Two Educators: Origin Stories

We teach who we are. That’s why where we come from is so important. In this edition of  “Two Educators,” Dylan and Brian discuss the paths that led them to the field of education.


Note: “Two Educators” is an occasional series with Brian Kulak, Chief Academic Officer at Collingswood Public Schools. In the series, Brian and Dylan tackle educational topics from their unique perspectives as an administrator and a teacher.

Brian Kulak: I became a teacher because of Isiah Thomas.

In 1991, while the Hall of Fame NBA point guard for the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons was adding to his legacy as one of the greatest players in the game, I was watching. When uniform selections were made for all the various teams for which I played as a kid, I always chose #11 in honor of Isiah. For my high school graduation, a friend’s parent gave me a gold necklace with that number dangling from it; I wore it for years.

Like most kids, I was obsessed with someone I could never be.

So when my freshman English class was asked to write an essay using the prompt: If you could trade places with anyone in the world, who would it be and why, I didn’t blink before I started to write about “Zeke.”

By that point in my life, I was certain of only a few things: I loved to read and write; I loathed all things math; I had terrible hair and acne. Only the first one matters now, though I would argue the other two are still relevant.

When Sue McKenna, then head of the high school English department, walked into my classroom a week later, arms full of loose-leaf paper and gravitas, I thought nothing of it and prepared for a lecture.

But when she started to read my piece on Isiah Thomas, stopping for effect at several points and rereading my last sentence, “But why, I wonder, would Isiah want to trade places with me?” I sat near the back of room C209 blushing through a combination of fear and pride. On the one hand, I didn’t want anyone to know how insanely excited I was for fear of (further) social isolation, but on the other hand, I wanted everyone to know how insanely excited I was that an adult chose my work to use as an exemplar.

Roughly 43 minutes later, I walked out of the classroom as the still anonymous writer of the Ode to Isiah. It didn’t take long for my friends to catch wind of the experience and to out me as the writer, but by then, I was too euphoric to care what people thought.

I was a writer.

That, by way of an otherwise mundane writing assignment the likes of which kids today are still completing, is how I knew I wanted to become a teacher.

I was 14.

I knew that, for whatever reason, teaching was what I was supposed to do. Nothing else mattered.

From that point on, my focus was razor sharp; my life’s plan was myopic. I would teach high school English. For me, making a conscious decision to never leave school was made with clarity, confidence, and cause. I knew I loved everything about learning, I knew I was a good reader, writer, and speaker, and I knew that, for whatever reason, teaching was what I was supposed to do. Nothing else mattered.

Four years after that watershed moment in Mrs. Rogers’s English class, I was declaring a major at Rowan University while friends were still trying to figure out how to scrounge up enough money for a 12-pack of Natural Light. Then, after bombing my first ever teaching exam as a sophomore in Dr. Blohm’s class (I earned a 44, which was inexplicably still a D), I wandered around campus in a depressed haze before returning to her office an hour later to ask how I could improve.

“Your answers weren’t wrong,” she said. “They weren’t right enough. Give me more.”

So I did. While the 44 inked in red pen might have been my score, I knew the real test had just been given, and I was going to crush it. Several classmates dropped the course after that first exam. I wrote Dr. Blohm a thank you note.

Two years after that, as a (still pimply) 22 year old, I was a month into my student teaching experience at Pennsauken High School when I received two calls from two separate teachers at my old high school. The first was from my former basketball coach, and now close friend, Casey Clements, who told me, rather bluntly, “I need a JV coach. Job’s yours when you finish.”

Then, hours later, the true measure of the cosmic alignment of my teaching career occurred when, my mentor, John Skrabonja, who served as my real-life John Keating, called to tell me that he was being pressed into emergency action as a guidance counselor after the sudden death of a beloved counselor and that he was recommending me as his replacement.

So on February 1st, 1999, a cool eight years after I wrote about Isiah Thomas, I walked into room C206 on my first day as the new high school English teacher in my old high school. I replaced my hero, in his room, in which I sat, just a few years prior.

Sure, Isiah helped get me there, and I still do love the #11, but, unlike so many others, not the least of which is my trusted writing partner, Dylan, my destination had been signposted for me long before I had anything to say about it.

Dylan Fenton: I wasn’t a very good student in high school.

Don’t get me wrong – I got decent grades, didn’t get into too much trouble, and ended up getting into a good college. But, I just wasn’t that…into it.

While we were reading Pride and Prejudice in English, I was consumed by Beat literature. While we were playing volleyball in gym, I was skateboarding. While we were learning C++ in computer science, I was teaching myself HTML. While we were playing Beethoven in orchestra, I was playing in punk rock bands. While we were writing theme essays, I was starting an underground student newspaper.

High school seemed to always be pushing me in directions that I had little interest in going. There was lots of memorization and most of what I was supposedly learning seemed abstract, irrelevant, and, well, pretty useless. I resented high school for that.

But I could jump through the hoops I needed to and I could play the game pretty well. A little writing ability and some good test-taking skills went a long way for me. And that kept my parents and teachers pleased.

Now, if most teachers are asked why they got into the profession, they’ll tell a dewy-eyed story, steeped in nostalgia, of how they loved high school and loved their teachers and just loved the whole experience. And when given the chance to recreate that experience for others by becoming teachers, they jumped at it.

And that’s great – I know many fantastic, progressive educators with that exact origin story. To be honest, I’m a little envious – that experience would’ve made high school a lot simpler for me. But, that just wasn’t my experience.

On going into teaching, I didn’t want to recreate my experience for others – I wanted to overhaul it. I wanted to do better than my teachers had done and better than my school had done. I wanted to make school more relevant and meaningful for the kids like I had been. The four years of high school that take up a young person’s life have so much potential. And I didn’t want that to be squandered.

I didn’t want to recreate my high school experience for others – I wanted to overhaul it.

Maybe that was naive, maybe that was foolhardy, maybe it was even egotistical. But it’s what drove me and it’s what continues to drive me today.

Because I know there are lots of kids out there who feel much like I did when I was in high school. They’re motivated by getting decent grades and keeping parents and teachers off their backs. But as for motivation to learn the content that schools are teaching? Not so much.

We can look at studies that show that upwards of 40% of our students are chronically disengaged or, if we’re honest, we can just look out across our classrooms on an average day. High school is not connecting with lots of students. We can blame students for this, or parents, or society, or technology, or a whole host of other scapegoats that we have no control over – or we could try changing our schools.

But, again, don’t get me wrong, in my quest to revamp school and my classroom into something more engaging, more interesting – a place of wonder and excitement for students, instead of another mundane chore – I have often fallen short. Far short.

In looking at my lessons, assessments, or activities I plan for my students, they sometimes bear a striking resemblance to what I was so opposed to in high school. They place memorization over real thinking and I know that they will have little relevance to students. But with our culture’s fixation on standards, standardized tests, and a belief that we are somehow far past the golden age of public schooling in America, I settle. I compromise and cheapen my teaching – and my students’ learning.

In those moments I think back to myself as a high school student and wonder how he would receive my current class. Sometimes, I think he’d be disappointed, disengaged, and simply go through the motions.

But other times, I think he would be into it, and interested, and feel like his passions were allowed and encouraged inside the walls of school. And hopefully, he’d respect the teacher a little for trying.

Is your origin story different from or similar to Dylan and Brian’s? Leave a comment about it in the comments below!


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