Life After Teaching Interview: Meg Olson, Social Justice Advocate

Leaving teaching doesn’t mean you have to give up on helping others. In fact, most former teachers in a recent survey said they were able to make as much or more of a difference in their new careers as they did in the classroom.

Need more convincing?megolson

Meet Meg Olson.

After eight years as an English teacher in Chicago, she continues to make a positive impact as a social justice advocate in St. Louis.

Meg generously agreed to share her story with me, including how her volunteer work on urban farms — and love for singing — led her to her current job. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

When did you leave teaching?

The 2009-2010 school year was my last year of teaching. By then, I’d been in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for five years, and then at the University of Chicago Laboratory School for three years.

What was ironic was that I’d been at a struggling school for four years, and then I moved four blocks north onto the campus of the University of Chicago, where you could still see my old school from the third floor of the Lab School.

Was the Lab School one of those dream schools?

Yeah — the high school always gets ranked in the top 10 schools that send kids to Harvard, and the year that I started teaching there, Barack Obama’s kids were in the Lower School. And I had parents who were campaign directors and campaign finance directors, so it was a really interesting year to start there.

What made you leave teaching?

Even though I had gone from a struggling school to an English department that had a secretary who made copies*, I realized I wasn’t happy teaching.

Most of the kids I really loved teaching, but the grading load was out of control. I’ll always remember when the husband of a friend asked me, “How many hours a month do you think you’re grading papers?” for his research at Penn State.

After taking note over two months, I realized I was grading 40 to 50 hours a month. I remember thinking, “I’m spending my whole life doing this and I have lots of other interests.”

Parents were another issue, and I think we all know this in elite schools. It was particularly daunting at the Lab School, where about 60 percent of the parents were professors at the University of Chicago.

I had a freshman parent who was in the University of Chicago’s English department asking me why I wasn’t teaching “trope” to ninth graders at the first open house. I just thought, “I can’t believe you’re asking me this.”

And there was such pressure for our kids to be awesome at everything. For her first paper, I had a freshman crying about a B+, about ‘How am I going to get into Yale?’

I didn’t want be a part of this system anymore that’s stressing out our children so much. It made me really sad. I also started my teacher certification the year No Child Left Behind became a policy, so I felt like the whole climate was getting worse for teachers.

*Ed. note: I’m still wrapping my brain around this.

What did you do when you left?

Honestly, it’s crazy that at 31 I decided to do this.

After I finished my master’s in English, I worked on an urban farm in Pittsburgh that offered room and board and did my job search from there.

And because my resume was all education-based, combined with the national dialogue of, “Are teachers capable of doing anything?,” I then took a position with Americorps at an urban farm in St. Louis. I knew I’d be living at the poverty level, but I had some savings.

You’re a brave person!

Well, even though this was mostly a volunteer position, I knew I’d be gaining real skills on my resume that showed I was doing policy work and event planning. I did that for a year and really enjoyed it.

And then, I realized the wage was unlivable and it made me really think about the kids at CPS that I had taught. For the first time, I understood what it meant when they said that 90 percent of the students were living below the poverty level.

But the job in St. Louis led me to the one I have now. I’d grown to really like the city. It only has about 325,000 people and the social service and advocacy community is really close-knit, so there’s a lot of opportunity. It’s also a city that’s fallen on some tough times, but there’ve been major efforts to rebuild it. It’s an exciting place to be.

What do you do now?

I work at Catholic Charities in St. Louis as a Parish and Community Outreach Manager in the Advocacy Department.

My job is to build relationships with Catholics in the pews, and educate them on how policies made at the state and federal level impact the poor and vulnerable, and the working poor. I’ll do workshops on expanding Medicaid, or on the importance of raising the minimum wage. I also train parishioners to have in-district meetings with their legislators or to even go to the capital (Jefferson City) and participate in advocacy days.

While I’m not a lobbyist, during Missouri’s legislative session I’m at the capitol building about two days a week. I try and build relationships with legislators on both sides of the aisle so that they are aware of Catholic Charities and the people we serve.

On the national level, I work a lot on immigration issues and the Farm Bill. I also organize Catholics to work on those issues as well.

In addition to my position in the Advocacy Department, I’m also the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

In this role, I work in partnership with the office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in D.C. to fund low-income community organizing groups and economic development projects in the poorest areas of the St. Louis region. In recent months, CCHD has been at the table up in Ferguson, supporting efforts to end racial disparities.

How did you get the job at Catholic Charities?

Well, I was a member of the church down the street from my house and I sang in the choir. Everyone there knew I was looking for a job, and everyone wanted me to stay in St. Louis. One day a woman from my church connected me to the Senior Director of Policy at Catholic Charities. He had just received a grant to hire a new staff person, and he hired me.

But I had to persuade him first. A few weeks before I applied to the job, I sat down and talked to him. I remember him saying, “How am I supposed to convince my president to hire you for this job?” Here’s pretty much what I said:

I’m a great writer and researcher; I’m not scared of speaking to large groups of people; I’ve worked with diverse populations; in fact, I’ve spent a lot of time being the only white person in the room! I’m extremely patient; I’ve learned not to expect quick answers. Students take a long time to grow and meet the goals set for them by teachers and administrators — I think this means that I can stick with an issue and advocate for it as long as it takes to pass the bill.

(This is good, because we finally overturned Missouri’s lifetime ban on food stamps for people with drug felonies after an eight-year battle — I was only there for two and a half years of it — and we’re heading into year three in the fight to expand Medicaid in Missouri!).

Congrats! That’s awesome.

Any other ways that your teaching background has helped in your job?

