Teachers Share Unconventional Paths to Teaching

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Students in their later years of high school who plan to attend higher education are likely familiar with the anxiety over deciding what major they will pursue. The boundlessness of the world can be difficult to fully grasp, and the endless possibilities can feel overwhelming as much as it is freeing. 

Teachers have already walked this path and have insight into what is often a nonlinear journey after high school. Many teachers at M-A have earned degrees or previously studied in fields separate from the ones they currently teach.

Roisen with his cat, 1992

Biology teacher Patrick Roisen graduated with a double major in studio art and biology. When beginning university, he said, “I started off solely wanting to do art because I wanted to draw comic books. I actually contemplated double majoring in art and English because I enjoyed writing.” 

His introduction to biology was through his university’s general education requirements. He said, “My girlfriend at the time was a biology major, and she wanted someone to take biochemistry with her in sophomore year. As I took more biology classes, I started having more fun with science.”

Roisen’s turning point occurred when he contemplated his post-graduate career. “I did some research, and at the time, there was a big boom in the comic book industry, and there was a grand total of 200 jobs in the nation,” he said, resulting in his newfound interest in biology becoming a second major.

Rosenberg’s senior ID photo, 1996

Throughout his years in university, English teacher David Rosenberg had planned to pursue law with his degree in political science. “Based on my personality and what came naturally to me, I always wanted to study law. When I was attending UC Santa Cruz, their law program was still in the works, so I decided to go with political science with a minor in law.”

Calling back from his plans as a university student, he said, “I thought by the time I was 25, I’d be practicing law. Even when I was fresh out of college, I was planning to take a year to study for the LSAT [Law School Admission Test] and figured that was my trajectory.” 

Despite the plan he had in mind, teaching became a part of Rosenberg’s career as soon as he was out of school. “When I was 21, I worked in after-school programs in Oakland, and then I started doing long-term subbing down here at M-A,” he said. “It took me about six years of teaching before I really wanted to go back to graduate school [for education]. While I really enjoyed teaching, I was initially hesitant to commit a career to it.” 

“However, I had started to have a lot of very fulfilling experiences through what I was doing, so I lost my motivation towards the financial payoff,” he continued. “I wanted to be the teacher I never had for my students.” 

For Rosenberg, the decision was difficult but not one he regrets. He said, “It’s still a difficult decision to grapple with—the unexamined life is no life at all. But, if I were miserable teaching, I would not continue to pursue it.”

Otsuka’s university graduation, 1992

Lisa Otsuka, who teaches various English classes, was initially on track to receive a degree in mechanical engineering before switching to a double major in psychology and Spanish literature. She recalled, “My mom was really heavily invested in me becoming a mechanical engineer, and I didn’t question it and stayed there for three years. I hadn’t consciously chosen it for myself, and I just had internalized that it’s what I was supposed to do.” 

“I had an opportunity to teach math and science in South Africa for a semester in my junior year,” she said. “I was doing it as a service project, but I really liked teaching and thought, ‘Maybe that would be a better way to go.’”

She continued, “I was planning on minoring in Spanish literature because I loved learning the language. As for psychology, I found it as I went. I started finding really interesting classes that also fulfilled general education requirements.”

When she decided to leave engineering, she said, “It was a surprisingly easy decision for me. I have no regrets because being a teacher has been perfect for me. It was so much better to stay open and let one experience lead me to the next. I’m really happy with the decision I made, but looking back, I could have been happy with other decisions too.” 

Despite studying in fields different from the ones their careers are in now, teachers say that the skills they previously learned still transfer over. “I’ve used a lot that I learned in art,” Roisen said. “The biggest skill you need in art is learning how to see. You have to learn what is actually in front of you, not what you think it looks like, and that is an incredibly useful skill for when you’re making observations in an experiment.” 

Rosenberg said “1,000%” of the contents of his major translated to teaching English. “Teaching language and rhetoric is tinged with political science,” he said. “My life’s work beyond just getting my kids to graduation is, ‘How do I create finely sharpened, young rhetoricians who are going to go out in the world, not be manipulated, and make good decisions?’” 

Otsuka said, “For engineering, pages of code could be filled with errors if you forget one period or comma. It trained my eyes to look closely, which works out well with closely looking at literature passages.” As for her psychology degree, she said, “Everything transfers over to English. Both study what it’s like to be human, so I think the two are very similar.” 

As for final pieces of advice for students, Roisen stated, “Don’t close yourself off to possibilities because you’ve had bad experiences in the past. Also, be willing to change your mind, and be willing to give things up. I’ve had some students who say, ‘I’m good at three different things, so I’m going to devote myself full-time to all three.’ Unfortunately, that means there’s no time left over to rest or to just be a person.” 

“Talk to the people who have lived it,” Rosenberg advised. “Talk to your teachers who may know you better than you think. Students are so worried about getting a job, but at this point, just go and enjoy your college experience.” 
Otsuka tells students, “Uncertainty is the best place to enter college because then, you’re more open. My favorite advice is from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet when he said, ‘Be patient with all that is unresolved in your heart,’ and, ‘Live the questions now.’ We pressure people to know way too quickly, but so much of life is feeling a little bit more comfortable with not knowing and just living it. You might have experiences in college you never could have anticipated or planned for. Openness and being comfortable with not knowing, I think that’s actually the goal.”

Leehan is a senior and this is her first year in journalism. She finds interest in fashion, the arts, and M-A’s diverse student life.

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