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Ed. Magazine

How to Become a Teacher

(In Three Easy Steps Over 20 Long Years)
Lighthouse illustration by Tete Garcia
Illustration: Tete Garcia

In the summer I was 22, I was waiting for all of my life to begin: for a fulfilling career to materialize in front of me; for my boyfriend to propose so I could plan my dream wedding; for the subway because I couldn’t afford taxis. And by that point, I’d already been waiting forever to become a teacher.

Act I opens on a Saturday morning in the basement rec room, a staple of 1980s suburban Americana. An easel covered in chart paper perches on the edge of a large placemat turned small rug upon which a motley assortment of stuffed animals has gathered to listen, to learn, and occasionally to misbehave. At their helm: a bossy but tenderhearted elementary schooler, drawn to the combination of structure and nurturing dispensed more in the classroom than at home. She may seem lonely with no siblings to play school, but in truth, she prefers the toys anyway; they follow a script better than humans. Case in point: the makeshift schoolmarm startles when her father’s voice booms from the stairwell where he rarely has the time or curiosity to venture: “You want to be a teacher?! (Incredulous pause, slight head shake, quiet exhale.) Well. You’ll change your mind.” He retreats before she can ask what he means.

Was the topic revisited since? Maybe, but Act II would wait a full decade to sharpen the point. At the club for Friday lunch, the former schoolmarm and the father celebrate her impending college graduation — with a degree in creative writing, of all things, and poetry in particular, as if to punctuate the impracticality. With staunch support for his offspring’s aptitude and promise, her father had bolstered the romantic choice of major with his own personal mantra: Find your passion, kid, and you will find a way to succeed at it. The pair now bask in a team victory: the first college degree in the family and with an Ivy League veneer, no less. It was the parent who had been enamored with that cache, perhaps because all college was imagined to be a playground of intellect and frivolity; it’s so easy to romanticize the unobtainable. The graduate herself was merely eager to please, and so, each obliging the other, she had won a spot in the Great Eight and he had paid the enormous bill, and the deal had been sealed. In fact, by the time of the lunch, she had secured her first job — as a financial writer quite literally on a downtown Manhattan street called Wall.

Under those circumstances, retrospection and speculation are natural bedfellows: “Do you even remember I enrolled first in a course of study for biochemical engineering?” she queried her father, musing over her niçoise. “And here I am now, on the opposite end of the intellectual Earth.” For the natural question to follow — “I wonder if I’ll stay adjacent to finance or find my way back to science” — the father’s personal mantra is again a fitting response: Find your passion, kid, and you will find a way to succeed at it. The surprising portion is the new addendum that follows the refrain she thought she already knew: “Just don’t be a teacher. Anything but a teacher.” It’s hard to be sure what burgeoning career opportunities he might have imagined exist within the poetry-industrial complex, but this sounded as if it were final, and the daughter wouldn’t disobey.

At least for the next 19 months.

This intense opposition to a career in education — maybe it was pride? The father had been born into an immigrant family in Astoria, Queens, that established a small business repairing home heating systems. It was smelly, dirty, dangerous work, wrestling steam tanks, scooping oily sludge, and crawling around ductwork. Over his parents’ panicked resistance at surrendering their firstborn son to a life they could never access, he had insisted upon answering a newspaper ad for entry-level positions on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, based then on a downtown Manhattan street called Wall. (This was before a degree was required for a white-collar career, when a hard worker with a good head for numbers and strong soft skills could rise in the ranks and build a beautiful life for his young wife and only daughter.) When the family business folded in the wake of his departure, his rejoinder was to ascend to suburbia and never look back. He was intensely attached to his self-image as a modern-day bootstrapper; perhaps his only child’s return to union work felt like a step backward in the family station? And after all, this father-daughter duo had just gotten her that fancy degree. In a world where she could be anything, why would she possibly choose to teach? The neighbor kid who went to state school became a teacher.

I imagine there was also fear. A father would know things an undergraduate could not. For one, how our world views its educators: as employees or servants, nursemaids and nannies, but not leaders. He would have a practical understanding that many teachers earn a smallish salary for long hours, taking side gigs on weekends and summers, juggling childcare and couponing to make it all work. He knew teaching is not a life of luxury, and he was right. Perhaps more saliently, though, he knew how hard work in a thankless role takes a toll. Slinging oil isn’t the same as grading essays, but when an irate customer comes at you, it’s equally demoralizing whether it’s an impatient homeowner or an angry parent. I imagine it would be easy to romanticize the future of ease that might be granted by a degree as much as he did college life itself.

Pride and fear: two defensible reasons that my father would cling to the idea that I might realistically find employment as a poet, which is not even a job, rather than enter education, a full-blown career. Being a teacher is like being a cop or a nurse; everyone knows what that means. Being a poet is like being a philosopher or an orator; it hasn’t been honest work since the Age of Antiquity. And my hunch is that this is what lurks under all the rest. Our family culture included the type of anxious grandiosity that is often packaged with upward mobility. Being a teacher may have been a bit too much like being a cop or a nurse; everyone would not only know what that is, but they’d understand how ordinary we were at our roots.

Nineteen months after the lunch, I finally acquired the right weapon to defend a foray into education: unemployment. Having been laid off from finance, I acquired my first third-grade room — and I never looked back. It happened that teaching matched those first imaginings of its promise: an opportunity to offer equal measures of structure and support to the children who gathered each day to listen, to learn, and occasionally to misbehave. This was before a master’s degree was required for a license, when a hard worker with good instincts for instruction and strong soft skills could rise in the ranks and build a beautiful career in education as a teacher-turned department head-turned edtech executive, requiring very little help with either coupons or childcare. And 20 years after that, having found my passion and succeeded at it, I earned a spot in the Graduate School of Education at another of the Great Eight; this time, I paid the bill myself, rendered simultaneously proud and wounded and very poor, all by way of the bittersweet charge to go it alone this time.

It was sometime shortly after tuition came due, at yet another Friday lunch at the club, that my father again held forth a surprising addendum. After dispensing a bit of professional wisdom, he conceded abruptly: “You know, kid. I was wrong. I didn’t know that education would be your passion and you’d find a way to succeed at it. I sold you short.” He stopped short of apologizing, but then I stopped short of responding that he, of all people, probably should have known all along — not only because of his own origin story, but because the schoolmarm is his daughter, after all.

After nearly two decades in schools, Megan Perna is currently an executive editor of educational assessments and curriculum. As a member of the inaugural class of the Online Master’s in Educational Leadership Program, she wrote this essay in Nancy Sommers’ J-term writing workshop

Ed. Magazine

The magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education

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