I Want to be a Rock Star


So how was the CATE conference? It was wonderful because it was inspiring. And it was terrible because it was inspiring. Dammit, it made me want to be a teacher again. And so goes the eternal mental volley that is my career decision.

On Friday, I attended a great workshop on enriching vocabulary and another one on helping kids to respond to literature. And then came lunch with the keynote speaker, Taylor Mali. Taylor Mali is a poet (or “spoken word artist” as he calls himself) who taught English, social studies, and math for nine years. He now writes and performs poetry, often about his teaching experiences, and works to inspire teachers. He has a personal mission of creating a thousand new teachers. That is to say he wants to inspire folks to choose teaching over other careers. (Which is ironic that I should find myself listening to him given that I’m looking to get out of the profession.) Probably his most famous poem is called “What Teachers Make” and if you are a teacher, the chances are good you’ve gotten it sent to you in one of those dozens of email forwards.

My colleagues and I were kind of making fun of the whole “spoken word artist” moniker — until we heard him. And then we understood, because to hear him perform his poetry is quite an experience. I found this one review of him online by Scott Woods in an online magazine called Rambles that describes Mali’s poetry and performances perfectly:

“On the page. Not much. The work sits there, stoic and neat; whole number addition homework waiting to graduate to multiplication. Give the man a microphone, however, and you’re in for some very tricky and magical geometry.”

Two of my favorite poems are “Totally Like Whatever” and “Like Lilly Like Wilson.” (These links are to YouTube videos if any of my readers are so inclined to take a few moments to treat themselves to his performances.) My colleagues and I were in awe.

Speaking of my colleagues, getting to know our new English Department members was an added bonus of the trip. The time spent with them was thoroughly enjoyable, and of course included some light, personal getting-to-know-you banter mixed with pedagogical discussions about things like curriculum and the relevance of teaching grammar. We must have looked like total nerds sitting there at Bennigans, drinking our beers, and blabbering on about misplaced modifiers and the best way to teach phrases and clauses. But that’s what we English teachers do.

Saturday’s lunch speaker was Pamela Munoz Ryan, an author of children’s books and young adult novels. More inspiration. Hooray for reading! Hooray for writing! Hooray for teaching? Well, not so fast.

The weekend ended, I returned home to Greg and the Muffin (who made out just fine, BTW), and I was really glad I went. I needed the break and the brief time away from home and school. I needed the recharge. I came to school on Monday with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. But I wasn’t back two days before some of the old frustrations started to slowly creep back in.

When I was in graduate school, one writing assignment asked us to reflect on how and why we got into teaching. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote:

I am not one of those girls who has wanted to be a teacher ever since she set up her first classroom in her bedroom and taught to a row of sometimes ill-behaved stuffed animals. To be honest, my decision to teach was arrived at through a very formulaic process much like playing with a recipe. Unsure of a career path, I simply gathered together all of my interests, skills, and personality traits. I threw them all together, stirred and said, “What does this make? Okay, a teacher it is.” So I entered the profession with some trepidation and question about my place in it; but as I look back on that decision in what is now my tenth year of teaching, I realize that those things do indeed make me a teacher.

I have a passion for writing that I love to share with my students. I have a deep appreciation for the sometimes awesome task we as teachers, particularly as teachers of writing, have before us each day in the classroom. And I have a desire to learn and pass on all that I can about the puzzle, the frustration, and the joy that is writing.

I have had a lot of time to think about this lately. In fact, it’s been foremost in my mind as my husband I make important decisions about our future. So thinking back to that piece I wrote explaining how I got here, I may have thrown together all of my interests, skills, and personality traits and stirred. But I didn’t measure. I didn’t sift. I didn’t give it all the time it needed to marinate, or rise, or whatever it needed to do. And I was left with a dish that, while good, did not leave me sated.

There is something very unique to being a teacher that appeals to the perfectionist in me: The chance to get it right. The school year begins. The school year ends. And the following year, I get to do it all over again with a new crop of kids. While some may balk at the somewhat repetitive nature of the job, the perfectionist revels in the possibility of doing it again and doing it better — the possibility of finally getting it right. I take the job seriously. It is more than a paycheck to me, and the very fact that I have worked to try to get it right and improve speaks to that. With every lesson along the way, there is something in me that naturally goes to the thought When I do this next year, I’ll… Because I can do it better. I know I can. I can be a rock star. I want to be a rock star.

But I need to be honest with myself. In the teaching world, while I may be good, I will never be a rock star. So, no, I will not be returning to my school next year. (I know, I buried the lead.) I owe it to myself to find the whatever it is that makes me happy. Truly happy. A better fit. And I owe it to my students too. Because my students deserve a rock star.


  1. Minimeltdown says:

    GO GIRL! First of all, great post. I had not heard of the “spoken word artist” (at least not that my mom brain remembers) so I was happy you shared that. Second of all, I am proud of you for taking the daunting but rewarding step of looking for a new, satisfying career path. I think this is a great decision for you!!

  2. Dennis says:

    Good for you sis! But will you not be a teacher in New Jersey or in California?

  3. Irene says:

    But you ARE a rock star, girl! And I bet your kids know it! It is only Kelly who doesn’t.

  4. trogdor says:

    Way to also consider the needs of the students. Well done. It’s a tough decision to make, and I’m proud of you because it seems you put in a lot of thought and that you considered all angles, and you are taking a risk instead of playing it safe. That’s pretty courageous, man.

  5. brewin says:

    Congratulations for the decision. This is a big step to take and one not made hastily. Thank you for allowing all of us to be the peanut gallery and share in your journey. I’m excited for the possibilities that lie ahead for you, and although I’ll miss you sorely, our friendship stretches all the way from your heart to mine, no matter how far apart they dwell.

  6. Helene88 says:

    Kellerooooooo… my dear, you ARE a rock star in my book. That pain in the ass kid you had in 6th grade at Saint Patrick’s? I’ve heard him more than ONCE talk about how you made literature “sort of” fun. The kid now reads. And for that I thank YOU!!!!

    BUT, and here’s a big BUT, if YOU don’t feel like a rock star, you will never be content in your job. And forget the high-high’s and the low-low’s… I’m just enough older than you to know this for sure: contentment is where it’s AT, baby. That’s what I strive for every single day of my life. Because it’s stable! So don’t stop until you find what makes you content (besides Little Miss Muffin and Greggors, of course) because I may be hanging on to this house and this business by a thread, but I still feel contentment throughout my day. As should you :)