Speaking To New Teachers At Their Graduation

I was invited to give a few remarks to some newly minted math teachers at San Francisco State University last night. I had two things to say.

Hi there. It’s nice to be here with you as you get kicked out of the nest. It’s an honor, in fact. I’ve met a few of you. Smart, thoughtful people each one. And it makes my decision to become a math educator seem smarter that you would make the same call. That’s real.

I’d like to say two things briefly about what happens next and then I’ll be done.

I’ll quote the first from someone I met a few weeks ago in New Orleans. He said to me, “Your first year teaching is about growing as a teacher, sure, but it’s mainly about getting to know yourself.” That’s wise. You go through life looking for mirrors. Literal mirrors at first and then figurative mirrors. Surfaces that reflect at different angles revealing more and more about your appearance and your character. At a certain point, a lot of us try to position those mirrors so that they reflect back only our best angles. The most valuable people in my life refuse to let me position them. My best friends notify me of my worst angles and refuse to accept them.

That’s what your students will do for you. They’ll reflect back at you the spot on your chin you missed with the razor. They’ll reflect back the parts of you that are insecure and afraid and small. Eventually all that reflection takes a kind of marvelous toll and you either decide that teaching kids isn’t any fun or you realize that you aren’t the spot on your chin. That isn’t who you are. And then your students start to reflect back generosity and humor you didn’t know you had. I hope you enjoy that. My first three years teaching were basically a bonus adolescence. I could tell you stories. But that’s number one. Enjoy learning about yourself. Enjoy self-study. Apart from whatever my teaching was doing for the kids I taught, teaching showed me the angles where I needed lots of work. It made a better person out of me

Here’s the second. It’s tempting to compare the job of teaching to other jobs you could have taken, jobs your college classmates took, jobs taken by the people you grew up with. I struggled with this for a long time. Friends of mine made more money working fewer hours and their profession wasn’t ever ripped a new one on national television. (Except for the ones who went into financial services. I dodged a bullet there.) Overall, that wore on me. I asked around about med school prereqs. I filled out an application for film school here at SFSU.

In case you ever feel the same way, here are two helpful ways to look at the job of teaching. The first is that you don’t have to worry, as many of my friends still do, that their jobs don’t really matter to anybody except the family they feed. You don’t have to worry that you’re insignificant to other people. You’re in the profession of developing humanity, one class at a time. That’s no small credit you get to claim. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to doubt your job’s value to humanity for thirty or forty years.

The other reason to love teaching when people try to convince you not to is that teaching has the best questions.

Me, I came to realize that past a certain baseline income, what I need most in my life are good questions. Questions that aren’t so small they crack easily. Questions that aren’t so big — like rising inequality or climate change — they put me in a fetal crouch. I need questions between those two. Questions at just the right size. Questions that crack after weeks and months not hours. Questions I can roll around in my head on long road trips or standing in line at the DMV or in some boring lecture. Lately I’m in the market for a ten-year question. Something that’ll take me through my thirties. I know I’ll find it in teaching.

See, there’s profit in answering a good question. The profit isn’t cash. The profit isn’t even answers. The profit is more questions. The best questions yield more questions once they’re answered. And teaching has all of them. For me, teaching has all the best questions. And most of them are timeless. Questions about human learning will endure even after questions about typesetting and carriage manufacture and driverless cars have expired.

You’ve signed onto a job that’ll yield the best version of yourself, one that offers you endlessly fascinating questions and the growing awareness that a lot of little people’s lives would be less without you.

I couldn’t be happier for you and I couldn’t be happier for myself that I get to count you all as colleagues.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. Wow. Way to drop a bomb on them. I really enjoyed the transcript. We probably don’t think of the student perspective enough as a reflection on ourselves. The day we stop is the day that application to film school should be mailed.

    Well done.

  2. Dan- Thanks for sharing and re-inspiring me, and surely others! And thanks for always sharing good questions and ideas. Keep it going man!

