Which teacher(s) changed your life?

By Caitlin Kelly

I went back to my Toronto high school, (the same one Margaret Atwood attended), yesterday to guest lecture about what it’s like to write for a living. But if it hadn’t been for the powerful encouragement of my English teachers there — Mr. Bullen and Mr. Bickell, one who has since died and one retired — would I even have become a writer?

Or felt as confident of my choice?

From my earliest years, I was winning awards for my writing, a clue that this might be a good choice for me vocationally. We look to teachers, for better or worse, for adult appraisals of our talents and skills. A cruel or indifferent teacher can crush us, (and often does), pushing us away from a life we might have enjoyed or thrived in had we simply ignored them.

Our teachers, from early childhood on, leave powerful and lasting impressions on who we are and what we might become.

English: Teachers from the Exploratorium's Tea...
English: Teachers from the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute examine the “String Thing” they built. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like you, I suspect, I can still name my grade school teachers and some of their quirks, like Miss Dalton, ferocious and Irish, who taught us to memorize the shape of countries by tracing their borders with carbon paper or Miss Brough, (rhymes with rough!), who had us use dictionaries in Grade Eight to read The Scarlet Letter. Every fresh paragraph meant flipping it open to find a new word — but she taught us never to fear the unfamiliar.

My ninth-grade English teacher, in my most turbulent and unhappy year at private school, left the most lasting impression of all. She was tall, strikingly beautiful, with long, thick black hair and single. Unlike most our ancient, widowed or never-married staff, she offered a vision of someone we might like to become.

I was a mess then: angry, lonely, in trouble all time. Yet she was kind to me and treated me with the same attention as the better–behaved students in her class, for which I was miserably grateful.

In high school, bullied, I was difficult again. This time it was Ana, (we could — daringly — first-name her!), our Yugoslav art teacher, who added joy, beauty and humor to our tedious suburban Toronto days.

I ran into her years later and she introduced me, affectionately, to a fellow teacher’s wife: “This is Caitlin. She was always pain in ass.” True.

But she loved me anyway and, like Ms. Z.,  had still welcomed me into her classroom, her compassion and calm a needed refuge for me.

English: A special education teacher assists o...
English: A special education teacher assists one of her students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In their classrooms, I was allowed to be all of me: smart, sassy, funny, difficult. There were consequences, but there was also badly-needed comfort, acceptance and encouragement of a messy, creative complicated girl.

Great teachers see the pilot lights that flicker within us, that of our possibility and potential, sometimes long before we even know it’s there. They help us ignite the flame of our passion — for biology or German or computers or watercolors — that may light and warm us, possibly for decades to come.

A great teacher can also help us grow (up) emotionally and intellectually, can show us a different, perhaps more useful or social or interesting way of being or thinking or behaving than what we see inside our own families or amongst our peers.

My husband, Jose, is a photo editor at The New York Times, and helped them win a Pulitzer prize for photos taken on 9/11. He’s photographed the Olympics, three Presidents, war, Superbowls.

He was once, though, a minister’s son in Santa Fe, modestly expecting, and expected to become a teacher, as had many of his relatives.

But in tenth grade a teacher saw some photos he had taken for the high school yearbook. Mrs. Frank told him he had talent and should consider pursuing it as a career; when some of his basketball photos ended up in the local paper, that was it.

Career chosen!

I’ve done a fair bit of teaching — at the undergraduate college level, and to adults. I love it. It’s such a thrill when students “get it.”

Here’s a powerful and moving video about a teacher in Los Angeles — faced with suicide attempts by fifth-graders — determined to help her young students feel good about themselves.

Which teacher most affected you and your later life?

How and why?

As a teacher — which I know many of you are — how do you feel about your power to affect your students?

Trying On A Career — For $40

The Wannado City "sign" logo.
Image via Wikipedia

Here’s one way to spend your vacation — checking out a career. A new amusement park in Sunrise, Florida, Wannado University, offers kids ages two to 14 the chance to live out their work fantasies:

Step 1. Start young. How about two years old? That’s exactly what the creators of Wannado City in Sunrise, Fla., (just 25 kilometres west from Fort Lauderdale) have in mind. This unplugged theme park-cum-job training centre for squirts is an antidote to Florida’s pricier, flashy, family-thrill-ride hot spots. At Wannado City, kids from two to 14 years old can try on grown-up professions for size (and the costumes that go with them) from detective to doctor, firefighter to fashion designer.

