What a Waste

Grading papers at Starbucks makes the endeavor seem less daunting. I spent lots of time studying here in grad school, and I’m able to get in the “zone” more easily than when I try to work at home. The baristas are always friendly. They ask what we’re studying and how my students are.

As I was grading vocabulary quizzes and poetry projects tonight, the following conversation ensued.

Man: Are you a teacher? It looks like you’re correcting papers.
Me: Yes, I teach middle school English.
Man: My daughter just finished her second year at Duke. She’s told me she wants to be a primary school teacher. I told her that would be a waste. I want her to become a world leader, so she can effect change for thousands of children.
Me: I went to Duke Law School, but decided to teach instead of practicing law.
Man: When did you drop out?
Me: I graduated a couple years ago.
Man: And you still decided to teach middle school?

I nodded and smiled. He just shook his head and walked out, coffee in hand.

I understand where this guy is coming from. College, especially at Duke, is crazy expensive. Any economic cost-benefit analysis of the situation would likely suggest that his daughter should do something other than teach 8 year olds.

I’ll admit this is a bit of a tender spot for me. I struggled mightily with the question of vocation during my three years of law school. The opportunity to attend Duke Law School was a rare and expensive one. Numerous people reminded me (rightly so) that the legal system needs lawyers dedicated to the pursuit of justice, especially for those dis-empowered and forgotten by the system. I found the law interesting, and I wanted to want to be a lawyer.

But I didn’t. I interned at the Children’s Education Law Clinic and all I could think about was being a teacher. I skipped studying so I could work as an America Reads tutor at a local elementary school. When, after endless over-analyzing and weepy conversations, I finally graduated, I took a semester-long job teaching 5th grade American History. It was love.

Last week in class we were discussing Red Scarf Girl and whether workers should receive the same compensation for all jobs. Many students were arguing that money was the only reason people chose to do hard jobs. I told students that most of my friends from law school are currently making $100,000-$120,000 more than me. They were flabbergasted (our word of the week). Someone asked me what I’d do if money was no option. I told them (without any hesitation) I’d be a teacher, although maybe only for half a day so I could farm, too.

It hasn’t been an especially good week. Despite that, I can’t think of any other job I’d rather have. Occasionally when I’m standing in front of class, I’ll think this is exactly what I have always wanted to do. There are frustrations, but the name posted outside the door says Ms. Stewart and that makes me smile.

This post leaves lots of unaddressed questions- Is it better to be a world leader or a teacher? Should teachers be paid as much as lawyers? Why do so many students’ perceptions of the worth of jobs focus on money? Will I ever practice law? Will my student loans ever be paid back? :)- but they’ll wait until another day.

I hope that Duke undergrad does become a teacher or finds something that she loves regardless of whether its pay is commiserate to her college tuition. And I hope her dad understands.

10 thoughts on “What a Waste

  1. You say your blog post leaves lots of unanswered questions. But it answers one very emphatically: you were born to be a teacher. Reading this lovely post reminded me of my first day of teaching, nearly 40 years ago. I woke up early and lay in bed with a tingling in my toes that I’d never experienced before (and haven’t since). I realized that as well as the terror I was feeling about facing my first class, I was feeling something like joy and a deep knowing that this is what I was meant to be doing … after all those years of studying and wondering.

  2. That was beautiful. I’m all teary-eyed and crap. I think it was destiny that he hear a sliver of your story, and I’m so glad you shared it with him. And it’s good to know just how deeply rooted your heart is in this education soil. 🙂

    I had always planned to be an attorney, since I was about six years old. I had Atticus-Finch, change-the-world aspirations. In the spring of my senior year of high school, I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted anymore, that I was just sticking to it because it’s what everyone expected. So I changed my college plans and headed halfway across the country to be a music major.

    It was a long, strange trip from there to here. Stories for other days.

  3. I loved reading your post. It’s true about getting to a different venue to grade – and the unexpected bonus is that you can interact with people, like you did with the guy in your post. Another part of our jobs is helping the world see who we are – in every way. In a very real sense, we belong to our communities. It does them good to see us working!!

