A Portrait of the Education World: My Own Memories and A Private But Open Letter to Myself

Dear Me,

Do Now:

As this academic year comes to a close and you have many mixed feelings, please reflect on all your successes and challenges as a teacher, all your proudest moments and hardships, and all your memories and thoughts. No one will read this letter except yourself. You are required to spill the truth and put your heart and soul into every word, so feel free to be as proud of your victories as possible, to admit how difficult things are, and to be as sentimental as you want. You will not be graded, but I will know from your eyes if you have completed this assignment with these directions.

When I say the word “education,” what do you think of? Let it all out. Go.


When you say the word “education,” I think of my career.

I think of my summer as a counselor at an expensive rural camp, my year of being a teacher assistant at The English High School (a disadvantaged urban school in Boston), and my current 1.5 years as a teacher through Citizen Schools, a non-profit that partners with inner-city middle schools.

I think of my first few days at Citizen Schools. I was shadowing a robotics class when my colleague E told me that the student M in the corner will be one of my students when I start my own class in 2 weeks. I remember thinking that this was my first “real” student. I crouched beside him as he was fixated on constructing a robot and I remember wanting to introduce myself but getting lost in noticing his skinny arms, his small hands assembling pieces, and—whether pass or fail—how I would later be responsible for this kid’s education, well-being, and future.

I think of my first week of teaching and how I kept accidentally introducing myself as Nathan and not Mr. Chow.

I think of all the responses I get when I say I’m a middle school teacher. I think of my relative saying “I can’t believe you still work there,” I think of an old friend saying “Bless your soul,” and I think of my friend K jokingly asking “How are the monsters?” whenever we catch up.


I think of my hardships.

I think of the times I fell asleep at my desk chair while planning a lesson in the evenings of my first months as a teacher, the times I woke up in a daze at 4 am with a sore neck and crawled into bed without brushing my teeth, and the way I woke up in a few hours to trudge on with the lesson.

I think of all the times I carried two whiteboards with objectives and agenda, a bookbag of books, my laptop, a bright green reusable grocery bag of supplies, and one more heavy bag of 17 journals up and down stairs to transition between periods—all because I don’t have my own classroom.

I think of all the times I was out to dinner with friends but excused myself to make a call to a student’s parent to say good things about the usually-troubled student. I think of the way I purposely time this before the next school day so the student’s actions are recognized and positive momentum is built. I think of the way parents have called me at 10 pm because their child was bullied that day and they know I will do everything in my power to listen, to comfort them, and to resolve the issue. I think of how I willingly blend my life with my job.

I think of how much I hate public speaking and how much courage I had to gather to decide to be a teacher who stands in front of a classroom every day.

I think of the weekends I spent commuting for an hour on a train, then walking a mile in rain to the public library to give free tutoring before an upcoming test (and to encourage students to borrow books).


I think of my success.

I think of how many students I have inspired to love going to the library. I think of their excitement when they signed up for a library card under my guidance. I think of R, K, P, and A asking with big smiles on Fridays if I’ll be able to go to the library again that weekend.

I think of making my own curriculum to teach algebra to 6th graders. I think of how I struggled with this math when I was in a 7th grade honors class. I think of how I believed in my students and set the expectation that they can and will understand much more than I was able to.

I think of how dedicated I am to teaching, inspiring, and empowering my students. I think of how, in my three-year career, I have taken fewer than five personal days off work and never a sick day. Steve Jobs would call me one of the “Crazy Ones.” I think of how I wake up every day, ready to pour my heart and soul into teaching.

I think of the time I was on a field trip and had a substitute. Her report was that students asked where I was and when I’ll be back. I think of the time I had to get dressed to teach soccer and had to leave my class early. My supervisor took over. When I headed for the door, one student asked so worrily, “Mr. Chow, where are you going?” In a slight mark of a rookie teacher, I think of how flattered I am that my absence has never been celebrated.