  3. was2afraid2teach

    April 27, 2014 - 2:50 am -

    That’s it. I’m going back to teaching. Went into health profession for was too afraid to teach, though I have a teaching degree. Of course, money was WAY better than teaching, but NOT as fulfilling. Thank you Dan for the re-inspiration!

  4. The second piece of advice is excellent. With the long hours, challenges, and low pay, I thought about the other careers I could have pursued constantly in my first two years of teaching. I even left teaching after my second year and made twice my salary working in business for a few years. I hated every minute of it. Although it was interesting work and the money was better, it was not nearly as fulfilling as teaching. No one ever told me that other teachers felt the same way that I felt, and that if you love teaching you will not be as happy doing anything else. Your words will hopefully give them the peace of mind that I truly did not have until I left and then returned to teaching. New teachers need to know that it is not only ok to be a teacher, but worth it, “developing humanity, one class at a time”.

  5. 1.) I grew a goatee in my first year, that would be my advice for first year teachers if they have that option.

    2.) Thanks for this. It was the serendipitous inspiration I need as I get ready to go write for the day on my national board portfolio.

  6. Leanna Brooks

    April 27, 2014 - 8:21 am -

    You’re in the profession of developing humanity, one class at a time.

    After one of my many stories of a day in the life of a middle school teacher – my son replied, ” You don’t teach math, you teach life.”

  7. Wow! This is inspiring.

    It’s all about asking questions about ourselves. That what I felt when reviewing my first year teaching after three year spent on just-making-money-and-friends in hightech.

    Anyway, this is so nicely said, that it is going to be hung on our teachers’ wall.

  8. I have always felt that teaching was a calling more than a profession to choose. Those teachers to be received a great gift from you, and I believe that your words will become oft-repeated to many future teachers. I have already saved it. I like the image of a mirror and can testify to its accuracy in my own career. Thank you for living into your calling – and thank you for your words.

  9. Dan, thanks for these words. Great to hear, even as I wrap up my 10th year in the classroom. I’ve learned so much about myself and wrestled with so many great questions (many of which I’ve yet to answer). I’m looking forward to another 10 years of learning and wrestling. :)


  10. Katerina Roumpi

    April 28, 2014 - 4:25 am -

    Very well put…
    Thank you…
    If you ever come to GREECE I will be more than happy to have you in my class and share opinions…

  11. I guess what I struggle the most as I student teach is that why am I teaching math. I love math and I love teaching math but my students don’t.

    Sometimes I can convince them better but other times I lose miserably. I don’t know why one of my students who would probably become an amazing writer need this class just because it is required by the state. I can’t argue against why they can’t use their technology and waste their time figuring out simplifying fractions and etc.

    Your lessons and your posts have been inspirational and I tried to implement in my classroom too. My honors kids love them but my regular kids don’t care and my lower-level kids are lost. I hope this doesn’t discourage me enough to stop teaching after all, I’m only beginning. Thanks for the post!

  12. Thank you for this, Dan. I’m a second year teacher and the same points you brought out have been floating around in my head lately. I agree that teaching is all about perfecting yourself, and it’s amazing. I am such a better person after being a teacher. And you’re right. I’m always learning and asking questions, which makes life an ever-changing and exciting!

  13. You glossed over a very serious part of this profession that will kick good intentioned and good people to the curb. I’ve being working with kids for the past 27 years and have watched the looming destruction of public education and the teaching profession.

    The mirror analogy is good. What you were remiss in telling these budding teachers is that their administrators have been instructed to tear them down and teach them that they will never truly be “highly effective.” My administration has told us this as if this were a way to inspire us to continue working toward that unattainable goal. The evaluation practices handed down from higher-ups and state legislators will see to that. Beginning teachers will need that mirror to justify their existence in a profession that is being deemed by politicians and “education reformers” not a profession, but a two or three year step to some other career. They will need to document every positive action and interaction with their students to counter the overwhelming negatives the administration must find in their teaching, planning, and assessment strategies. I have been watching this happen more and more. Forces behind the political parties are working to tap the state and federal educational funding to feed their for-profit education companies.