One thing was that I was the co-facilitator of our Model UN team at the Lab School. Working with the kids and prepping with them for conferences involved reading policy side-by-side with them, which helped me get really good at reading policy.

Another thing you need to do as a teacher is adjust your writing and speaking to different audiences. You have your colleagues, your students with different abilities, and you have the parents.

That’s something I’m very good at when I think about all the different people I have to talk to, all the way from a low-wage fast food worker, to the lead state senator in Missouri, or the people in the governor’s office.

Even though you’re no longer teaching, it sounds like you’re still really busy and working on tough problems. Has leaving teaching been worth it for you?

Absolutely. Even though my current work is draining, I don’t take a lot of it home with me and that’s the biggest difference.

My current workplace also promotes taking care of yourself and your family, and making sure you don’t get burned out. A year and a half ago, when my mom was in the hospital, there was no question about taking as much time as I needed, which doesn’t have happen in many work environments.

I also realize that I’m finally working on the root causes of poverty. Especially after working in the inner city, I realize that government needs to be a much bigger part of the success of schools and the success of school children, and not just by training teachers better, though teacher preparation does need to be addressed seriously.

As a young teacher, I didn’t know anything about poverty. I was just thinking, “Why won’t this parent return my phone calls?” Now I’m working directly with their experiences.

So if some of the root problems I’m working on are addressed at the national level or the state level, I feel like that’ll naturally make schools better, because families will be stronger, children will be stronger, and parents will hopefully have better protection on the job, so they can be more involved in their children’s education.

Related

Life After Teaching Interview: Marie Ardito, Retiree Advocate

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From the Classroom to Parliament: A Former Teacher on Her New “London Life”

I’m excited to share today’s guest blog from fellow former teacher theentiretyoflife. She responded to my recent call for submissions from those who’ve found life after teaching, and I’m so glad she did.

After five years teaching primary school in southeast England, she landed a job (on her last day of teaching!) in the Education Service of the Houses of Parliament in London, where she presents workshops and develops educational materials for visiting school groups from throughout the UK.

In this post, she takes stock of her new life — its challenges, rewards and whether leaving teaching was the right move.

For her full story, please visit theentiretyoflife.


It’s been just over 3 months since I began working in London.

Before I started the job, my mind was filled with questions:

Will I like the job? Can I handle the travel? Will I miss school holidays?

Now, I love my “London life.”

That said, it does have some drawbacks compared to teaching — mainly that I have a much longer commute than I did as a teacher.

Where I once had a 10-minute drive to work, my commute is now an hour and 45 minutes each way. This means that I have to get up almost an hour earlier than I used to. So by 6:45, my usual teaching waking time, I’m out of the house and walking to the train station.

Three months in, the 5:55 am alarm — followed by a no-really-get-up-now 6:00 am one — is still painful. But I have honed the art of getting ready in half an hour once I extract myself from the covers at 6:15. Whether I am actually presentable within that half hour is another question, but I haven’t missed the train yet.

The longer commute also means I’m home much later than I used to be. This is only a problem when my friends with children need events to start at 5:00 pm, and sometimes I can’t make it until almost 7:00.

Thank goodness for Time Off In Lieu — my work’s policy of allowing employees to accrue anything over allowed hours as time off. The closest thing to TOIL in teaching is the holidays. You can, headteacher permitting, get time off, but it is a kind gesture rather than an expected norm. Plus, there’s no such thing as working hours in teaching so it’s been quite a shift in my thinking.

Although the longer hours have taken some getting used to, the new job has also offered plenty of rewards. For instance:

My commute has made me a good deal fitter than I was as a teacher. Even though I’m on my feet less compared to teaching, the brisk walks to and from the train have helped me exercise more. I can now walk for miles at a fast pace, making it from Big Ben to sitting on the train in 10 minutes if need be.

In general, my workday is much more relaxed and easier to manage.

At the beginning of the day, I get to decide what I do first. If I’ve observed a workshop, I’ll write it up so I remember what happened. If I need to ring the IT department, I ring it. I have workshops to teach, but when I’m finished with them, there’s no need to mark anything — I just return everything to its proper place and off I go.

And even though I have to be in the office until I’m allowed to go home (usually no later than 5:00), my working day stops! It doesn’t carry on into the night until it’s done like it used to. I leave unfinished work on my desk, switch off my computer and go home.

Because I don’t need to bring work home, I’ve come to enjoy my commute: the seats on the train are cosy, and I love having the time to write, read, watch TV and sleep.

Another perk of the new job is that I now have a thriving social life. Where my evenings once held a large amount of marking, and Sunday afternoons were spent planning, my evenings are now spent with friends. Although I get home substantially later, once I’m home my time is my own. Friday evenings actually begin at 4:00 pm in the pub (and usually a second outing once I get home) and previously panic-planning Sunday afternoons are now spent doing whatever I like.

I even enjoy going to work now. I love teaching workshops on topics like parliamentary procedure, voting and how to engage with politics. And I love being able to write new material that will be used with visiting schools. It’s a pleasure to still be involved with educating future generations about how politics works and affects our lives even though I’m no longer in the classroom.

I also love the eclectic mishmash of the buildings where I work and the privilege of walking through them. Since September, just during lunch, I’ve been to Westminster Abbey, St. James’s Park and explored all round Whitehall. I’ve found statues I never knew existed and pockets of garden solitude in a bustling city.

Outside of work, but because of my position, I’ve been to Buckingham Palace, the Cabinet War Rooms and Hampton Court. Every day that I explore some new corridor in the Palace feels like a gift that I can’t quite believe is mine.

The Verdict

I decided to work between Christmas and New Year’s Day, to save my holiday for this summer. I had been wondering how I would find this major departure from the long holiday breaks I was used to.

