Becoming a Teacher

My former student M. interviewed me about becoming a teacher. She’s in Manhattanville’s awesome Atlas program, which helps students define their motivations and create a direct, personalized path from college to career. (The program offers so much more than choosing a major.) M. plans to be a teacher and, in the long run, a teacher of teachers, so she asked me about my path. I thoroughly enjoyed answering the questions and grew curious about how my friends/colleagues would answer the same. Here’s an abbreviated version:

What motivated you to become a teacher? How long have you been teaching? My undergraduate college did not offer an education major while I was there, so I sought teaching roles as a T.A. and academic mentor. My first job after graduation was in the office of an elementary school, and I found myself wanting to spend as much time as possible with students, so I tutored, taught after-school classes, and even coached basketball at some point. It wasn’t long before I transitioned from office to classroom. I’ve worked with students my entire career, almost 20 years.

Prior to teaching, what activity or coursework best prepared you for this profession? As an undergraduate, I majored in sociology and focused on social justice, social movements, stereotypes and assumptions about gender and sexuality, and power. I studied the sociology of education and wrote my 200-page thesis on power in schools. I learned about different types of power and investigated how administrators, teachers, students, and parents utilize power to reach desired goals. Sociology prepared me to understand the big picture of education in terms of government, politics, and history, as well as the individual students who might sit in my classrooms.

What advice would you give an aspiring teacher like me? List your fundamentals of teaching, keep them in mind at all times, and adjust them as you develop in your career. Your fundamentals are your compass. They keep you clear and level even when your classroom faces the unexpected, the challenging, the chaotic. Some of my fundamentals include high expectations, a community of mutual respect and safety, intentionality and preparation, and joy.

What is your favorite part about your job? Are there any challenges? I love the ah-ha, the lighting up, the transition from I can’t to I can. Nothing is as gratifying as the moment a student suddenly gets it. Hard work, brave attempts, and critical thinking lead to those moments, and boom—a student is suddenly on the other side, feeling success, pride, and resilience. A major challenge in teaching is supporting a student as she moves toward that ah-ha moment, especially when the student may be standing in her own way.

What inspired you to become an education professor? After 12 years working in elementary and middle schools, while also attending two graduate school programs that helped me develop my reading, critical thinking, global awareness, and writing, I realized I wanted to share what I’d learned with a wider audience. I loved the idea of teaching scores of new teachers and thereby reaching hundreds and hundreds of young children.