    Both of my parents were career teachers, so I grew up saying, “I’m not sure what I’ll be someday, but I won’t be a teacher.” I watched them work so hard, and I understood that a lot of the world didn’t really value what they did. Why would I want to teach? There had to be something more exciting to do. I was 42 before I answered my calling and got my certification. My mother, a high school English teacher who literally put herself through college by teaching in rural one-room schools every other year, died one year ago today at 81. It is a most satisfying blessing for me to be carrying on her legacy – which I always knew in my heart, but had to experience to truly understand.

    Real teachers are born, and you are lucky to have figured that out when you did. I mourn that I won’t evolve through a 30 year career, and covet some of my colleagues vast experience, but I bring a different energy to the classroom that has value. I know there is no place else I should be.

    I’ve had lots of jobs. Teaching is “the hardest job I’ll ever love.” Thanks for your beautiful sharing.

  4. Ahhh, been there! A few years ago, an old high school friend said “You’re just a teacher, I thought you would have done more?” Seriously. She said THAT to me. In reading your post, it brought that moment back to my mind. That is when I realized that there are two groups of people in the world, people who think it’s “Just teaching” and people who really get it. People who get up every morning, sip some coffee to get their brain going, rush out the door carrying bags of papers, eight bottles of glue for today’s project, their own child’s breakfast, and then realizing when they get in the car they have 2 different shoes on. (Certainly, a scene from my house, last week). We are the lucky ones, we get there and kids come in, some ready to learn, some not. The challenge is ours. These kids ARE our tomorrows and every single day, in some big and some small ways we are shaping it. Of course, we don’t get a big paycheck at the end of the month. But we know, those of us who really get it, that life is not about paychecks and recognition. When I sink into my chair at the end of a day, looking at my messy desk, over-filled to-do list, and tasks to complete, I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be… and I couldn’t be happier.

  5. Hey, I’ve been known to have two different shoes on too! Teaching is my second career, and I teach third graders in an urban public school. I also believe that either you Get It of you don’t. I once had a cop tell me, “I couldn’t do what you do unless unless I had my gun.” He got it. On any given day, I’m a teacher, a psychologist, a conflict mediator, and a waitress who doesn’t get tips. But when I hear my students (most whom are English Language Learners) start to read, I get goosebumps. For many of my students, I’m the only responsible adult in their lives. You can’t put a price on that.

  6. Meredith – This is exactly the type of passion, sense of purpose, and ideals that will carry you very far in the journey that is educating children. Where else can you make a difference in so many lives all at the same time?

    As for the gentleman in Starbucks, I feel for his daughter. Clearly she has a father who is not supportive of his daughter’s passion. As a father of a daughter myself I’d be so very proud if she decided to reach her current dream of becoming a kindergarten teacher (she’s just 9 years old by the way).

    And, when you are faced with such a situation again, remember, most world “leaders” probably had no less than 40 teachers during their careers many of whom are EXACTLY the reason that individual is a world leader. Think they had a role in helping shape the leader’s ideals? You bet….who’s affecting change now? Yep, teachers!

    Well done….

  7. This spring I’ve been reading how for the past 50 years the “world leaders” in the US federal government have been “effecting change” for children. If you ask me, teachers are doing much more to benefit kids than these elected officials.

    We need more brilliant and talented teachers such as yourself. But I’m afraid with a nation that does not respect teaching as a profession, few will buck the system as you have.

    Kudos to you! Please continue doing the great work that you do!

  8. Thank you to everyone for the kind comments and commiserations!

    @SallyJo My mom went back and got her MEd several years ago. It’s been fun to be teachers together, although it’s not something I would have ever imagined.

  9. I too wasted a few years and thousands of dollars studying for the wrong profession. I wanted to be a chemist, and attended an expensive private school to study. As I did research, I taught a lab course for freshman. I got more reward from that experience than from doing cancer drug research. I transferred and changed my major the next year and have never looked back since. Now I’m entering my first year of teaching and I couldn’t be happier with the change. I had decided to do chemistry partly because I was very interested in science, but moreso because of the money, I think. Part of the reason I enjoy teaching so much is getting the chance to help kids find the right path, as I did.

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