Actually, surprisingly, I haven’t minded.

Would I like to have been off work? Sure, who wouldn’t?

Do I resent my lack of holidays?

As I stood on the station platform on December 29 at 6:57 am, wearing knee-length socks, two scarves and two pairs of gloves to combat the minus-five conditions, I considered this.

I recalled the lesson planning I would have been doing. The waking up to that impending sense of planning-doom — the way it would take over a few days, and still leave me feeling unprepared.

A little part of me still wanted to be asleep in bed, but mostly I felt glad. Glad to be going back into London. Glad to be away from planning-panic and the stresses of school. I was even glad to be exercising again!

Over the last few months, I’ve met yet another group of lovely colleagues. I’ve embarked on a job I would not have entertained this time last year, and my day-to-day life is a whirlwind away from December 2013. There are challenges, don’t get me wrong…

But when, even though I’m working in what I still think of as the Christmas holidays, I turn around to see this at the end of the day —

— I have to admit, life after teaching is turning out to be pretty good.

 

 

Maybe This Year – A Retired Teacher’s Advice for the First Days of School

As a new school year begins, I wanted to share a reflection from Marsha Pincus, a retired high school English teacher who worked in Philadelphia public schools for 34 years. Here’s an excerpt from a longer piece on her blog, Her Own Terms:

I retired from full-time teaching six years ago, but the lessons I have learned and the people I have encountered remain with me. I carry their stories in my heart. 

Six years out, here is what I know.

Even in the darkest moments there is always a light shining through to the classroom. Even the angriest, most defiant child harbors a spark of possibility buried in his despair. Human beings have the capacity for enormous resilience.

I have been given one of the greatest gifts any teacher can be given — the privilege to continue to know so many students after they left my classroom. I have been to their college graduations and their weddings. I have seen them earn graduate degrees, become teachers and principals, businessmen and community leaders. I have seen them with their own children and watched as they’ve become role models for other young people in their communities.

I have also been to funerals — more than I want to remember. But such is life in all of its complexity.

Every child, no matter how old or seemingly jaded, starts the school year with the hope that maybe this year will be the one.

Maybe this year I will finally love school like I once did, when I was little and the teacher put smiley faces on my papers and my mother packed me lunch in my Peter Pan lunch box. 

Maybe this year, people will see me for who I am and value what’s inside of me. 

Maybe this year, I will connect with a teacher who will help me understand the ways to realize the dreams I barely let myself imagine except late at night, right before I fall asleep. 

Maybe this year.

Marsha’s essay reminds me of how important it is for teachers to have empathy. This can be easy to forget, or overlook, when there’s so much on teachers’ plates already, especially in the beginning of the school year.

I should know. Looking back on seven years in the classroom, I realize how much better of a teacher I would have been had I focused less on Getting Things Done, and more on helping my students feel seen and heard.

I think Marsha shows the way empathy can help teachers see their roles more clearly.

For more of Marsha’s story — including how many times her car’s been broken into, and the many nicknames she’s had throughout her teaching career — please read her full essay. You should also check out her portfolio on teaching Macbeth on Inside Teaching, a great resource that features units for all class subjects.

Oh, and one more thing —

I’d like to wish all you returning teachers the best for this school year. Don’t forget to be kind to yourself on the first days of school! 🙂

Related

First Day of School – Talking Back to Harry Wong (Teacher in a Strange Land)

Teaching Is Not a Business (New York Times)

Everything He Needs to Know, He Learned in 4T.

Life After Teaching Interview: Marie Ardito, Retiree Advocate

marie pic 2 001Marie Ardito spent 31 years in the classroom, where she taught first through eighth grade, spending most of her career as a reading specialist.

When it came time for her to retire, though, it didn’t quite happen.

After two months off, Marie began a new career helping others like her. She’s now an information coordinator for MA Retirees United (MRU), a nonprofit group that educates public sector workers about their retirement rights and benefits. Before that, she was the executive director of another retirement group.

When I read about Marie in a recent New York Times article about “second-act” careers for retired workers, I knew I had to reach out to her. In the article, she says,

 “One of the things that drives me crazy is the comment, ‘I can’t do anything but teach.’ I say, ‘If you can relate to kids, normally you can relate to anyone.’ The skills are transferable.”

This is exactly what I’ve come to realize in my own second-act career as a writer — and what I’ve tried to communicate through posts like Five Skills Teachers Have that Employers Want.

Marie was kind enough to speak with me about her career path and share her take on what teachers have to offer in the workplace. Here are some highlights from our phone conversation.

What made you interested in helping retirees?

Basically I loved teaching. When I was thinking long-range, I knew I had to put some teaching into my retirement. My first thought had been to develop a seminar I would do for seniors, and then a neighbor of mine told me to catch them before retirement. And so I looked at what I had done, saw that I could adapt it, and developed a “Preparing for Retirement” seminar that I started doing years before retirement.

I’m not saying that all of my retirement is teaching — it isn’t. Ever since I was a kid of 16, I’ve had an interest in older people. I had worked in a nursing home, and thought that that was an age group that I someday wanted to reach out to.

I feel that my experience as a teacher enables me to do an excellent job with presenting issues, whether it’s preparing for retirement, living in retirement as an informed retiree, or understanding social security and Medicare, which are all seminars that I do. It enables me to present it in an understandable way, and I feel I’ve gone beyond teaching to a new way of life.

How did you get your current job?

I had been approached by Kathy Kelly  (who was, at the time, the president of the American Federation of Teachers in Massachussetts) to help form a retirement group. So we talked, and MRU was born. We started with a couple of hundred members, and now we have close to 2,500.

So your work after teaching came about because you were approached by people based on work you were already doing.

