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Learning at its Best

Letter to a Ponderer

My cousin messaged me the other day asking to help her think about what to do after college.  She asked about art, teaching, and grad school.  After I wrote it, I realized there was a little bit of every influential teacher I’d ever had in it.

I was lucky enough to have the sort of education we talk about on coop catalyst.  I was empowered to connect and learn with diversity and depth.  It energized me to make decisions that avoided the status quo.  And it brought me to teaching the way I do.  Think of this letter as my “feedback form” for all my most cherished teachers.

Hey there (name of cousin)!

I’m glad to offer some cousinly advice, if not pose some questions to you that will help you think. Let’s keep this conversation open, because you won’t decide this overnight. 

Ah, I remember that time well. I went through a couple of existential crises during university. Film Student, Software Engineering, History Professor, Linguist, Tech Activist, and finally teacher. It’s completely natural to go back and forth on the matter. In fact, I don’t know if I could even respect a person who DIDN’T struggle. It means your a renaissance person! It means you have multiple talents, and multiple ways of sharing your uniqueness with the world. Keep that up.

Item #1: There is still room for physical artists. In fact, as more and more artists move towards the digital realm, artists who work with physical media might become more and more coveted. Creative humans have been creative things with their hands for millennia, that’s not going to stop just because some folks bought photoshop or work with ambient sound. You might consider a synthesis of the two, which is always interesting, or continue to find a niche working with the materials you find the most fascinating. Just because other people are moving to what’s vogue, doesn’t mean you have to. In fact, physical art is sorta niche/boutiqy right now. If you find that niche, you could do something pretty remarkable.

Item #2: Biological illustration sounds like a good mix between two passions of yours. It would allow you to do something to “pay the bills” (but still doing something you feel passion for) while also branching out artistically. It would also give you a chance to work with both artists and scientists, opening doors for you to change gears into either industry later on. Doesn’t sound like you’re that sold on the idea though…

Item #3: You might not pick the “most satisfying” thing right off the bat. People change jobs. People recreate themselves. The people who don’t usually spend the rest of their lives wishing they would have or that they could have. This is easy in your early twenties; it’s much harder in your early 30s. 

Item #4: Direction is good, but don’t let it limit yourself. Just asking these questions makes you different than the average smart person just out looking for a law path, or a medical path, or a academic path. The fact you’ve already decided you don’t want to do one of these things means you have more flexibility than you might give yourself credit for. 

Item #5: I got into teaching because I thought it was a damn shame kids in cities don’t have the shot to make themselves known. I was lucky: private schools, professional parents, wealth of books, the internet, nutrition, etc. I took advantage of those things to make myself someone I’m satisfied with (well…almost) and I wanted kids to have the same opportunities. I chose specifically to teach at an inner-city school because I wanted to share the skills I have with a school that doesn’t have a shot at recruiting or retaining young folks with those skills. I didn’t like most suburban kids back when I was one, so I figured I’d be annoyed by most of them now as a teacher. 

I’ll stay in urban education for these reasons. It’s a social justice thing. I had a chip on my shoulder, thought kids deserved a fair shot, and wanted to prove to the world that poor kids could do something really special. I substitute taught for 5 months before moving to Peru, then I taught in a slum in Peru for the rest of that year. Not only did my life and academic experiences give me creativity to solve complex problems, I also had a BLAST. Every day I get to hang out with curious (if not really really sassy) little kids…and I get to watch as they explode in awesomeness. So when it was too late to major in education, I decided to apply for Teach For America for a faster route to certification. Now I have my masters in Ed and not looking back.

Teaching isn’t for everyone though, and you have to make sure you get into it for the right reasons, and that it’s for you. We can talk more on this point if you want, but I would recommend doing some work in a classroom before you make that decision. 

Item #6: There are tons of ways to help kids. I started a non-profit back in February that does two things: 1.) Locates tech resources, puts them in classrooms, and trains teachers and students to do amazing things with them 2.) Puts these kids in touch with creative people in all fields. That 2nd piece is super important to me because there’s just a lack of really smart and creative people in these kids lives. I wanted to show these kids that nerds are everywhere, and nerds get to do exciting things that make them happy. So don’t worry about not being able to “make a difference” while doing something else that makes you happy, we need happy and creative people to support our kids outside the classroom too. Sometimes it’s those people who make the biggest difference (not just their stupid teacher like me: )

I have met artists and art teachers in the program. Some do really well, some don’t. That has nothing to do with their artistic background, but rather their own personality and ability to problem solve in the face of sometimes overwhelming (but always exciting) obstacles. 

