What Did You Want to be When You Grew Up?


When I was a kid, I wanted to be: an astronaut, a CIA operative, the girl singer in a rock and roll band, the next Olympic phenom, a trans-Atlantic stewardess (I know, but that’s what flight attendants used to be called), a go-go dancer on Hullaballoo, an ecologist.

By the time I got to high school, though, I had pretty much narrowed my  career choices: English teacher or Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter.

Undergraduate college profs pushed–no, shoved–me away from teaching. Smart people I respected kept telling me that writing was my future and at 20, I let ego think for me.   Hubris. Then, as now, I was proud of what I could do with words. I settled on a major in English lit with minors in history and journalism. With a portable electric typewriter I scored on the street for $5 and comic innocence, I imagined I would write my way into fame and, if I happened to be lucky, fortune, too.

Luckily, my true fortune intervened.

I married my high school sweetheart and before we knew it, we had two beautiful kids and our future required something substantial.  Love–and fate–had brought me back to teaching, albeit via the  the scenic route. Though it was then the late 80s and teaching jobs were scarce, we added grad school to our monthly bills.  We didn’t know it at the time,  but we agree that was one of the smartest risks we ever took.

I liked teaching from the start. And after a few years of experience under the wing of a veteran mentor, I became pretty good at it, too. It was fortunate, getting this second shot at education. Make no mistake, teaching is hard work.  Some days are frustrating.  Most days are exhausting.  But when it is about the kids, the interchange between us, I am so on.

You’re yawning now.        So what’s the point of this protracted stroll down memory lane?

It sometimes takes a while to find what you were meant to be when you grow up. It always takes a while to get good at what you were meant to be.

    Now, though, we are impatient for instant results.  We are accustomed to tapping a screen and getting answers, now, not later.   If we want to talk to someone, we have mobile devices that connect us where ever we are, no matter what else we might be doing.

And that’s part of what makes us  truly want to believe that inputting data will provide an accurate means of education reform.  We want the numbers to tell us what to do. This supposedly works well enough in the business world.  Sales are either up or down, right?  Lawyers bill clients by the hour. Actuaries calculate risk through data analysis. We want to find that magic bullet that will make us all better teachers, that will make every learner in all our classrooms more confident, independent and capable.

But every good teacher know that education is a process. It is not instant.   Kids learn and grow at different rates.  Middle school teachers say good-bye to students before we can see if or how we have affected them.  They move on to bigger arenas and if we’re lucky, kids visit, sharing their high school stories.  Every  middle school teacher can name the kids who, at one time, seemed lost but who ended up doing amazing things in high school, college and beyond.  That is how the process works.

So though we may ache for the data to tell us what to do, there are no numbers to show how teachers influence the kids who sit in their classrooms; this work cannot be quantified. There are no algorithms to prove that teachers do change the world. It’s not magic exactly, but it does defy science, at least for now.

So, for my own middle school and high school English teachers, you may not have known it–hell, I didn’t even know it– but you did change my world.  I was listening even when I wasn’t; I fell in love with literature and with writing because of you.  And now I am doing what you taught me to do:  I teach.

So You Think You Can Teach?

“People think that because they like to cook, they should open their own place.”

Last night, the manager of a new restaurant in our neighborhood described the reality of that business: working fourteen hour days, seven days a week, creating ambiance, cultivating a loyal following, serving consistently good and varied food. “What people just don’t get is that you can’t wake up one day and suddenly be running a successful place.”

Yet from the outside, in a well-run establishment, in the hands of an experienced staff, it does seem effortless.  The pacing, the presentation, the meals all do appear to just happen.

As a teacher, I can relate.

Teachers hear this all the time.  Plenty of  people genuinely like their own kids and their kids’ friends. They can run an arts and crafts project at the dining room table.  They can read aloud and turn fractions into decimals.  They help their kids with homework. Some people even write. Therefore, they can certainly teach.

That’s because from the outside, in the hands of an experienced teacher, education also appears effortless. Inquisitive kids are working cooperatively, raising their hands, taking notes, asking questions.

But like a good meal in a great restaurant, it doesn’t just happen.

What outsiders don’t see are the hours teachers devote to planning.  It’s one thing to successfully deliver  a single day’s worth of reading, writing and arithmetic. But teachers must spin an intricate and continuous web of interconnected lessons that exist on a continuum of instruction. Today must flow organically into tomorrow and into next week, into next month. This demands content area expertise, foresight, intuition and flexibility. Teachers must create a master plan only to be ready to improvise at a moment’s notice when the inevitable interruptions arise.  This all requires vision that comes only from experience.

And don’t forget that part of planning is coming up with engaging lessons that provide content knowledge while simultaneously allowing for the challenge and wonder of discovery. It’s like finding the balance between just the right amount of salt and garlic and ruining a dish by over seasoning.

Then, once the instruction has been skillfully executed,  there is the time spent correcting student work.  And this isn’t simply circling misspelled words or finding incorrect calculations or pinpointing mixed up chronology, either. It’s about giving kids positive, fair feedback so that their next task will be that much better than the last, so that they will feel confident and proud of what they think they can do.

Opening a restaurant is starting sound do-able to me now.  I am accustomed to long hours, hard work, and demanding consumers. People have told me my penne with kalamata olives and cherry tomatoes is restaurant quality. On second thought, I think I will just go back to Sergio’s and let the pros do their thing.