Yes, and I think this happens a lot to people. What I find over the years, dealing with several members, is that when they’re asked to do something that’s outside the teaching profession, sometimes they’re reluctant. I’ve had them call me and say, “Well, what do I know about that particular thing?”

I know for myself, when I initially took the first job, I was thinking, “I’ve got to speak at board of directors meetings; I’ve got to speak at chapter meetings.” So I think that there’s always a little bit of fear of the unknown and questioning whether you’re really up to the task, but I think what those who have either retired from the teaching profession or are thinking of moving on to something else very often don’t realize, is that the skills that we’ve developed as teachers are so marketable and transferable.

I feel really strongly about this too, based on my own experience with changing careers. So what helped you gain confidence? How can we convince more teachers to be proud of the skills they’ve acquired and help them communicate all that they have to offer to employers?

I think sometimes we forget what we’ve taught. I can remember repeatedly saying to students no matter what age level, grade or subject I was teaching, “There are no stupid questions in my classroom.” And I think that we as educators who have said something similar to that — “Don’t be afraid to ask a question,” or “Don’t be afraid to try something” — I think we don’t hear ourselves when it comes to our own personal life. We look for the safe and the sound and the tried and the true and then realize that maybe putting your feet in the cold water could turn out to be a great adventure.

That’s something I’m still learning, too. In my new career as a writer, I’ve realized all those things that I said to my kids about good writing — they still apply, and I’m still learning them.

Yeah — I can remember, back when I first started teaching, putting bulletin boards up with sayings, and I can remember the saying, “It’s better to try and fail than fail to try.” I think that that’s something we have to learn — that yeah, you might fall on your face, but you can fall eight times or 80 times, but just get up and just keep moving.

And I don’t feel this is limited to teachers. I think people don’t think about what they might like to do — whether it’s retirement or changing careers — and the fact that they can do something else.

As part of one of my 12 hour-long seminars, I used to hold up a peanut. You know, the kind you eat at the ballpark — the double peanut? I’d say to them [the retirees], “I used to be fascinated when I was a kid learning about George Washington Carver.” And I said, “He took this stupid little peanut and came up with 300 different uses for it! Somehow or another, I kinda think big ol’ us must have more than one use — more than one thing that we can do.”

You mentioned your presentation skills earlier. What other skills from teaching have helped you be successful at your job?

I’m involved a lot with legislative issues, and I think the research skills I developed both as a student and as a teacher have been absolutely invaluable. I also worked in different systems, different buildings, so I think that another one of the skills that I’ve found invaluable is to adjust to change. I think every teacher has a little of that, because every year you get a new group of kids.

So what other skills do you think teachers have that set them apart?

It depends on the field they want to change to. I bumped into a woman who worked at an inpatient hospital. She was a retired teacher, and her people skills, her computer skills and her organizational skills helped her. She revamped the whole admissions process for them, and she just got a promotion to some other department.

As someone who successfully transitioned into a new career after retirement, what advice do you have for older teachers who want to begin a new career?

I think you have to have confidence in yourself. You’ve got nothing to get discouraged about, because there is one job out there for you. If you don’t let somebody deflate your balloon, and you believe in you, age is just a number! Especially as teachers, I think we become so engrossed in kids that we forget ourselves. Everybody, no matter what their profession is, has to think, “I can do it!” Like I used to tell the kids at school, “Do the impossible.”

Age is a number, and if you’re bogged down by a number, shame on you! And if someone asks me, “How old are you?”, I have to do the math, because I don’t stop to think how old I am.

You’ve got to have curiosity and always want to know more. Try something new. I don’t care if you’re 65; you can still get a job. If I believe I’ve got something to give, if I can sell myself, they’re going to grab me at 65. It’s attitude.

Meet a Real Teacher: Sameer Shah

I’m thrilled that Sam Shah is the first math teacher to be featured on this site. Sam teaches at Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, NY and writes the math teaching blog, Continuous Everywhere Differentiable Nowhere, which was nominated for two Edublog awards.

Type of School: independent K-12 school

Years taught: This is my 6th year teaching.

Number of students this year: 49

 

 

 

You were a straight-A math student at MIT and received an M.A. in History of Science at UCLA. What led you to teaching at the secondary level? 

I used to play “school” when I was young, and make tests for my parents and sister to take. Like, really hard tests. But I wasn’t good at school: I used to get Cs in junior high. It wasn’t until eighth grade that I finally saw school as something I could do, and junior high is when I started falling in love with mathematics.

Then, in high school, I had a triumvirate of three amazing teachers: a math teacher, a history teacher, and most significantly, an English teacher who started broadening my horizons. And because I respected them so much, I knew teaching high school was what I wanted to do with my life.

While I was taking math classes in college, I also took some history of science classes to fulfill the general requirements for a degree. And I fell in love with that subject — head over heels. And so I decided to check out academia and see what it was all about, thinking maybe I wanted to teach at the college level. But no, even though I loved learning, I hated academia and my favorite times in grad school were planning and leading my discussion sections with undergrads. But teaching is not what academia rewards. So I decided that wasn’t the life I wanted, I left, and here I am!

What excites you about math, and how do you get students excited about it? What’s your favorite topic to teach?

There is this inherent beauty and connectedness to math. It’s creative, because there are often many ways to get from question to solution. For me, it’s conceptual depth, or deep understanding, that keeps me invigorated.

Even though it’s “just” high school math, every year I have these random insights that will totally upend how I look at a topic. For example, just recently, I had a moment where I said: “Wait, what is an instantaneous rate of change?” when I was planning a calculus lesson, and then: bam! New lesson plans, investigating just that idea.