Item #7: Patience is a virtue, but it’s also something that can be learned. I’ve become more patient as I’ve become more talented. The better of a teacher I become, the more I am able to cope when things don’t go exactly my way. 

Item #8: I highly recommend taking a year off and doing something in real life before going back to graduate school. You’re smart. You’ve always been smart. Smart kids are always told to go to graduate school right away. Eventually? Absolutely. But I wouldn’t go right away. Take a year off. Do something you enjoy. Teach? Do art? Work at a non-profit? Find a way to travel, teach do art and work for a non-profit? Then when the timing is right and you’re sure, go back and give grad school a whack. It will still be there when you’re ready, and you’ll still be the same smart person you’ve always been. You’ll just be smarter, more well rounded, and more interesting.

So in sum, I wouldn’t worry at all about how your feeling. It’s stressful and justified, but rest assured, you’re not alone. You’ll do something spectacular with your life, even if you don’t do it right away. Teaching is great, but don’t feel like you have to do it just to make a difference. You have LOTS of options because you have LOTS to offer. 

Let me know anytime you need help talking about this, I’m always here. 

Good luck (and enjoy your summer)!


About mrsenorhill

Director of Innovation, Special Projects @collegeboundstl, Co-Founder and CEO @thedisruptdept, hustling for creation literacy for all; want to cook better.


3 thoughts on “Letter to a Ponderer

  1. Sorry I’ve been so out of touch everyone. I’ve changed jobs (now a 2nd grade teacher at same school), but now looking to participate more often and with greater quality.

    Look forward to everything!

    Posted by mrsenorhill | July 6, 2011, 9:39 pm
  2. Everyone should read that letter and work for kids and opportunities you describe, maestro.

    What letter would you write to public education? To teachers who want to start a non-profit like the one you started?

    I’m going to go re-read now –

    Posted by Chad Sansing | July 6, 2011, 11:12 pm
  3. Thank you Mr. Sansing!

    I think the letter would read very similarly, but with a few caveats. The biggest advice I always offer my younger students is that they don’t need to wait for something to happen. They have to make their own world, so to speak. If they continue to rely on adults to provide them with something, then they will always fall short of where they are the happiest and most fulfilled. I tell them to take every free moment to get better at something, to be curious, to shake things up. Even if there isn’t a connection to some larger goal, even if they can’t make money at it (especially if they can’t make money at it), take the time to explore. Get lost in fascination.

    School sort of happens on its own (unfortunately), but life is what you make it.

    But as I was telling my students this, I realized that their sense of possibility was limited by their lack of access to basic communication, health, and intellectual resources. Additionally, many of my students are trained against taking risks. Unless something has a long tail of guaranteed success (or the guarantee to avoid failure), many of my students won’t try it. Reputation is important in my neighborhood, and it holds many students back. Furthermore, to the few students who have been put on the track towards higher education, they’re pushed towards very risk-adverse fields, not the exploratory ones that interest them deep inside their little hearts.

    The Disruption Department was my offer to them. I’ll work really hard to make sure you have the platform to explore, you use it to fascinate the world. They’ll have the tools to be intellectual entrepreneurs, and the poise to be happy doing it.

    I tell this story to teachers because I think it’s a similar narrative around the world. See a problem, make connections, create a platform others can build upon to solve the problem. Start small, the disruption department is bootstrapped with my own money for the web space. No other financing or fundraising has been necessary. If it grows, then we’ll cross that road when we get there. Those sorts of decisions also limit who we can be.

    In the end, the advice is the same to teachers. Don’t limit yourself, don’t wait on others. Listen to the people who you serve and support them in any way necessary. Build a tribe, watch it grow, and watch yourself become wonderfully fulfilled.

    Posted by mrsenorhill | July 7, 2011, 9:02 am

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