I am a third grade teacher in Northcentral Pennsylvania, and it boggles my mind every day how I got here. They say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, and for me, the journey helped to define my pedagogy long before I even knew it existed.
So many teachers I know can tell you how they just knew from the get-go they wanted to teach. Not me. I started my college career with passions for the arts and history (archaeology mainly). I earned Bachelor degrees in Graphic Design and Art History from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and began seeking work in the Design field in the greater Boston area in 2000. After two years of applying with no calls for interviews, working out of my field to make ends meet, and deferments on student loans running out, I began a whole lot of soul searching. What was it I truly meant to do? How could I not possibly know? What kind of a fool must I be – all this schooling, and not a thing to show for it? I was the first one in my family to go right from high school to college, so I just couldn’t sit back and do “nothing.”
It was my dad who came to me one day and asked the inevitable question I had been asking myself but had no clue how to answer. “What are you going to do next?” I knew, and he knew, I could not live above his garage forever. My dad taught us young, that if you want something in life you will need to work for it. If you want a car when you turn 16, you buy it once you earn it. If you want college, you go when you can send yourself. But when you turn 18, you have to get out on your own to see what the real world was like; it was time to become an adult. Well, when I got to be 18, the rule modified to “you can stay as long as you are in college full time and working to earn your way.” I did this, and now the guilt of still being home two years later was killing me.
Here I was graduated, working fulltime in manufacturing, but he knew I was longing for redemption somewhere. He asked what I liked about my job, what kept me there. I knew I more than liked it, but didn’t know how to tell him I loved working in a job that required no education at all. Some of my co-workers only had a 3rd grade education, some none at all before becoming refugees from their home countries. How could I love the job so much when it is clear I was not working where my degrees should be taking me?
After some quiet reflection, I came to the realization that I loved working there so much because I was valued. I became the go-to for training. I had the patience to work with all workers, no matter their native tongue. I showed them how to run complex machinery and how to inspect finished product, all without speaking a common language. Using my design skills, I developed visual guides and helped bridge the communication gaps between white-collared engineers and the blue collared line worker. I loved my job because I could teach people who were eager to learn and eager to do a job well. I put in an honest days work, and I earned an honest paycheck that paid my loans and car expenses. It just wasn’t enough for me to be able to move out on my own.
After sharing this realization, my dad quietly asked, “Have you thought of becoming a teacher?” To this I actually laughed out loud. Not a silly little “Haha, you’re funny.” It was an all out rolling laugh. Then I cried. I said, without hesitation – “No way.” When asked why, a million memories came flooding back to me. Simply put, I hated learning how to learn. I remembered how awful it felt, figuring it all out. How much painstaking belittlement I heard through the years. How disappointed I was, and everyone seemed to be, every time I brought home a poor grade, which was often in the early years. How humiliated I was that I had to go to a special reading teacher and wasn’t able to be in the same classes as my neighbor down the street. My only understanding: I was told I was lazy so I would not be able to read like the other kids. I wouldn’t relive these memories aloud. I simply said, there is no way I could ever, ever work in a field where I could possibly fail a child. He seemed to understand without prying further and the conversation ended there.
The very next week, I took a voluntary lay off from the manufacturing company (it didn’t seem right to hold onto a position that someone else needed) and applied to a career-change accelerated master’s program at the nearby University of Massachusetts Lowell. With my bachelors earned, most prerequisites for a degree in Education were taken. This program would put me on the fast-track to a Masters in Education with initial certification included. So, I leapt.One talk standing along the backyard brook to get the gears turning. One talk to point out the connection I so obviously missed. I was still deathly scared, but this fusion was undeniable. Teaching was absolutely what I was meant to do. My graphic design thesis focused on teaching how to interpret symbology in art, every job I held led to instructing others, even babysitting led to tutoring. My world was already teaching and learning. You know what they say, sometimes the most obvious is missed right under your nose!
Amy Merrell, NBCT
Teacher and learner, follower and leader
“You can never cross the ocean unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
~ Christopher Columbus