Becoming a Teacher

2nd grade.  P.S. 59, NYC.

When I was young, and even in high school, I did not imagine myself as a teacher.  I thought I would be a pediatrician or a veterinarian or something like that.  But, after enduring all of the dissections in AP Biology, I realized that the medical field was not for me.  Maybe I would be better suited to the financial sector; math was my favorite subject, after all.

I happily trotted off to college where I declared a mathematics major towards the end of my first year and an additional major in art history a few semesters later.  Meanwhile, starting in high school, I worked at my father’s advertising agency in Manhattan during breaks. Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, I filed invoices and answered phone calls. We rarely went on big trips as a family since my parents were always working and relatives lived close enough for day trip visits during the holidays.  We also had a “country house” where we spent weekends away from the city, so additional funds on ski and beach vacations were out of the question.  Just like the dissections in AP Biology, working at the ad agency gave me a really good sense of what I did not want to do.  I did not want to be in an office on the 35th floor of a tall building every day for the rest of my working life.

But what did I want to do?  I had to be constructively occupied when school wasn’t in session (no sitting on the couch watching The Price is Right in my family), but it was permissible to find a job doing something other than as an accounts payable clerk or a receptionist my father’s office.  I spent one summer on Martha’s Vineyard working in a bakery.  That was ok but still not something I imagined doing again.  So, I contacted Wolfeboro where my sister attended summer school in the early 1980s.  I was offered a job as a “counselor”. Soon after I unpacked my duffle bags, I discovered that I was the lowest person on the totem pole, always razzed by the veteran counselors for making “rookie” errors, and never allowed to supervise students by myself.  I wasn’t 21 and didn’t even have a car. I was at the mercy of the older counselors to invite me to do laundry with them. Forget about actually going out to a bar on a night off.  Nevertheless, I instantly fell in love with the setting, the mission, and the routine.  I knew then that I would definitely want to be a teacher, at least for a little while, once I graduated from college.

That was 1987.

This August I’ll start my 30th year teaching.  I have learned a lot about math, teaching, and teaching math in three decades.  Instructional materials have changed. For example, most of us have moved from chalk to dry erase. Our grade books are now on line. High school math teachers (and students) have graphing calculators. The list goes on and on, in fact I have a blog post called “Then and Now” that is a work in progress. I’ll link it  when it’s finished. But a lot of things have not changed. The best teachers are passionate about their content area and their students, and they work tirelessly to bring the two closer together.

As I think back on 30 years, I realize how myopic I was to not see myself as a teacher earlier. First of all, the family in which I grew up values education. My parents always celebrated curiosity, hard work, failures, and successes. Asking a question in my family was answered with another question. I thought that was normal until I started teaching. So many students were (and still are) more interested in teachers giving them the right answer to every question so they can memorize it for the test. Many students don’t even know how to ask a question in the first place. Even more shocking was that not everyone’s parents want them in the most challenging curriculum possible. Some parents want their children to take the easy classes so they can graduate with all As. Second of all, one of my favorite authors was Laura Ingalls Wilder, pioneer and “Jill of all trades”, including teaching, to help support her family.  I wrote an entire blog post on her influence in my life so I’ll leave it at that.  Finally, I had really been teaching my entire life. The eldest of three, I would play “school” and “library” with my siblings on those long rainy summer afternoons when we couldn’t go swimming. In high school and college I tutored all of my friends in math. All of them. You know who you are. You were my first students and I am forever grateful that you were not scared to ask me for help; it gave me practice with my explanations and my first taste of what it means to watch a student “get it”.

So the foundation was there, and once I started teaching, I was hooked. I was also horrible at it. I am astounded by how much better I have gotten at teaching over the years, and how much less effort it takes to do a decent job. It still takes hours outside of class to plan with colleagues, prepare lessons, write assessments, and grade said assessments. But inside the classroom it’s (almost) easy.

Someone commented, “Why we teach,” on a recent blog post. It made me wonder why I teach and how I got this way. It is a confluence of events, some gradual, some, like Wolfeboro, singletons.  But all of the events involve the greatest teachers of all, our students. Those early years when I was a horrible teacher I mercifully had some outstanding students who unceasingly fired questions at me. The barrage was in some ways much harder that a dissertation defense because I had to justify not only the math but the reason why we were all there in the first place.  If you have ever taught high school or middle school, you know exactly what I mean.  When my husband and I moved to Mississippi in 2000 I had to learn how to be a teacher all over again with rooms full of students who did not know how to ask questions.  There was and still is a deference to authority that impedes learning in many places.  It was a seismic shift from teaching in Massachusetts where I was constantly challenged, and every bit of it made me a better teacher.

I could probably retire in a few years, but, what’s the point? To sleep in? We can sleep when we’re dead. To travel? Eh. Maybe. To do something we love doing? But I already have that. As long as my administrators will have kooky ‘ole me teaching, I will gladly keep punching the clock. I have some more math teachers to produce anyway before my time is up.

8 thoughts on “Becoming a Teacher

  1. Thanks for the mention in your blog. I, too, struggle with should I retire, or not. I discovered that I was meant to teach at the age of 34. I potty trained 2 kids, of course I could teach. After 30 years, I still love it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your work with us.

    • If you burn out, find something else to do for a while and then find a different school or a different administration and teach some more. It’s also key to not keep trying to reinvent the wheel. I try to do one new thing per year. This year I got all of my students on Khan Academy, but I continued with my paper and pencil assignments too.

      • Luckily don’t feel it yet, I’m just surrounded by older-generation teachers who are constant in their reminders that I will feel as tired and burnt-out as they do! But I’ll remember that, thank you!

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