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My transition back to teaching

7 min read


I always wanted to be somebody, but now I realize I should have been more specific. — Lily Tomlin.

Years after reading this quote in the hallway of an academic building, I was in a group setting where we were asked to briefly introduce our careers.  During my turn, I chose the icebreaker:  “I started out as everyone’s worst nightmare — a high-school physics teacher!” That got a laugh, I think, because although high-school physics is usually in the top 10 of nightmares for people, it may not actually be the worst one, and because I think most people are surprised that someone as cool as me started out as a physics geek. Although given that I was a high-school physics and math teacher, it is true that I am actually not that cool.

That Tomlin quote has always stuck with me. At first I found it hilarious, but I didn’t really know why — maybe it was because I was in graduate school at the time and although I had already been a few somebodies (per the above), I certainly wasn’t in touch with the specific somebody I wanted to be. Also, the obvious hilarity is that Lily Tomlin is certainly a “somebody.” As I have matured, I have found deep wisdom in this quote because I think it subtly names one of the great tensions in life. Specifically, there is a tension between directing one’s life while also being open to the opportunities that present themselves along the way. In this article, I want to pay homage to the quote and to this tension by describing the somebodies I have been and the specific somebody I now know I want to become.

One hazard I experienced as a teacher was that the more experience I gained with education, the farther and farther I got from the actual teaching and learning part — the part that excited me and propelled me into the field in the first place. Instead of teaching, 20 years later I found myself on the 7th floor of an office building in Washington, D.C., spending most of my time on the phone, in meetings and writing or answering emails. There wasn’t a single student or teacher in my daily routine. Having an enviable title at a dream organization like National Geographic was an honor and a privilege, but it wasn’t the right fit.

So, how did I get from physics teaching to this place? To back up a bit, while I was in college, I spent my summers leading canoeing, back-packing, and bicycle-touring trips for kids. It was awesome — I was outside most of the time, teaching my students many practical skills as well as helping them to navigate personal and group dynamics. And, I was good at it. So, after three years of teaching high school, I decided that the adventure-based education world was what I wanted to commit to full-time. I got accepted into a 50-day Outward Bound Instructors course in the mountains of North Carolina. Soon my work-life consisted of backpacking and rock-climbing in the Pisgah National Forest, canoeing in the Florida Everglades and mountaineering in Mexico. I migrated back and forth between North Carolina and Florida for four years and spent an average of 200+ nights a year “out” on course. It was hard, yet satisfying work. In the roles of teacher, nurse, counselor, cook, and coach I found a great mix. I felt that I was sending my students back to their lives with the understanding that they could meet any challenge.

All of that time in the Everglades and Gulf of Mexico hooked my intellect. Although I had always been a swimmer I wanted to take a deeper dive in.  So, I embarked on a master’s degree in oceanography.  I wanted to really understand water, and eventually help others understand it, too. And, after I finished, I spent two months involved with a program for college students — sailing on a “tall ship” in the Caribbean and doing data collection and analysis as a team. What an amazing experience that was! We had only two port stops in 6 weeks at sea — one in Honduras and one in Cuba. And, there were times when we were completely without the sight of land or any other vessel.

After that experience, I went back to classic college instruction, as an adjunct faculty with a mixed load of earth science classes and labs. Eventually, my decision to do a doctorate in education came out of this work, for two reasons. One, I really enjoyed working with college-students. They were fun, and they were ready to grapple with the stuff of the world in a way that I hadn’t found in my experience with younger students. Two, I became intrigued by how these students learned: specifically, how were they putting together the earth science they were learning in my class with the things they heard about on the news and in their “real” life? So, off I went to graduate school.

Ironically, one of the main things I learned in graduate school is that I did not want to become a professor/researcher. That was not my path. In fact, while doing my dissertation work, I began flirting with an organization that is built on the idea of bringing Outward Bound teaching and learning ideas into the K-12 school environment. So, I became a school designer for Expeditionary Learning. This entailed being a coach to school principals, a mentor to teachers, and a facilitator of staff professional development. It was a great job, and I learned as much or more about teaching and learning from EL than I did from all of my years working on a doctorate in education!

Then one day an offer that I had never expected came rolling in for a position at the National Geographic Society. Wow! Despite the fact that I knew that I would take the position, I asked them for 10 days to think about it and to live in the buzz that had taken up residence inside me. Looking back, I think that buzz was a physical manifestation of the tension I mentioned before; the tension between taking advantage of this amazing offer, or of being more self-directed in my “somebody” development.  At the end of those 10 days, I made arrangements to I move all the way across the country — again — to live in Washington, DC. Three years later, and I have come full circle to where this article started. Here I was in a place with world brand recognition and influence. And, also here I was, working behind a desk, in an office, making phone calls, attending or organizing meetings and talking about all of the people out there doing education.

What’s a educated educating girl to do? For me, I’ve decided to face this tension head-on. I’ve realized I will never be happy if all my time is spent behind a desk. Any desk. Even a cool standing desk at an amazing organization. For me the work and the joy of education is being in the mix — not behind the scenes — with teachers and students and the interdependence that engages us in that together. I love being there when the “light-bulb” goes on — whether it has to do with physics, rock-climbing, the ocean, geography or something more personal. I want to teach again. It’s what pulls on my heart-strings and makes me feel alive. It feels like what I was born to contribute to the world.

Anna Switzer is a long-time teacher and currently in transition.  She has taught in a multitude of school-based and wilderness settings throughout her career. Her academic background includes a BA in Physics, MS in Oceanography, and a PhD in Science Education.  After an upcoming trip to India to help with a documentary about food sustainability and a field season with Outward Bound in the Florida Everglades, she plans to return to teaching adults and living on the west coast.