Wiser People

Note: I’m taking a week off to spend some time with the family. As a rerun, I’m sharing this post from February 2022, where I write about an interaction with an undergraduate who was questioning her future. An update to the post. “Mary” taught last school year during the pandemic but left her teaching position this summer to explore another role in education.

An undergraduate student stopped by my office a few days ago. Mary (not her real name) was in midst of an existential crisis and wanted to work through some concerns. I had worked with Mary in the fall and was really happy that she felt comfortable enough to stop by and discuss things.

“I don’t know if I still want to be a teacher,” Mary said. “And I don’t know what to do with that.”

In our class in the fall, I found Mary to be really excited about her future as a teacher. In addition to our class, Mary was also completing a field experience where she worked with middle school students three days a week. At the start of our class time, I’d ask the class to reflect on their “rose and thorn” from the week. This is a low-stakes activity to prompt reflection about the high points and low points about an experience and put it in context. Mary always identified roses and struggled to find thorns. The excitement and passion that she shared each week about her own students made her seem naturally suited for the teaching profession.

But, here she was. Questioning her future and doubting her career decisions.

As we chatted, I tried to get Mary to explore the roots of her doubt. More than that, I explained that doubts about big decisions were natural. I shared that over my career, I have doubted my choice to become a teacher numerous times. It’s been a long time since I’ve questioned my career choice, but I remember it being a regular source of consternation for me when I first started as a teacher. At one point, I made the decision to change schools as a last effort to salvage my teaching career. While that was over 25 years ago, I can remember the feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty.

As I shared my experiences, I remembered a quote that I heard in a podcast recently. Attributed to Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher, mathematician and all-around smart guy, the quote goes something like this:

The problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves and wiser people so full of doubts.

As I shared this with Mary, I could see her eyes light up a little. Clearly, she was neither a fool nor a fanatic, so she self-identified as one of the “wiser people.” More than that, though, the quote seemed to give her permission to doubt herself.

As she left my office, she thanked me for meeting with her. I honestly don’t know what her future holds. Maybe she’ll still become a teacher. Or maybe she’ll choose another path. Regardless, I know that whichever career she chooses will count a wiser person among their ranks.


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