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.