Not all my students love math. But one piece of feedback I get is that just being enthusiastic about what we’re doing is super helpful to get them interested. I try to show them what I find stunning/unexpected/interesting/weird, and hope that they get a little taste of what I see. But I should say that I tend to teach fairly traditionally – without many projects or applications.

My favorite topic to teach is anything that involves students coming to a deep conceptual understanding rather than a surface-y, robotic understanding. It could be inflection points and the shape of a curve in calculus, or completing the square in Algebra II. Those lessons that I have which get at the ideas — those are what I really go gaga for.

How do you handle stereotypes in your classroom, such as ‘Asians must be good at math,’ and ‘Girls are bad at math’?

I wish I could say I have a good answer to this.  I realized I used to judge students based on their handwriting a little bit (!)… And if I taught siblings, I would often expect them to be alike. As I’ve matured as a teacher, though, I have learned to take each student as an individual, and we start our relationship from scratch at the beginning of the year.

That said, I have noticed that many girls in my non-advanced classes tend to suffer from what I call “learned helplessness.” This is when a student hits the first moment of frustration, and her method of dealing with it is to raise her hand and ask for help.*

To combat this, I ask students to ask each other for help first. Then I’ll come over and ask a random group member what the problem is. I also won’t allow students to say, “I don’t know.” I have them say something they do know, and try to pinpoint exactly what their blocking point is.

*The opposite of this is with boys who tend to not ask any questions. They hope all will work out via divine intervention or something. I don’t have good strategies for this, other than encouraging question asking and students to be proactive.

Last August, 140 teachers signed up for your Math Blogging Initiation. They wrote once a week for four weeks based on prompts you created. How did it go? Why did you start the project, and what have you learned from it? 

I started the initiation because I had created a “Welcome to the mathtwitterblogosphere” website to help people get involved with our community, and I wanted to capitalize on that momentum.

The feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive! Although it was a lot more work than I imagined since so many people signed up, I had a ton of help from a great crew of bloggers.

What I learned was that there are a lot of people out there reading blogs, but not writing! I used to think of the math teacher blogosphere as this really tiny sparkling star with a set number of people on it, but it turns out there is this whole glowing penumbra of people around the star. Okay, that might not make so much sense. Sorry. You get the idea, right?

If you could change one aspect of your job, what would it be?

Freedom. I would like to really have complete control over my classroom, my pacing, my grading, everything. In order to grow, I need to take risks, fail here and there, and just be trusted to do what I know I can do well.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

I think most people think teaching is an 8-3:30 job. I mean, when I was in high school, even though I was surrounded by teachers all day, I assumed teachers just (a) taught classes, (b) graded papers, (c) photocopied worksheets, and (d) prepared for class by coming up with a few example problems and do a lot of winging it. But that’s nothing like what teaching is.

I start at 7:30 and go until 7 or 8pm every day (if not longer). And I work on weekends. And over breaks. It’s just a lot of work, and is physically and emotionally draining, but most people don’t see that. And that’s hard to get across to people. The fact that we’re dealing with kids, and not “classes,” is also hard to get across to people. That’s why my friend Tina and I have created A Day In The Life.

What teacher made the most impact on you and why? What would you tell him/her now?

There have been too many (including the few I listed above). I want to tell them all: thank you. As teachers, our students constantly leave us, and we never really know if we changed their worldview a little bit…or if all we did came and went and nothing but dust remains. That endemic uncertainty to our profession, that sucks.

I would tell my teachers they inspired me to become a teacher because I love learning, and I value knowledge. Those are things they inculcated in me, and I want to do for others what they did for me.

What advice do you have for aspiring or beginning teachers?

I’ve written An Open Letter to New Teachers. Here’s an excerpt:

Dear person about to enter the classroom as a fulltimeteacher,

I love you. Okay, fine, not quite true — maybe respect, like, or lurve is more appropriate — but you have a passion for something and you’re following it. I don’t know if that passion is for the subject you teach, or for working with kids, or the deeply interesting intellectual puzzle of how to get someone to understand something, or for (in the booming Wizard of Oz voice) the Betterment of All Mankind. Regardless, this thing that brings you to the classroom is wonderful, because it puts you in the same ranks as those wonderful teachers that loom large in your past who inspired you and who helped you recognize that what they do has some worth. (Unfortunately, it also means you’ll probably have a bank account similar to those teachers. Sigh. Yeah, that will continue to suck, newteacher.)

Meet a Real Teacher: Daniela Flores

Meet the amazing Daniela, a fourth-grade Spanish and English teacher in Grapevine, a suburb of Dallas, Texas.  Daniela’s past life as a journalist shapes her teaching, as does her experience as an English Language Learner.

And I think I’ve got a new motto: GOYA/KOD!

Type of School:
Title 1 Elementary School

Years taught: 3

Number of students this year: 35

 

 

You left a position with a prestigious news agency to become a teacher. What motivated your choice, and what have you realized about its impact?

I had a great journalism professor in college whose passion for the profession was so palpable I was ready to take on the world when I graduated. After college, I got to work with and learn from some of the most talented journalists I’ve ever encountered. They had that passion, too. It took me a while to admit to myself that while I liked what I was doing and have a huge respect for the work, I didn’t feel the same way they did about journalism. I wanted to find my passion and that led me to bilingual education.  In the years since, I’ve realized I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

You teach a bilingual Spanish class. What are your students’ backgrounds? Can you explain what bilingual education means, and give us a snapshot of your class?

My students are mostly either from Mexico, or first-generation Americans with Spanish-speaking parents. We follow a dual language enrichment model at my school. This means my fourth-grade students receive half of their instruction in Spanish and half in English.  Our goal is to educate bilingual and biliterate 21st-century learners.