I think of student final projects in classes taught by volunteers, such as the play that our theater students performed to elementary students or the solar cars that our young engineers built or the professional-quality photos they took using $3 disposable cameras or the time the students debated topics in front of real judges at the Moakley Courthouse or the time they presented slogans to a panel of real public relations agencies at the Federal Reserve Bank. I think of audience reactions and parents crying and I think that these can’t be 6th graders.

I think of my greatest goal as a teacher: to teach about character, compassion, and integrity. I think of my TEDx Talk about the gaping need for character education in schools today.

I think of the way I have shared life lessons, positive psychology tidbits, and interesting stories and the way my students were engaged and asked for more.

I think of how many of my words get remembered. I think of all the times I’ve taught that the purpose of doing the right thing is to do the right thing—not for stars, rewards, awards, or fear of consequences. I think of how many times that statement has been repeated in student journals.

I think of my string of proudest successes (and how they’re award-centric… ooops!):

In my first semester teaching, 4 out of 9 students (out of 180 school-wide) who won a character award for values like respect and joy at the big end-of-the-year ceremony were in one of my three classes.

In my second semester teaching, 2 out of 10 students (out of 160) who won a character award at the end-of-the-semester ceremony were in my main class, including the biggest award winner (for integrity).

And in my third semester teaching, 16 out of 21 students (out of 80 in my division) who were the top character star earners for a field trip were in or were once in one of my three classes (10 out of 21 were once in my main class). At the end of the semester, 4 out of 9 peer-nominated character awards were earned by one of my 17 students (out of 170 in the school). My students comprised 10% of the grade level but won almost 50% of the awards. I strive to have my students learn the reasons why they should demonstrate hard work and compassion so they can build momentum, show these things even when I can’t bribe them, and show these things even after they have had me as a teacher.

Especially when my greatest goal is to teach character and especially when I have actually displayed a public star tracker or point tracker fewer than 5 times in my career (don’t tell that to my supervisors), I think that being able to cite these statistics is a dream come true.


I think of the long hours and low pay.

I think of how I changed jobs from a law firm that paid more and that offered me a special position before I left. I think of how I said no to it before even hearing the details and salary because I was set on having a teaching job lined up. I think of how the firm had free cocktail parties with baskets of hors d’oeuvres and how all employees were treated to three-course meals with lobster tacos at a four-star restaurant for a holiday party and how we were all given iPod Nanos as gifts.

I think of my first Teacher Appreciation Week and how I was treated to only crackers, cheese, and strawberries. (I’m very grateful for anything and I don’t teach to get appreciated, but I thought this contrast was just a fun way to make a point.)

I think of Rafe Esquith, one of my heroes in the education world. His 5th graders put on Shakespeare plays that impress Broadway stars, he is the only teacher to ever win a National Medal of Arts, and he has won a Disney National Outstanding Teacher of the Year Award. He tutors students at 6 am before school starts and he stays until 6 pm to tutor more. He has worked 12-hour days as an award-winning teacher for decades but still makes under $40,000 a year.

I think of the business and engineering undergraduates who make twice as much fresh out of college.

I think of my friend’s girlfriend who works at a charter school that suddenly couldn’t pay its employees for a full month because of the budget (yes, you read that right). I think of all the teachers at that school who willingly stayed to work because they couldn’t bear to leave their students mid-year.

I think of how my colleagues volunteer to tutor a whole class of students afterschool twice a week. I think of how J was new to the country and needed extra English help last year and how his mother told me they miss Citizen Schools this year. I told her about our improvised afterschool program and she asked me “Cuanto cuesta?” (How much does it cost?). I think of how I said “Nada” and she looked as if she had found the Holy Grail.

I think of how many colleagues I can count who work all these long hours out of dedication AND who have a second weekend job AND who study in grad school.

I think of the time my colleague E and I stayed so late afterschool that the custodians charged us the next day.

I think of how many of my own teachers volunteered to coach a sport for 10 extra hours a week, stayed afterschool to help with a test review or video project, emailed me at midnight to help with a paper, or volunteered to lead an extracurricular every week until the late evening.

