I can still remember growing up in South Euclid, Ohio, and wondering why my mother chose what she did for a living. She woke up early, stayed up late, and often dominated the dining table with tall stacks of paper that she would examine, one at a time, each evoking smiles, frowns, laughter, scowls, etc.
You see, my mother taught English for 30 years. The stacks of papers were the essays, commentaries, reflections and what I now understand to be the heart and soul of her students with which she had been entrusted to develop and nurture. She devoted all her passion, energy and formidable talents to what appeared to me, as a teenager, to be a thankless and underpaid profession. I swore to myself that teaching would be a career I would avoid.
I can remember the class and the teacher that solidified my path to science. It was seventh-grade science with Ms. Johnson. I didn’t realize or appreciate then the impact this wonderful teacher would have on my future. I was fortunate to have opportunities to learn from some exceptional high school teachers across all disciplines, each of whom, unbeknownst to me at the time, was making a permanent contribution to the person I would become.
At Yale, I struggled to decide on my focus. I loved math, science, football and performing with The Yale Alley Cats, an a cappella group. After a series of injuries and the realization that I was not as good at football as I thought, I began to focus on developing my academics. I searched for a path that would allow me to continue to combine my interest in math and science. I majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry.
When pursuing a graduate degree in biomedical engineering at Duke, I was confronted with a startling revelation. When it became evident that my research focus was not going to lead to a successful outcome, I took a semester off to explore and develop a new research proposal. As part of that plan, I took a teaching position at a very small private school in Durham, North Carolina. I taught math to earn some money while I worked to reshape my path to a Ph.D.
Despite all the promises to myself and my impressions of the field, I found myself enjoying my job each day. Within two weeks, I knew I had found my best destiny. I had never felt so energized about what I was doing and so certain I was on the road I was intended to follow.
I enrolled in the master teacher fellowship program at Wake Forest University. After 15 months, I had a teaching certificate and a new job as a chemistry and AP chemistry teacher as well as a football and track coach at a public high school in Virginia Beach. There, I developed my craft and shaped my philosophy of teaching.
I made my classroom a place where students looked forward to being. I set high expectations and made it clear that I would support them as they strived to meet or exceed those expectations. In turn, we established what expectations they could and should have of me. Students were encouraged to collaborate and engage in class discussions structured around their questions and curiosities. I encouraged taking risks to produce creative and/or innovative solutions to problems.
I tried to help my students learn as much about themselves and their potentials. I often found myself sharing the learning experience right alongside them because we were in it together.
I went on to teach at a public high school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, followed by the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) in Durham, the Haverford School in Philadelphia, and finally to take on the position of Head of Upper School at La Jolla Country Day School. I learned about educational leadership throughout my career and had the privilege of working with and learning from some incredible educators. As the science department chair at both NCSSM and Haverford, I was a servant leader to two groups of truly outstanding faculty.
In every school community, I participated in many facets of school life. Whether it was coaching football, attending school events, participating in a skit or taking a small role in a musical or play, interacting with my students and colleagues from different perspectives helped me better understand what is important to them, and in turn, how to better relate to and serve them.
I was almost 26 years old before I truly understood why my mother gave so much to her profession. I realized it was about contributing to the future, helping to develop young minds and character, and trying to impart the skills and mindsets that would serve my students well in life. I have genuinely loved what I’ve done for the last 28 years and strive to make that apparent every day.
Education is such a powerful agent for change, and I am constantly grateful for the opportunity to help develop the minds and characters of the students I taught while supporting and learning from the faculty I serve. Being part of a learning community that provides so many chances to contribute, collaborate and grow is both invigorating and inspiring.