Your family is from Monterrey, Mexico and you grew up speaking Spanish. How does your background inform your teaching?

I think my background helps me understand my students because I lived the same thing they are going through. I know how exciting, difficult, exhausting, but ultimately rewarding the process of learning a new language can be. I always use that to guide my teaching. Perhaps more importantly, I know what it’s like to feel like you’re between two cultures. I use all of this to create relationships with my students and guide them in taking the best from both of the worlds they live in.

What do you most enjoy about your work?

Interacting with my students. Their enthusiasm and dreams fill me with hope for the future. Their calls for help remind me how important it is to have someone who believes in you. Last year, a student said to me, “Ms. Flores, I’m a girl with so many dreams. I want to be a lawyer, a chef, a teacher, a vet…” My job forces me to see the world very realistically, but my students allow me to see its endless possibilities.

If you could change one aspect of your job, what would it be?

I would remove the extra pressures that take away attention from my students and their learning. The students are the reason I got into education.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

To quote “Bad Teacher”: “Shorter hours, summers off, no accountability.” Not only are those ideas false (!), they would not be the reasons anyone who really believes in education would become a teacher.

What teacher made the most impact on you and why? What would you tell him/her now?

My main journalism professor, Dr. Robert Cole. Even though I did not stay in the world of journalism, he taught me you should be passionate about what you get up to do every morning. Seeing his love for journalism led me to find my love for teaching. I was nervous he would be disappointed in me for leaving journalism, so I didn’t tell him.  Now I realize he would be happy I found my calling. Today, I want to tell him I’m still following GOYA/KOD*, just in the world of education. Thank you for showing me what loving what you do looks like, Dr. Cole.

*Get off your ass and knock on doors!

What advice do you have for aspiring or beginning teachers?

Surround yourself in greatness. Find the best teachers at your school, in your district, on Twitter, anywhere, and learn everything you can from them.  Also, don’t forget about yourself. When a former journalism colleague who had been a teacher gave me that advice, I had no idea what he meant. But you’ll figure it out very quickly!

Meet a Real Teacher: Dan Fullerton

Meet Dan Fullerton, the first science teacher to be interviewed for this site! Dan is a microelectronic-engineer-turned-physics-teacher at Irondequoit High School in Rochester, NY. He is also the creator of APlusPhysics.com and writes his own blog about teaching called Physics In Flux. 

Type of School: public high school

Years taught: 5 of high school; 9 at the college level

Number of students this year: about 100    

 

 

You were an engineer for major technology companies like Eastman Kodak and Samsung for 10 years; at one point, you were the head of several engineering groups at Kodak. What made you change careers to teaching, a field that does not pay as well? Why were you willing to move away from doing technical research?

In 2003, I was asked to teach a course to upperclassmen and graduate students at Rochester Institute of Technology as an adjunct professor.  I loved it.  And I continued teaching, in both on-campus and distance learning formats, year after year.

After about five years, I found I was becoming frustrated with the number of students who talked about how they had hated physics, or didn’t understand the basic principles.  I couldn’t imagine how that could happen, as physics should be one of the coolest, most engaging, hands-on and practical courses students take in their high school careers.  So I talked to my then-fiance about switching careers and making the move to teaching high school physics.

The financial impact was considerable, but I get up every morning wanting to go to work, and I have to force myself to leave my classroom. Every year I fall in love with my kids (and am heartbroken every June when they graduate), but they come back to visit!

How does your experience of teaching college physics compare to teaching physics to high schoolers? What motivated you to teach high school full-time?

I find teaching high school more challenging.  As an adjunct professor teaching the same course to upperclassmen and grad students day after day, the technical piece was simple, and I basically shared my knowledge in two-hour lectures twice a week to students who were highly interested in the topic.  It was the students’ responsibility to keep up and build understanding.

As a high school teacher, I have to work considerably harder to engage my learners, develop relationships with them as I learn their strengths and opportunities, and find ways to help them learn not only physics, but more importantly, skills such as learning to teach themselves, logical thinking, organization, prioritization, working in teams, and taking responsibility.  It’s a monumental task, but one that is extremely rewarding.

What do you most enjoy about your work?

More than anything I enjoy seeing my students grow.  The first few weeks of school each year, we set the stage for the classroom atmosphere and student expectations.  It’s chaotic, wild, challenging, and frustrating as a set of very diverse learners realize they’re going to have to come together to build a learning community.

By the end of the year, however, I plan complete lessons where I don’t say a word.  The students come into class, know what they’re supposed to do, and dive into activities that allow them to build their own understandings.  I become a facilitator instead of a lecturer, and I have a classroom full of teachers teaching themselves and each other.  When you get to this point, it’s an amazing feeling to be able to sit back, watch and listen to the wonderful things going on in the room.

If you could change one aspect of your job, what would it be?

I would love the ability to adjust my teaching topics on the fly and write my own end-of-year final exams.  We currently end each year with a standardized state-administered final exam, which follows the prescribed course curriculum.

I can imagine a physics teaching nirvana where a class that has a strong interest in electricity and magnetism spends an extra month on semiconductor devices.  The students in a second section of the same course might have a stronger interest in modern physics, so we could spend a couple of extra weeks on relativity, black holes, quantum theory, or whatever catches their interest.  I have that ability to a certain extent, and I understand the need for state standards and the value of our final exams, but a fella can dream…

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

The biggest misconception about teaching has to be the hours.  The belief that teachers work from 8 to 3 and get three months off each summer just isn’t so. I’m in by 7 a.m. each day and out at 4:30 p.m. at the earliest; usually spend a half day working each weekend during the school year; and spend hundreds of hours working on curriculum and resources in the summer — so much so that the start of the school year is usually a “slowing down” period!