I think of the time I told my roommate that it’s terribly unfair that in almost every sector of the education world, we work more hours than expected. She said yeah, many industries are like that. She mentioned how restaurants will pay you for 8 hours but make you clean up in the 9th hour. I think of how I didn’t say anything because I almost choked from laughing inside.


I think of all the funny moments.

I think of the time D asked me if I’m married. I said no. He asked, “YOU’RE not married?!” Thanks. Compliment taken.

I think of all the things I’ve confiscated from J: paper airplanes, balloons, beads, claws, and plastic nurse gloves (I don’t even wanna know).

I think of how I taught M to use “May I” instead of “Can I” and I also think about the million times he accidentally called me Mr. So (his “other” Asian teacher). I think of the time he asked, “Mr. So, can I use the bathroom?” I looked at him, as if wanting him to correct something. “Say that again properly,” I said. He responded, “OOOH, sorry. Mr. So, MAY I use the bathroom?” Sigh.

I think of the time I needed to buy extra beanbags for a juggling class before the next day. The dollar store didn’t have any and the party store didn’t either. I used my creativity and figured the supermarket might have something—in the pet aisle. I was standing in front of bones and dog food when my friend bumped into me. “Whatcha up to?” he asked. “I’m shopping for my students,” I said. Awkward.

I think of searching for teaching jobs and seeing the world’s worst text cut-off. One job description said that candidates “must be able to develop positive relationships with students and demonstrate qualities of a good role model.” The cut-off on the main job board said that candidates must be able to develop positive relationships with students and demons. Well, I guess that’s accurate.


I think of my own past and all the ways it empowers me and reminds me why I’m a teacher.

I think of how I was in ESL and Speech Therapy classes for half a decade in elementary school, but later I won more English awards than anyone else at my high school, I was one of four out of 400 college students selected to read my short memoir at a special event, and my blogs have been visited by thousands worldwide. I attribute this 180-degree turnaround to all my teachers who believed in me and gave me confidence. And I think of how I want to play that role for my own students.

I think of my own disadvantaged high school, the culture of not caring about academics, the bloody stabbing, the nearby drive-by shootings, and all the times my sister told me a loaded gun was brought to school. I think of how private schools complained about how dirty our bathrooms were when they visited for competitions and I think of how I felt so ashamed and inferior just based on the school I attended. I think of how I made it out of the school with lots of academic knowledge, lots of creative thinking skills, and lots of independence and drive and how, in retrospect, I attribute my success and desire to work hard to the amazing teachers I feel blessed to have had (and to my parents). And I think of how badly I, too, want to teach my own students that your life is what you make out of what you are given.

I think of my 7th grade friend and lab partner G committing suicide on the night of the National Junior Honor Society inductions and how he didn’t get an invitation. I think of all the hush-hush behind the story, my acceptance of never knowing what happened, and my guess that G felt too pressured, too judged, too lost, too dumb.

I think of how different my teachers were the next day, how they all called it a day off from academics, and how one of them came to me to ask, “How are you?” I think of how I had never heard that question until a classmate killed himself. I think of how little attention teachers pay to building simple human relationships and building trust. I think of the individualized letters I write back and forth with ALL my students. I think of the laughter I allow in my class. And I think of how desperately I want to be the one teacher who just wants his students to feel accepted, feel loved, have a joy for life, and be happy.

I think of the day I interviewed for my current job and how I noticed that the middle school I work at looks like my high school. I think to myself that this is no coincidence, that this is a message, and that this is a perfect daily reminder of all the deeply personal reasons why I teach.


I think of the joy I want to cultivate in my classroom.

I think of my class’s motto “Learn, Laugh, Love” and how I remind my students almost every day that learning and hard work are important, but so are laughing, spending time with people, showing respect, and being compassionate.

I think of the times I used different personalities during different activities and lessons: cowboy voice during math “Fire Ups,” Professor Chow during College 101, and clown during random juggling acts.

I think of the time I commanded a non-sick student to go to the nurse. She asked why. I said she had Bieber fever.

I think of the time I was Professor Chow, wore a fake moustache, and put on a British accent. I think of how cheap that moustache was and how I was breathing in dust particles, choking, and in need of water—and how all my students thought I was in character.

