Old, overeducated and new to teaching

I have taken a far-from-traditional path to teaching high-school math. I’m 47 years old, but I have had only two proper “jobs” in my life (not counting campus jobs when I was in college): editorial assistant, and assistant professor of earth sciences. Together, those jobs accounted for only three years of my life. For the past 15 years, I’ve been a freelance science writer and editor for academic geophysicists while also being a wife, mom, and home-improvement specialist.  I have a PhD in geophysics from Stanford.

Now I’m a second-year high-school math teacher.  At parties, when non-teachers find out what I do, they generally throw out a few polite questions. A common one is “How long have you been teaching?” When they find out I’m a gray-haired newbie with a PhD, the conversation generally gets more animated, and it follows one of two scripts:

1) You must be some kind of (saint/masochist/loony) to take that job!

2) Ah, you (couldn’t get/didn’t want/are living in the wrong place for) a real job in your field, right?

So I have thought a lot about why I made this leap. Of course, I thought a lot about it before I did it, but as we teachers know, trying to explain something to others is the best way to expose the gaps in your own understanding.  This is true when I teach math, and it’s also true when I think about my life choices.  In the last two years, I’ve come to understand more fully what I love about teaching, and why it took me this long to figure it out.

My mother was a high-school math teacher (I know, right?), and so I always felt that to become a teacher just like mom would be defaulting; it would mean I couldn’t think for myself, that I was lacking in self-motivation and ambition.  I was told by my teachers that I could be anything I wanted to be, but the subtext was that it ought to be something impressive. Preferably something that broke gender stereotypes. (Yes, teachers actually told me this.)

So I decided to be an astronaut, and I majored in physics in college.  My plans changed in college as I matured, lost my 20-20 vision, and gained perspective. I got a husband, a PhD, and two kids, and we ended up on an island in Maine, where I freelanced, tinkered, and volunteered at the kids’ schools.  I was a coach for the middle school math team,  led some science activities for the gifted program, hosted a 6th grade science-fiction book club, and helped with the lego robotics team.  In my spare time, I made things. I made wedding cakes. I made kitchen cabinets. I built a staircase. I roofed a shed. I tiled floors, knitted sweaters, made jewelry, stained glass, and fiber art.  The common thread in almost everything I did was math.  I loved the planning , the calculating, the drawing things out on graph paper….  Sometimes I felt like the plans were more of a work of art than the final project was.

So what made me decide to get certified in math?

Dan Meyer’s TED Talk, “Math class needs a makeover.”  (

I watched the talk.  I rewatched it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I realized that everything I loved about science was really mathematics, and that I had hundreds of real-world applications in my head. I started planning lessons in my head. I could connect math not only to rocket science and seismology, but also to gear ratios and landscaping and carpentry and art, not just in an abstract, textbookish way, but because I had actually done it before. I knew and loved math as my helper and friend and as a source of wonder about the world.  I wanted others to feel the same way.

So now I’m doing it. It has not been easy, but that’s not why I chose it.  I chose it because it is hard, I’m smart, and it’s something worthwhile that I think uses my strongest talents.  The parts that are hardest for me (organization, dealing with disenchanted students, understanding what keeps kids from understanding) are places where I can—where I need to— grow as a person.

So to those who assume I’m a (saint/masochist/loony), I say, “No, I’m not.” (Well, maybe loony….)  I just chose a job where my unique assets are uniquely valuable.  To those who say I (couldn’t get/didn’t want/am living in the wrong place for) a real job in my field, I say, “That’s not it.” (Although geophysics jobs are a bit thin on the ground in Downeast Maine….)  I could have been an OK geophysics researcher. Maybe even a very good one.  But my heart isn’t really in it.  On the other hand, I can be a very good math teacher.  Maybe even, with a lot of work, a great one.  And my whole heart is in it.

Thanks, Mr. Meyer.

And thanks, Mom.