What teacher made the most impact on you and why? What would you tell him/her now?

My high school math teacher, Mr. Richard Genung, was extremely demanding, strict, and everything had to be done his way.  Once I learned to listen to him, though, everything started coming together.  I was able to graduate high school with credit for Calculus 1, 2, 3, and 4, and only had to take two pure math courses in college as an engineering major. The discipline he instilled in me put me ahead of my colleagues from a math perspective for years.  To this day, I can hear his voice telling me to justify my answers, and show all work as presented in class.  He was a truly amazing, dedicated, and caring instructor, whose efforts put me in a great position to succeed in so many future endeavors.

What advice do you have for aspiring or beginning teachers?

The best advice I could give to new teachers would be two-fold.  First, let your students know you care.  You’d be amazed at what mistakes they’ll forgive if they know you care about them day in and day out, and it’ll make class fun for them and for you.

Secondly, take great notes your first couple years.  Document each lesson, then as soon as it’s done, reflect on it and update it with what you’d like to change for next year.  Put it on paper immediately, and file it away, so next year you can go right back to it, and immediately see what you’re going to modify.  It all piles up if you don’t stay right on top of it, building yourself a giant database of lessons and resources.

I store all of my materials in Evernote digitally so it’s very easy to search, update, and print out, but a stack of file folders or binders would do the job just as well!

Meet a Real Teacher: Karen Trindle

I’m pleased to introduce Karen, a music teacher in Newark, NJ. When she’s not spelunking in her school’s basement for instruments or orchestrating student productions, she’s playing the harp and hosting Edith Wharton book club meetings.

Type of School: public K-8 school; 100% of students are eligible for free lunch

Years taught: 3

Number of students this year: 550 (and she knows all their names!)

 

Last week, you staged a production of “The Wizard of Oz” with your kids. How did it go?

I thought it was a complete success — the kids really performed well and had a sense of pride about their work. This year, we had an evening performance just for parents and family members, and the audience that night was packed. My favorite moment was when the boy playing the Scarecrow spotted his family right before “If I Only Had a Brain.” You could tell how excited he was to sing and perform for them.

There’d never been a play before at my school. Adapting two hours of material into 45 minutes turned out to be the easy part. What I hadn’t anticipated were things like the treachery of the Munchkin sequence, and needing to remind the kids not to turn their backs to the audience over and over again. It was totally worth it, though, and I would do it again. I’m thinking of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella next.

What’s it like to teach in Newark, a city that is such a poster-child for failing schools that Mark Zuckerberg has pledged millions of dollars to rescue it? And, how do you feel about being “another” white teacher in a predominantly black school district? Did you have to fight resentment or suspicion from your students?

Some of the stereotypes about teaching in Newark are true, and some I haven’t experienced. The poverty is very real. Coming from an upper-middle class background myself, it was very different and surprising to see children who don’t get the same access to their parents and level of support from them that I had from mine. I grew up in an area where children were indulged. The children I teach worry about things I never worried about. Many students eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the school.

On the other hand, I have seen a lot of kids who represent themselves as hard and street-smart, demonstrate tremendous potential. I think the idea that teenagers in this kind of setting grow up faster, and aren’t children, is untrue. If you give them instruments and scripts, they very much want to play. They like to use their imaginations and want to have fun.

A lot of people thought I would quit after the first year. People could tell it was a different environment than I was used to, including large class sizes and very difficult classroom management situations.  When I came back the next year, I noticed a lot more openness from my co-workers and students. Because my students know I care about them, that has changed how they respond to me.

As far as donations, they could make a difference if the money were used to address the needs of the community as a whole — I wish it could be used to help parents with resources to take care of their kids. You can get every kid a laptop, but if their parents aren’t home, then the money won’t have much impact.

Why did you become a teacher?

I always loved being a student — particularly the beginning of the year, and the excitement of new notebooks. In college, I was a music major, but by the time I finished my senior year, I realized I didn’t want to be a performer as my sole source of income. I also liked the idea of serving a community.

I was torn between music and history as well — those were always my favorite classes. In the end, I could picture myself as a music teacher, working with kids with instruments.

What do you most enjoy about your work?

I really like it when the students get excited about something I’ve taught them, and I love hearing about them pursuing it outside of class; that makes me feel like they’re really listening to me and it really matters. I’ve gotten a lot of kids interested in independent instrumental study, including one 8th-grade student doing very poorly who got a lot of negative attention from teachers, including myself. I taught her how to play the chords to “Someone Like You” by Adele on the piano and lent her a keyboard. She came back from winter break really excited; tried out for school play, and got a lead role. She also applied and got accepted into Arts High, a very competitive school. In total, seven of my students were accepted there this year.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

That it’s always a fun party, and that I’m always sitting cross-legged with a guitar in a circle. I do do that, but there’s a lot more to it. Something I despise is when someone asks me  what I do and when I tell them, they say, “That is so cute.” There are cute aspects of the job, but I would not call it “cute.” I think elementary school teachers, especially, experience this misunderstanding. Teaching kids can be a war zone.

What teacher made the most impact on you and why? What would you tell him/her now?

I’ve had so many great teachers, but the one who influenced me most is Mr. Morris, my 5th- through 12th-grade orchestra teacher. During my first violin lesson he said, “You’re a natural at this.” I remember going home and showing my mom the one string I knew how to play and thinking I was the coolest. . I always felt really comfortable and confident playing in front of him, and am happy he was my teacher for so many years. Now, I tell kids they’re naturals at playing. I would tell Mr. Morris, thank you for getting me so excited about becoming a musician.

