What I Didn’t Know

20 true stories about what it takes to be a teacher

Every day in every classroom, teachers take on incredible challenges. Some are big, like bridging significant cultural differences, moving back into a school building after a shooting, or learning how to successfully navigating delicate institutional politics. Others are smaller, like keeping first graders on task, or figuring out how to keep teenagers from cussing all the time. Whether in the Mississippi Delta or Malawi; Alaska or Los Angeles; whether in their first day or their tenth year on the job—every day, educators reach deep to find strength and grace they didn’t know they had.

The lessons don’t always come easy, but these riveting, funny, inspirational, and sometimes shocking stories provide real insight into the hearts and minds of those who teach and those who have been taught.


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“These true stories of mistakes and triumphs, memorable students and classroom challenges celebrate a demanding, essential, and noble profession.”

“The best first-person account of teaching I’ve ever read. The stories these educators tell are essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand how the politics of educational policy shake out in the daily lives of teachers.”
               —Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

“Candid accounts of what is happening in the intimate spaces of classrooms across the country—microcosms of the issues that simmer below the surface of our world at large.”
               —Brenda Miller, co-author of Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction

“Essential preparation for the headaches, heartaches and choke-up-thinking-about-them joys of this underappreciated profession.”
               —John Owens, author of Confessions of a Bad Teacher

“Eschews the narratives of the current education debate and gets to the depth of teaching.”
               —Jose Vilson, author of This Is Not Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education

“Want to know why 50% of teachers quit? Read this book! Want to know why the other 50% stay? Read this book!”
               —Jane Morris, bestselling author of Teacher Misery: Helicopter Parents, Special Snowflakes & Other BS

Author Bio

  • Edited by Lee Gutkind
    Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, and editor of more than 25 books. He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University and a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication Gutkind has lectured to audiences around the world—from China to the Czech Republic, from Australia to Africa to Egypt. 
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Table of Contents

  • Foreword

  • Introduction

  • Introduction

  • Teacher Edit

  • You Can’t Say That in Here

  • I Thought I Was Ready

  • Lessons in the Dry Season

  • Nothing Gold Can Stay

  • Order

  • Ancient Beef Made Me a Teacher

  • Inside the Labyrinth

  • Unsaid

  • Trust Fall

  • Joe

  • Teaching for America

  • Mayans in East Oakland

  • Jiao Wo (Teach Me)

  • On My Own

  • An Honor and a Privilege

  • You Can’t Wrestle Windmills

  • Sealed Forever: On Becoming a Teacher

  • The Substitutes

  • It Took an Island: Why I Became a Teacher and Stayed

  • On Letting Go of Perfection

    Author of the prize-winning essay "You Don't Have to Be Here" for the Risk issue