I think of the time I taught salsa dancing and when students got tired of the routines, they taught me the jerk dance.

I think of the time I juggled for a talent show and the whole auditorium of 6th graders was chanting my name in rhythmic unison—even when I made mistakes.

I think of how I still plan on giving a test to my students where all the answers will be “B.” I think of how it might create chatter and confusion—but I think all the laughter will be worth it.


I think of all the times I failed.

I think of my first semester teaching, how poor I was at setting procedures and managing the classroom, and how many days I literally spent half of the class time getting students to be quiet.

I think of the time H snuck up behind A to cut two inches of her hair. I think of N spitting on A during a transition. I think of how I could have possibly let these happen under my watch. I think of how bad I feel even when I hear that a student I had last year is in detention this year. I think of how little my lessons on character education got through to them and I start to doubt my successes.

I think of how L, a student who was sent out almost every week, joined my class and suddenly became focused, independent, and respectful for two months. I think of how great I felt because I helped him make this change and because I invested so much time in him from day one. I think of how much I later took the change for granted and how he has slipped to the “dark side” again. I think of covering my face because—whether other teachers were on board with this change or not—I ultimately feel responsible.

I think of all the times I rushed my class to get 2 more math problems done in the last 2 minutes but didn’t make the time to have 2 students say sorry to each other about something. I think of all the times I missed these perfect teachable moments.

I think of all the times a student said she didn’t like herself, all the times a student said the curse words “I can’t do it,” and all the times my students insulted each other.

I think of all the things I could have done better. I wonder what would have happened if I wrote one more personal letter, what would have happened if I made the time to talk to a student at lunch for just 3 minutes, what would have happened if I made another phone call home, what would have happened if I took extra hours to plan a more engaging lesson, what would have happened if I helped her feel comfortable with her weight, what would have happened if I took an extra hour to tutor him.

I think what if, what if, what if.

I think this is a profession where you get so much blame—from others and yourself.


I think of the grim realities of teaching.

I think of how many times politicians mention the word “education” and how it guarantees a standing ovation.

I think of how many times a week I hear the words “We don’t have the budget for that” at work or how many times I have bought my own supplies or how segregated many schools still are. I think of the statistic that says the cost of keeping a prison inmate is 6-10 times more than what gets spent on a K-12 student.

I think of the time my high school student G volunteered with me at a food bank outside school and confided in me by telling me with such conviction that she is tired of people looking down on her community and how unfair it is that the suburbs have nice computers and she gets almost nothing. I think of flashbacks to my own past. Then I try to think of how many politicians actually see the seriousness of our plight.

I think of how the education world is the sweetest place ever. I think of the times that organizations have job fairs for employees searching for other places, I think of the times that summer programs accept students outside the district, I think of teacher collaboration. I think of how much we hold hands, how much we’re in this together, and how much we believe in the same underlying mission.

I think of the way we describe schools as disadvantaged when, really, this whole industry is disadvantaged.

I think of how we deserve so much more.

I think of how incredibly passionate teachers are about what they do and how much it’s a lens with which they’ll see the world forever. I think of the Oscar Wilde quote: “When bankers get together, they talk about art. When artists get together, they talk about money.” I’ll add to that: When teachers get together, they talk about teaching.

I think of my analogy if you think teaching is easy, if you wonder why we need breaks, and if you want to get a glimpse of what it takes to do it: try an office job to taste lesson planning and try waiting tables to taste whirling around the classroom to attend to everyone’s needs every 30 seconds. Now add parenting divided by 2. Ever had trouble babysitting one kid? Multiply that by 17—while teaching new words and formulas to them. Add doing homework times 17 on your futon at home after dinner, plus telemarketing for parents hard to reach, plus artist for all the posters and decorations you make, plus fundraiser and grant writer to make up for your industry’s lack of money, minus any tip at the end of the night. Multiply that by 8-12 hours and 5 days in a row and 40 weeks and BAM—you have teaching. Just don’t forget the whole weight of your country’s future on your shoulders.