What advice do you have for aspiring or beginning teachers?

Teaching can be the best, but in a way you won’t expect. It’s not financially rewarding, but it can be very wonderful.

Meet a Real Teacher: Dana Maloney

Dana teaches AP Literature, World Literature II, and advises the school newspaper at Tenafly High School in Tenafly, NJ. She was also recently awarded the Princeton University Distinguished Secondary Teaching Award! Congrats, Dana, and thanks for sharing your story. 

Type oschool: public high school

Years taught: 24

Number of students this year: 132

 

What was it like to get the Princeton award? How did it help you reflect on 24 years of teaching?

I had never dreamed that a teacher could be honored in such a way, and I am deeply grateful for it. I think teachers need to receive positive feedback, and too often, especially in the current climate of evaluation, we are not often enough receiving respect for our work and our commitment.  So to know that some outside experts and discerning eyes were commending me for what I have dedicated my professional life to doing was extremely validating.  I just told someone recently that the award was like adding a jet pack to my back:  it gave me an energy boost to keep propelling me forward in my career, and to stay in the classroom so that I can continue to do what I do well.

The award highlights your work on student-led inquiry and action — please explain what this means, and why it’s worth teaching with this model.

Over the last six or so years, I have spent much time reading,  learning and thinking about how we can prepare students for success in the 21st century. I am happy to see the fruits of my labor develop over the last five years into a curriculum for Senior English students that challenges them to ask, research, and act on a question they have about the world. For example, one student asked how the Jewish-American experience is portrayed through literature, and another asked how literature conveys the importance of reading.

I think that students deserve to make and are motivated by making their own decisions in the learning process; I also think that all learning can be even more meaningful when we take our learning into the world and create impact with it.  I love the idea of blurring the lines between the English classroom and other disciplines — and also between the classroom and the world.

Ed. note: You can watch Dana and her students explain their inquiry and action on MSG Varsity.

Why did you become a teacher?

I always felt fortunate to have the abilities and opportunities I have had, and I have always felt that I was responsible for using my advantages to contribute to the world.  From about the time I was 16, I focused on how public schools might be reformed; and on how schools can foster (more) motivational learning environments.  My father had left our family when I was young, but in my teenage years I spent more time with him than I had in years, and through him I became exposed to some thinkers such as John Holt (How Children Fail, How Children Learn) who were very critical of public schools; having had a wonderful public education experience, I was motivated to be a reformer of public schools.

Figuring out that I was actually a teacher involved doing it (teaching) and then knowing that I enjoyed it and that I had some ability to do it.  I found challenged by the workload and the need to learn (constant, if we do this well).  As a teacher, I found that I never watched the clock and that time flows quickly .  Before I was a teacher, I worked for a year as a reporter, and I pretty much hated my job.  By contrast, when I started working with kids, I felt as if I was in my element.

I was also blessed to have been ushered into teaching by Sister June Favata at Saint Vincent Academy (in Newark), who constantly gave me feedback, advice and mostly praise.  She inspired me then and inspires me now; I am forever grateful to her and feel lucky to have her as a role model in education.

What do you most enjoy about your work?

The kids —  kids are life, and teenagers are so very lively and funny.  Except when I am in really bad spirits, I find high school to be endlessly enjoyable and funny; it is a place of lots of life, of humanity.

If you could change one aspect of your job, what would it be?

I am very interested in creating and nurturing environments in which teachers are supported for who they are and what they can do.  Teaching can be demeaning, unfortunately.  I would change the public perception of teachers; and I would create structures that are inspiring, supportive and motivational to teachers.  I believe that there should be a trajectory for growth across a teaching career; I think a teacher should understand that he or she can grow and learn.  There should also be limits on what is expected of a teacher.  Right now the expectations and the stress are not sustainable.  I worry about that. Even where I currently teach, I have seen my student load go up 50% across my time here; on top of that, so many demands on teachers have increased.

What’s the biggest misconception about what you do?

I guess “teaching literature” is a misconception about us as English teachers.  Through literature and more, we are teaching so many important things, including skills, understandings and knowledge.  I think people do not understand how exhausting teaching is — though they would learn with just one day following us — and how summer is about re-charging to do it again.  Maybe they don’t know how so much of what we do is helping young people navigate through life and helping them develop.

What teacher made the most impact on you and why? What would you tell him/her now?

My 5th and 6th grade teachers,  Mrs. Hannah and Mr. Epstein at South Mountain School in South Orange, New Jersey.  Honestly, I think about them all the time.  They were also so unbelievably supportive of me; I felt truly loved and “seen” by them. Through them, I started to see myself as a creative writer. They also taught me so much about how to be a good teacher.  It just so happens that I think a message I sent to them, via the mother of a friend, actually reached both of them only a couple weeks ago.

What advice do you have for aspiring or beginning teachers?

New teachers should know that they are truly doing something honorable and important.  I honestly believe that teaching is just as important as many professions to which society generally grants higher status.

I think it’s also important to know that to teach is to learn; as Chaucer says of the Scholar in The Canterbury Tales, “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”  Teachers should, I think, be engaged in a constant process of teaching and learning; this makes teaching authentic and engaging.

Young teachers especially should make an effort to seek out those with more experience and expertise and seek to learn from them.  If possible, observe classes; ask for feedback as you work on an assignment or develop a unit plan.  Do not go into the profession thinking that you know more than those who have dedicated their lives to the profession.

If and when possible, be yourself with your students.   One of the things I often tell my student teachers is, “forgive yourself.” We all make mistakes, and teaching is not a perfect practice. You can admit when you are wrong while retaining control and authority. Just try your best, and don’t forget to take care of yourself.