I’ll go to the zoo and survey monkeys.” The principal said, “Oh no, Mrs. Hunter, not that kind of monkey.” She explained Survey Monkey is an online survey development company. We had a good laugh over that one.
What will you do now that your secret is out about hiding in the supply closet?
That’s no secret. They just open the door and start talking to me like I’m not in the supply closet.
— As told to reporter Christina Cheakalos