Wannado – the size of three football fields – is laid out to look like a town, albeit a town that is blessed with only attractive businesses. There are no dry cleaners, notary offices or accounting firms. Among the 60 storefronts, there is a circus, flight-training centre, high-end fashion house and movie studio. For $40 (U.S.), kids can come in search of any one of more than 250 different jobs (and they go door to door on their own, but parents can watch over them in the “Eagles Nest” lounge). Once they settle in at the hospital, fire station or airport, they slip into uniforms and get some on-the-job training before they embark on removing a kidney stone, fighting a fire or flying a 747. Yes, there is an actual flight simulator.

A company called VocationVacations has been doing this for adults for years now. It’s an interesting idea, this, of trying on a new job or industry before the drama of actually doing it. In a recession where millions can’t find work they know how to do, and wonder what on earth — if anything — they’ll do next or instead, it’s a question many of us are facing.

About 15 years ago, I planned to move into interior design and went to study it full-time, but only after interviewing three highly successful women who had been working in various segments of the industry for a while. I learned a lot, and some of which really surprised me — one designer told me that being nice (!) was key to her success as so many of her competitors were hand-flapping divas who terrified their clients. Who knew?

What other job or career would you like to try and why? Have you made major career changes along the way? How did they work out?

Choosing A Career? How Exactly Does That Work?

Cover of "What Should I Do with My Life?&...
Cover of What Should I Do with My Life?

I knew from the age of 12 or so I wanted to be a writer, especially a foreign correspondent. I grew up in a family of journalists and film-makers and writers and actresses and it all looked like a lot of fun.

Some people, as this recent Wall Street Journal piece points out, don’t have a clear direction and seek one. Or their job, career or industry (hello, print journalism!) has buckled beneath them like a horse shot through its heart.

For some, it’s clear what our vocation — from the Latin word “to call” — will be, and nothing will deter us in our efforts. But job markets have a nasty habit of drying up and disappearing (mortgage lending), sometimes overnight.

In 1989, burned out and utterly fed up with journalism and desperate for some idea what other paths might even fit my skills and behavior patterns, I took three days’ worth of career and psychological testing. It cost a fortune and suggested I become a…journalist. Or lawyer or florist.

I’m still here, writing for a living. The tests did help me much better understand some of my other aptitudes and how I might use them in other fields. Turns out not everyone loves being decisive all the time or talking to strangers every day for a living. My retail job taught me a lot more about what I love and hate about certain kinds of work — love meeting tons of new people, loathe being emotionally abused by them. Loved selling a great product, hated the mindless tedium of cleaning shelves and folding T-shirts month after month.

Po Bronson wrote a best-selling book called “What Should I Do With My Life?”, a plaintive wail if there ever was one.

When and where and how did you choose your job or career? Have you changed it along the way? How did you know where to go next?

Newspaper Reporters' Job Ranked 16th From The Bottom Of 200 Jobs List

In this image released by the New York Times, ...
NYT reporter David Rhode, at work.Image by AFP/Getty Images via Daylife

Woodward and Bernstein — no, that’s not a law firm — were nuts!

According to a new list ranking 200 careers, being a newspaper reporter is almost the worst choice you can make, according to their judgment, which looked at the physical and emotional environment, income, physical demands, outlook, and stress of 200 jobs.

Economists (26), parole officers (29)  dental hygienists (10) and bank tellers (68) easily beat out pounding the pavement with a notebook. Even nuclear plant decontamination technicians (165) have it better.

Fascinating to see that jobs like choreographer (hello, Twyla) and police officer were ranked almost as poorly. Ask 90 percent of cops and choreographers — and newspaper reporters — and passion informs a huge part, if not all, of their vocational decision. I’ve yet to meet a reporter who values a pretty office and cuddly co-workers and a calm, mellow environment. It sure ain’t for the job security. A very fortunate few will, and do, surpass this list’s top salary ranking of $77,000; The New York Times union-set minimum is higher than that.

Newspaper reporters — I’ve worked for three major dailies — groove on stress. I think it’s actually a form of fuel. They send us out in freezing cold, pouring rain, 100 degree heat, into wars and refugee camps, and we love it. When they asked us for volunteers, post-Katrina, at the Daily News, a number of hands went up. Every ambitious reporter knows the more unpleasant the environment, physical demands and stress the greater the chances it’s a fantastic story.

Emotional environment? Hah. Editors, some of them, are so insane they need to be medicated, (one of mine proudly displayed his on his desk), and most wouldn’t last 20 minutes in a tidy, polite, corporate environment. Neither would we.

After one guy shouted at me in front of the entire newsroom and I went to my boss, he calmly replied, “He threw a radio at me once.”

The “outlook” piece of the ranking — i.e. will those of us now wandering the world newsroom-less ever find another place another newspaper — is the killer, with 24,000 print writers canned last year. That part, without argument, is sadly true.

Here’s the full list.