by Katherine Doerr Morosky
I made a career change recently. Professionals who switch into teaching are lauded for their altruism, but it’s not the same for those who switch out. When I realized that I wasn’t finding the right kind of satisfaction in my job anymore, and that it was time to move on from being a classroom teacher, I felt like a failure. But, as we tell our students, you learn best from making mistakes, from trying and trying again.
When I made the decision to become a high school teacher, I was a graduate student in a Ph.D. program at Yale. The career choice was shrouded in my desire to “give back”, but I quickly realized that I was going to need to innovate if I was going to do a job that was meaningful. The chemistry curriculum that my school had been using “for years” (basically starting at chapter 1 and going through the textbook until the school year ended) was exactly what I did not want to teach. I innovated for over ten years, changing things up every year, making sure we didn’t burn the school down while always consciously teaching on the edge. Student feedback is what I valued most, and the thing that I heard over and over again as school year after school year drew to a close was, “you are different than any teacher I’ve had.” What did that mean professionally? Well, in my public school, it meant that I was an uneasy fit with my colleagues and the administration: “You’re so smart, but do you really have to speak your mind?” “We need you to get back into our box.” I could never force myself to be in that box, and we all know that the real you is going to come out when you are alone in the classroom with your kids (for better or for worse).
Now I work from home and teach asynchronous online classes through a computer. What a difference! I was not excited to start, with this thought running through my head: “the reason teaching is meaningful is the personal connections, so I am going into a completely meaningless job.” Wow, I have been so happily surprised. I make meaningful remote connections with kids every day. They are the digital generation and I have to say that it’s starting to feel like this medium is better for instruction than in a classroom full of teenagers. And it’s a for-profit company, no union, with a bottom line. I am learning so much (and not in a bad way, which is what I expected) about how K-12 education can, may, and perhaps even should change in the future.
So if this essay is about failure, it’s also about being an innovator. My path is not linear, not clean, and not predictable. But if innovation requires iteration, and iteration is necessitated by the need to improve, failure is the operative concept. I never failed a class, but maybe failing from time to time in life is the only way I am going learn enough to graduate to my next level of adulthood.