That Old Man Saved My Career Before It Had Even Started
“What was the best piece of advice you ever received?”
It’s a gentle thing to ponder during a long afternoon. After thinking of my all the stuff my dad says, my mind turned to my career. And I knew exactly what the best piece of advice I’ve ever received was. Thinking back on it, it focused my entire life.
I became a teacher because I knew school and was good at it. In my K12 experience as a student, I made good grades easily and liked my time in school, mostly. And when I graduated, I had a 4 year scholarship, without which, I wasn’t going to college. So I knew I had to get a degree that could pay some money and that wouldn’t be so out of my comfort zone to take longer than 4 years to start. I decided to be a teacher.
It was the fall of 1990 when I started.
After deciding on Social Science as a major and and having a pretty easy first 3 years as an undergraduate, I entered the Teachers College. It had so many hoops to jump, my head started to spin. It wasn’t hard. I just had to be sure I was doing exactly what they told me to do, memorize what they told me to, and learn to repeat the dizzying number of theories of our forefathers of modern educational pedagogy, all dropped in mnemonic devices so I could repeat them back on tests, class discussions, and in papers.
And after receiving a giant F on a 22 page paper about — who knows what — and having a conference with the professor where he moved that grade to a D, I was in a panic. I couldn’t fail. I didn’t have the money to switch degrees. And I needed to pass. There was no other option. None.
I don’t remember much about this little man who was teaching my Social Science Methods class. But on warm days, the professor wore polo shirts, black coaches’ sans-a-belt shorts, black socks that came up to the bottom of his calf, black dress shoes, and topped it off with a little old man hat, all while toting a briefcase. And he did it despite our oh-so-smart college-kid snickers, during the height of Grunge-style.
And one day, as I was crossing the commons, he asked me how things were going. I’m sure I ranted a moment about the paper where I’d been marked down because I had no subheadings or bolded titles, despite having those formatting pieces right there on my 22 page paper. And that I was disgustedly relieved to have the grade moved to a D. I don’t believe I cried because I didn’t cry back then. But this strange little geographer leaned in close to me and in one brief, practical and growled-out sentence, changed the entire life of this 20 year old idiot:
“Just do what they want you to do right now, and then when you get your own classroom, do what you know is right.”
What. The. Hell.
I was beyond stunned. Standing there that warm fall day, with my mouth hanging wide open, eyes wider, worried The Teachers College Police might come and take me away for even having heard this sentence, my life changed.
This guy, who taught only one class for The Teachers College, was telling me that they were wrong and I was right. And in that sentence, unspoken between the words, he told me I would be ok.
And also in that one sentence, he gave me a perfect recipe for dealing with all of the educational bureaucracy, everywhere.
I have repeated this sentence for other fledgling and struggling teachers, trying my best to invoke Dr. Anderson’s straight-talking style. And I hope it helped them.
Funny thing is, that old professor saved my life right then, sure. But it wasn’t until recently that, looking back over 20+ years of teaching, I realized that with that one sentence Dr. Anderson had set me on a path that I hold so very dear. It’s what makes me who I am. And it allows me to do the things I’ve done for education:
I shouldn’t always worry about the bureaucratic things. I’ll do what I need to, but in my classrooms and in my schools? I will always do the right things…for kids.