    I am working on the assumption that you are no longer teaching in a public system. Failure to inform prospective teachers of this is like directing a novice skiier to a double black diamond course without advising them that their path will be filled with many nasty surpirses.

    I realize that I am coming off in a very negative light, but going into teaching has more negative consequences than positives now. I love working with kids, but hate having to fight those who would destroy the good we can do and that the system is broken.

  14. @Jon,

    I’m sorry to hear of your quite negative experience with administration. I’m in my 23rd year of teaching (all at public schools) and have worked with 9 different principals — all of them very supportive and respectful. Each principal had strong skills in certain areas and reached out to their staff for guidance in areas where they lacked expertise. We don’t always see eye to eye, but I know I can share my views without being chastised or feeling that my job is threatened. Maybe my views are really the students’ views — that I’ve tried to be their biggest cheerleader. (I honestly don’t know what my job is if it’s not for the kids and only the kids.)

    Of course there are not-so-great administrators, just like in any other profession, and I have heard some horror stories. But I certainly don’t believe Dan needs to embark on this in his remarks to new teachers because if I’m reading you correctly, the administrators and political forces are out to get the teachers such that there’s nothing teachers can do anyway. This view is quite unreasonable. If administrators made it miserable for their teachers, then their teachers would leave, and how would this high turnover look good for any school? Whatever happened to going into teaching because you love teaching — you love the art of it, the challenge of it, the humility in it, and like you said, you “love working with kids.”

    Jon, you and I and all the dedicated teachers (new and seasoned — ewww, “seasoned” sounds like I’m a piece of over marinated pork chop) can certainly “fight those who would destroy the good” because we have a very mighty force behind us — the kids. We can do right by them and no one gets to say a damn thing.

  15. I would argue that, although the first three years of teaching are the most intense “discovery,” I find that EVERY year, even in year 21, I discover more about myself. Every year, students reveal things that I never knew existed within myself, both bad AND good – and I then re-evaluate what I’m putting out there and hopefully present a better person than I was the day before.

    As for the tougher parts of education, that’s when we need to look to our teaching community, both in our school and via the blogs. The first three years CAN be especially isolating because we are dealing with the tearing down and re-building of who we are, but even the veterans deal with circumstances with admin, district personnel, and students that can make us feel as if we’re “fighting the good fight” on our own. Connect with your fellow teachers in any way you can. When you feel ineffective, stymied, or beaten by the education world, unload to another teacher, even anonymously, and you will find not only a sympathetic ear, but incredible support…the biggest strength to being a teacher is the fact that there is a community of like-minded individuals out there ready and willing to travel with you.

  16. This is one of my favorite quotes and was advice given to young people, but I think it applies to everyone… especially teachers…

    “Let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and frustrations and all disappointments. And, above all, let them remember…to build a life as if it were a work of art.”

    Abraham Joshua Heschel

  17. Beautifully written! As an untrained teacher somewhere in South East Asia, your words reminded me of why I went into teaching as oppose to staying on in the field of finance.

    Admittedly, I still harbour thoughts of doing something else other than teaching. That is something that I need to come to terms with and your “developing humanity, one class at a time” quote will certainly come into play.

  18. This was a great encouragement to me as I finish my 5th year of teaching. I can really resonate with you regarding the first three years of teaching. They were rough but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I’m a different person because of those early years.

    Asking the right questions is spot on as well. Your work has inspired me as a physics teacher to be “less helpful” and long that my students develop patience in their problem solving. You are doing great work Dan. Thank you for sharing your work with us

  19. In the first 2 years you don’t have any idea how to teach either without a good mentor and an interest in improving your planning and craft. I like the metaphor with the knick on your chin shaving, and know that that is not all of you. Great message to new teachers.