Making a Difference

When my brother Richard was nearing the end of his college career, back in the 1970s, he didn’t quite know what he was going to do. He was a math major but had no interest in accounting, didn’t want to become a CPA or tax attorney and, in truth, wasn’t crazy about the idea of playing with numbers for the rest of his life. So, in his senior year he took a couple of education courses in a program that was a shortcut to teacher certification, and upon graduation he was offered a job in a newly opened middle school. He pondered for a while, then decided to try it out. It was a way of starting adult life with a steady paycheck, decent hours, long summer vacations. For my brother, becoming a teacher was a beginning, not a passion or a mission—just a job for a young man seeking a direction.

Many of the contributors in this collection became teachers under similar circumstances, as an interim thing, a first job out of college. And for most of them it was the first stop in a long journey leading to a real career and fulfillment, professional accomplishment, and personal satisfaction. That’s not to say that all of these writers have remained in the K-12 sphere—many have moved on to universities, community colleges and administrative positions—but in one way or another, all have stayed connected to the teaching profession.

Some of the other writers in this collection were not teachers first; among them are an attorney, a research scientist, and a network TV producer. Dissatisfaction with what they were doing led them to teaching, despite all of the obvious and well-known challenges. Like low pay. Or the political agendas of outsiders, who measure progress by often irrelevant standardized testing. Or conflicts with parents—or with the students themselves. But these writers remained teachers, despite the frustrations because, they discovered, teaching makes a difference—not only to students, but to teachers, too.

For an example of the difference teachers can make, we can look to the story of Jahana Hayes, who contributed one of the introductions to this book. Jahana grew up (as too many American children do) surrounded by drugs, violence, and poverty. She became pregnant at age 17. But twelve years later, after working her way through a community college and a local university, she returned to her hometown and got her first teaching job. In 2016, she was named National Teacher of the Year by the Council of State School Officers. In Hayes’s first appearance as Teacher of the Year, with President Obama at the White House, she discussed the passion and commitment required of teachers. She also talked about the great responsibilities with which we entrust our teachers, including the responsibility, as well as opportunity, to share their “empowering stories with students and communities and elevate this profession.” 

This is exactly What I Didn’t Know is all about: Teachers sharing their experiences in the trenches of the school system and exploring what those experiences meant—and still mean—to them. Some of these stories may be difficult to read or believe because of how hard these teachers work, how much they care about their students, and how frustrating and sometimes downright devastating their days—and their semesters—can be. In "Order," for example, Michael Copperman labors to understand his most troubled student until, suddenly, the boy storms into the classroom, knocks over desks and chairs, and spits in Copperman’s face. In "Ancient Beef Made Me a Teacher," Lori D. Ungemah observes a fight between two high school boys in her classroom. She is horrified at the sound of cartilage popping and the explosion of blood, and she breaks down sobbing. But she is even more horrified when, after the fight is broken up by security guards, her streetwise students file out of the classroom, silent and seemingly unfazed. 

And yet these teachers stayed in the classroom—not forever, but for several more years. And they are not alone. Education is the fourth largest major at universities and colleges in the U.S. The annual overall attrition rate for teachers is barely eight percent (though it’s higher for early-career teachers, and for teachers in lower-income schools). In a recent study conducted by researchers at Arizona State University, nearly 60% of respondents (they were all K-12 teachers in Arizona) reported that they were “very satisfied” or “satisfied” with their jobs. 

One thing that makes teaching special and fulfilling is the amount of independence teachers have and the influence a teacher can wield. While it is true that teachers must follow curriculum, they are pretty much on their own behind classroom doors, with anywhere from twenty to fifty individual, unformed personalities, kids seeking answers to questions that they may not even understand. Teachers must advise, communicate information, solicit and encourage ideas, and maintain discipline and an atmosphere conducive for learning. And they must be flexible, able to roll with the punches (literal or figurative) and fill voids, sensing and responding to their students’ needs.

It’s a tall order, to be sure. And not every teacher can reach every student, every day. But the best teachers can reach most of the students, most of the days—and that can make a tremendous difference.

At the White House, Jahana Hayes recalled the importance of teachers in her life. Teachers recognized her potential. They did not give up on her. They gave her books to read at home and shared stories about their college experiences. They “encouraged me to do more, be more, expect more.” Her teachers made a lifelong impact; ultimately, she says, “They inspired me to become a teacher so I could make the same kind of impact in my own students’ lives.”

Sometimes, it’s impossible to guess at the impact a teacher can make; sometimes it takes years, and sometimes the impact is quite unlikely.

My brother Richard stayed in the classroom for many years, and then he became a principal, and then an executive director of the school system in which his teaching journey began. He is now the director of a graduate program in education, but his students from his middle school teaching days still remember and appreciate him. No matter where I go with him in his hometown, Richard is recognized. Former students, who now look almost as old as he does, come up to thank him for his guidance and wisdom. Not long ago, he attended a production of the Tony Award winning Musical Kinky Boots. After the show, he was welcomed at the stage door and embraced by one of the cast members. 

“What was that all about?” I asked him later.

Richard explained that during his first few years in that middle school where he first taught, the teacher coordinating the annual play—that year, it was Babes in Arms—could not follow through with the production and had to drop out. Even though he was a math teacher and knew nothing about musical theatre, Richard volunteered to fill in, and he learned how to produce and direct a play. The actor who hugged him, then in the sixth grade, and now in his forties, never forgot how Richard jumped in to save the play and, in a way, launched the actor’s career. That actor—Billy Porter—went on to win the 2013 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actor in a Musical and the 2013 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. 

All these stories in What I Didn’t Know do not end so triumphantly. But even those with more complicated endings convey the importance of the work teachers do. The hard work is worth the effort. 

Whether you are a teacher, a prospective teacher, a parent, or just someone who cares about kids and the future of our country, What I Didn’t Know will open your eyes and your heart. The true stories collected here vividly capture that moment of truth when a teacher first comes to grips with the fundamental challenge and awesome responsibility of shaping minds that will someday shape our country and our future. Although they may have hoped, or even expected, to influence their students’ lives, it’s only after living, breathing, suffering, and celebrating in the classroom day after day, that they could fully appreciate the profound and lasting impact they could make. These teachers—all teachers—make a difference every day.