It’s the question that has launched a thousand blog posts: “Why did you become a teacher?” Maybe the question is offered up as a small-talk icebreaker by an acquaintance across the table at a party. Maybe by a spouse. Or, in a moment of anguished self-reflection, by the teacher himself.
Or in my case this week: by a student.
Because they are curious by nature, and really, truly, do want to know a little bit more about us (especially after we’ve started to build relationships in class).
So, the backstory: We’ve got PSATs coming up this week for all our sophomores and juniors. In letting them know we’d have a slight change of schedule one day soon, I thought I’d make sure that they knew exactly what it was we were asking them to do, and why. I asked… and very few knew the purpose behind taking the test. Remember, many of my students are not college-bound. A non-trivial number will not graduate high school. So it’s not a huge surprise that this test, taken for granted by those for whom college attendance is a given, is not on the radar screen for many of the kids who sit in my class.
I gave them a quick summary: a predictor for performance on the SAT, the PSAT will help connect them with colleges and is also the qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. In an effort to hook in my athletes, and wannabe athletes, I mentioned how cool it is when you start getting recruiting letters in the mail for your test score. And, I let slip that back in the day, I had scored high enough on my PSAT to be named a National Merit Commended Student. Kind of like an “honorable mention”, not a good enough score to move on in the scholarship competition, but one of the top 50,000 scorers among the 1.5 million or so who take the test. My name is on a plaque in the trophy case at my high school, along with the rest of the Commended Students through the years.
Call it a humblebrag if you must, but it’s part of a bigger narrative in my class. It’s one thing to have some success at this one urban high school just outside Chicago. It’s another thing entirely to go out and compete with the rest of the world. The suburban high school just across the Calumet River from us, about 3 miles south? Every single year they can boast a National Merit Scholar or two. Finding out where you stack up against the best is a humbling experience. I’ve told them that my SAT scores were in the 95th percentile at Indiana University my graduation year. I tell them I also sent those same scores to the University of Michigan. Not sure why, it just seemed like a cool place to go to school. Anyway: that same SAT score was in the 67th percentile at U of M. In layman’s terms for my kids: fully a third of the kids that apply to Ann Arbor scored higher than virtually everyone who applied to IU.
Holy Crap! What kind of kid gets in to Michigan then?
So after giving them the rundown on the PSAT, one of my algebra I students looks at me and says: “Mr. Dull, why do you teach? I mean, you could have done anything with the test scores you had. Why teaching?”
I’ll be pretty honest. I don’t have a pat answer for this question. When it’s been asked before, I’ve said something like, “Don’t you guys think you deserve the same kind of teacher that they have at all the green, leafy suburban schools?” Yeah, I know. Go ahead and punch me in the face right now. It’s exactly as cocky as it sounds. I don’t give that answer anymore.
But this time around, I just started to think it out on my feet. I told them that in high school, I wasn’t a perfect fit for any group. I wasn’t quite good enough an athlete to hang with the jocks. Despite those test scores I carried a 3.6, so I was not Top-10 material. Not quite Ivy League…
I really loved all my math and science classes – especially calculus and physics. To me, that was where the math became real (FORESHADOWING ALERT!) – the math described the world. If the equation says that’s where the rocket’s gonna land, then that’s where the rocket’s gonna land.
Also because the physics teacher was awesome. Looked just like Yoda. Could draw a perfect circle. Also, put Game 1 of the Cubs-Padres NLCS on the radio while we worked our problem set. Just like they teach you to do in Teacher School.
Chemistry, tho… look, I really dug balancing equations, doing molarity calculations, that kind of thing. But once we started talking atoms and molecules and here’s what they look like… I’m going, “How do we know?” Just a hard thing to wrap my head around.
So having some math/science love, deciding on a major…not really sure. But maybe pre-dent? I didn’t love the idea of pre-med, knew I wasn’t cut out for engineering, so dental school sounded like a pretty good plan. Got down to campus, found out the calculus course used the same book we used in high school. Excellent! I’ve already done all of these problems! This is going to be cake.
Chemistry lectures in a 500-seat hall, and 3-hour labs on Friday afternoon? You gotta be kidding me. Did OK in Spanish tho. By October I’m thinking it’s time to change majors. I had been working in the sports department at WIUS, the campus cable radio station. Did a weekly five-minute sports report on Sunday evening (got to run down the NFL results like a boss), and rotated through on play-by-play and color on our live broadcasts of Indiana University football, basketball, and baseball. Yep, sat on press row with Don Fischer and Dick Vitale and thought that was pretty damn cool.
I was that guy that played Strat-O-Matic through grade school and high school, calling the play-by-play into my dad’s portable cassette player, making the crack of the bat with a pair of sewing scissors and a broom handle, and doing that “roar of the crowd” thing with my throat that every boy knows how to do by age five. And all of a sudden, talking about sports for a living sounded like a plan to me. And what do you know, but Indiana has a highly-regarded telecommunications school and is usually rated among the top public school business schools in the nation. Just like that, had a new major and minor.
Got a job out of school calling high school games for a small-time station near where I grew up. Kept the dream alive of become the Cubs radio play-by-play man. Met Thom Brennaman shortly after he got hired for the job (at age 24) and told him I was gonna have his job some day. Got a gig working in a pizza place to make ends meet. Ten years later I was no closer to the big time, and having a wife and a son, thought seriously that it might be time to go to work for a living. But doing what? All I really knew how to do was run my mouth and make pizzas.
Started to do some serious soul-searching. I thought about things I enjoyed. Looked into Microsoft Networking, although I didn’t have the funds for the certification classes. Toyed with the idea of restaurant management, since I’d been working in a kitchen for a while. Thought I might like to stay involved with sports somehow. About this time I saw an ad for Calumet College of St. Joseph’s teacher prep program, which was targeted towards second-career teachers. My mom had been a school nurse for 30 years, my older brother was a civilian instructor for the Navy as well as a colonel in the Army reserves, my mother-in-law taught elementary school, so it was practically the family business.
But what to teach? Baseball was always my sport, and especially loved diving into the stats. We were probably 10 years away from sabermetrics breaking into the mainstream consciousness at the time, but still the way that the math described the game was cool. I wanted to be able to help other kids see that math was more than just a bunch of incomprehensible squiggles and word problems about nothing anybody cares about. Somewhere in there we moved to Las Vegas. Not long after that I walked across the stage at the Thomas & Mack, picked up a diploma, started teaching Algebra 1 and never looked back.
So here we are. The other day one of my former PLTW students messaged me on Facebook:
It is a very cool and creative video. And it’s nice to be thought of. But I’m really psyched that he left my class with his eyes wide open for awesome stuff, whether it’s got anything to do with math or not.
So… that’s why I teach.