(For most teachers in this country, that babysitting part is multiplied by 25 and that homework part is multiplied by 75-100. My job with 17 students is easy in comparison.)

I think of the time I met the teacher, activist, and author Jonathan Kozol, another one of my heroes in education. After his public lecture, I approached him to sign my copy of Shame of the Nation. I told him my positive stories from teaching and how much I love this job. He signed, “To Nathan—in the struggle.” Gosh.. how did he know?

I think of these sad things and I think of how much joy and laughter my colleagues and I share at the end of most days. I think of the time someone walked into our tiny office shared by 14 people and immediately said he got a very positive vibe from us. I think of how blessed I am to be able to work with these people.


I think of some of the best appreciation I have received in my life.

I think of the last day with one of my classes when I gave a gratitude lesson and instructed students to write thank-you cards to family members. All the students managed to secretly make and sign one colorful card with the big words “We love your class” sprawled across. I think of how special I felt when they presented it to me before those “Golden Eagles” flew away one last time.

I think of the origami heart card I received from my current class on Valentine’s Day, the Candy Cane Gram I got before winter break, the worm-themed juggling set, the mugs, the popcorn, the chocolate, the chocolate, and the chocolate.

I think of the time I gave a speech to H about how disappointed I was that she was so disrespectful to me and her peers. Minutes later she wrote a heartfelt personal note to me with how she’ll remember my words forever.

I think of the time I tutored F and how his mother did not have a card on her so she took a folded scrap paper to write a thank-you note to me in broken English. She spelled my name wrong and thanked “Mr. Chaos”—how’s THAT for teacher presence?

I think of how one mother kept inviting me over for dinner (and how I never made time to say yes), how she offered me homegrown berries from her backyard, and how much her watering eyes said how grateful she was that I was her son’s teacher and how desperately she wanted to thank me—especially because her son was known as someone difficult to manage and was often pushed to the side.

I think of A, a high school student I worked closely with and how I gave him a personal tour of my alma mater Boston University, how I treated him to dinner in a dining hall, and how I sat down with him to give him tips for his college and scholarship interviews. I think of how he received full rides to BU and Northeastern. I think of how he gave me a tour of Northeastern a year later and treated me to dinner in a dining hall. I think of how he gave me a job lead and how he put in a good word for me at a program he’s an alum of. I think of the phrase “What you give is what you get.”

I take a glimpse at all the thank-you notes on my bedroom wall and at all my mental images of student smiles and parents’ eyes—and I don’t think I would ever trade these things for more money.


I think of all these things.

I think of all my successes and failures. I think of all the work that still needs to be done and that I’ll never finish.

I think of my own past, how I got here, and all my own missions. I think of all the risks I took and all the comforts I threw away.

I think of all the joys and memories and funny teacher moments. I think of all the thank-you cards on my bedroom wall and I think of all my former students reaching out to help.

I think of the system and how unfair it is and I think of the future and how responsible I am for shaping it.

I think of all these things and I am not sure if I should laugh or cry, dance or hide, fold or fight.

I think of how tired I feel, how overwhelmed, how infinitely rewarded.

I think of all these things, I think of my own mental yearbook, I think of my own portrait of the education world.

And I feel darn proud to be a teacher.


Did you like this article? Did you relate to it? Do you think more people need to be aware of this portrait of the education world?

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Shameless plug #1 (haha): Are you looking for a teacher, counselor, or advisor with my sense of purpose, dedication, and passion for youth and character development? I’m available for hire starting July 2012 and am always looking for education, consulting, and writing projects to be part of.

Shameless plug #2: Are you looking for an entry-level teaching job at Citizen Schools, the non-profit I currently work at? You can build memories similar to mine and make a difference in many students’ lives. We are accepting applications for the two-year Teaching Fellowship for 2012-2014. We have campuses in Boston and in eight different states! The deadline has been extended to May 18th. You can also contact me with questions or for details. (And just as a reminder, this is an independent blog. My views are not affiliated with any of the schools and organizations I have worked for.)


To Education and Beyond! =)

With Much Love,


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