More than Just a Career Path, Becoming an Educator Might Be a Gene
Story: Mark Ludas @aulos.media
Photo: Peter Stog
Education is an oddly contentious subject. The role of the teacher has always been debated, but if you’ve had at least one great teacher in your life, you remember them.
This is why the debate rages on: because teachers have an incredible power to shape society.
With that power comes incalculable and increasing responsibility: to perform a dozen different functions for hundreds of developing minds for eight or more hours per day. Yet, although “education creates all other professions,” there is sometimes the creeping feeling that teachers still aren't appreciated. So why would anyone choose to become one?
To find out, I met with Lisa Fischman, Principal of the Hillcrest School, and Dr. Anne Mucci, Superintendent of Schools in the Morris School District.
In our multi-part interview, I inquired about many things: what led them to choose a career in education? Does it come from within, or does it answer a societal need? What challenges did they face, and what do teachers face now?
Their answers provided me with not only a detailed portrait of two of Morris County’s most accomplished educators, but also a profound look into the heart and soul—as well as the current state—of the profession itself.
We even tackled the impact of the pandemic, A.I., sexism, and the age-old question, does coffee stunt your growth?
Mark: Let’s start at the beginning. What did you do before you were educators?
Lisa: In 2006, I graduated from Ramapo College with a communications degree and then I actually played professional basketball in Israel and for the United States Maccabi USA team. After a year in Israel, I came back to the United States and played on a professional tour team out of Texas. Eventually, though, I did switch to coaching instead and working for a sports marketing company.
Mark: What was that like?
Lisa: I liked it but it wasn’t very fulfilling. One of my best friends was a special education teacher at a "last resort" school for students that were emotionally and behaviorally disturbed. The school was looking for paraprofessionals and aides so I went to meet with the principal. Before I knew it I was in a first-grade classroom with just a couple of students and I fell in love with the job. Working with students who were emotionally and behaviorally disturbed really taught me to try to understand what they wanted to communicate but couldn’t express verbally.
Mark: That’s an incredible responsibility, but it also sounds like a gift.
Lisa: Yes! I really wanted to be able to do more, so I started my first masters degree at Montclair State. At first I wanted to teach health and phys ed but I started to realize that I didn't want to be in the gym, I wanted to be where I was: in the classroom. So I ended up going through the Newark Montclair Urban Teacher Residency program at MSU and acquired my first master degree and three certifications. Upon graduating from that program, I got a teaching job in Newark.
Mark: And that’s how you got started.
Mark: I love this because you experienced doubt and rethinking, but you were pretty sure education was the goal.
Lisa: My family is split down the middle: two of my four siblings are in education, two are in business. My mom was an educator, my dad was in business, and I knew education was always my calling. I just didn’t want to get to the phone, you know?
Mark: You mean you didn’t want to feel kind of hemmed in, just because half of your family was in education.
Lisa: Right. But it turns out that’s where I found the most fulfillment.
Mark: Sometimes life lets us know! Anne, I saw you nodding there.
Anne: I was nodding because I really enjoy working with people like Lisa, who have experienced other things before coming into education and bring a unique and creative perspective to problem-solving. I've always been a strong advocate for alternate-route teachers to balance out the traditional candidates because I think that’s what makes the school and the district, when people have those life experiences....I mean come on! She played basketball in Israel! As a teacher, that gives you so many opportunities to connect with students because you’re different!
Mark: I can imagine. So what did you do before education?
Anne: Well, my path was much more of a straight line. Education was the first thing I did and this is my 28th year in it. I come from a family of educators, just like Lisa. My closest aunt was a teacher and I spent so much time with her. It made such an impact. When I was little, my favorite thing to do was put all my stuffed animals in front of a blackboard and play “teacher.” I loved it.
Mark: That’s so precious!
Anne: I know! I still remember. One of my passions is art history and for a short time I thought about working in museum education and museum studies to really bring together those two passions of teaching and art history.
Mark: I can understand that impulse, for sure.
Anne: Yes, but the thing was, in museum education, you interact with different groups of students one day and then you never see them again. You don’t have those enduring connections with them or with families or communities and I knew I would really miss that. So that helped me decide to focus on being in the classroom. At that point, I had no idea I’d want to be a superintendent but I had tremendous mentors throughout my career who guided me to the path of administration and I’m incredibly grateful for that.
Mark: In the interviews I’ve done, everyone emphasizes the importance of mentorship.
Anne: Yes, it’s very important as a teacher.
Mark: So, Anne, what drew you to education? Was it more of an internal drive, or was it more to fill a societal need?
Anne: When I graduated college we were in the exact opposite situation than we are now. Teachers were plentiful, jobs were hard to come by, at that time it took me a full year of substitute teaching with a multitude of districts because there weren’t many opportunities for women in social studies. I wasn’t looking at things and saying, “oh my goodness, there’s this unmet need,” because it was just a different time. I grew up in the 1980s, and just like a lot of future teachers, I was shaped by reading A Nation at Risk [a landmark 1983 report by the United States National Commission on Excellence in Education]. From that, I certainly did absorb that there was good work to be done and I wanted to be part of it, but I also just think it was the sheer pleasure that came from teaching and from being around high school students, which still brings me tremendous joy.
Mark: It's interesting to hear that the situation was the mirror image of what it is now. How about you, Lisa?
Lisa: Very similar to Dr Mucci, my mom worked in Newark for 42 years, and at a very young age, she would play “classroom” in our basement with us. We played it so much that my dad actually put in a chalkboard down there for us!
...education is the one thing no one can take from you
Mark: Wow, so the playing aspect is a big deal for kids who become teachers.
Lisa: A very big deal. But she also instilled in us that we were very privileged. We did a lot of shopping for her students during the winter holidays and she'd bring cookies to school, or ramen noodles, just to remind us that not everybody gets to have dinner. I saw my mom doing these things for her community at a very young age and I was inspired by her in the same sense as playing those games of “teacher," you know?
Lisa: And I was also very lucky to have really good teachers very early on and I loved them. At the school where I work, which is Pre-K through 2nd grade, we were just having this conversation today about how important it is for kids to love school and to love coming to school at this age, and looking back I can tell you that I loved going to school, so I was getting that motivation of learning to love learning and education both at home and at school.
Mark: “Learning to love learning.” That’s incredible.
Lisa: Yes, and my teachers meant so much to me, I even remember trying to mimic their behavior and getting those silver pens with the blue on one side and the red on the other! Just so I could really play “teacher” when I got home.
Anne: And it’s so interesting too, Lisa: although my mother is very insightful and one of the biggest influences in my life, she didn't go to university. Many people in my family didn’t. We were first-generation Americans; my sisters were born in Scotland. So we had a completely different range of experiences in our family for a career, and I remember the mantra which I carried into my teaching, which was “education is the one thing no one can take from you.” Money comes and goes, friendships and relationships may not work out, but nobody can take your education away from you, and that was a big motivation: to be a part of offering that to other people and realizing that you’re giving them something, or you’re helping them discover something that will be part of them forever.
Mark: It really sounds like it is a calling, would you agree?
Anne: I believe it’s a gene.
Lisa: I remember one of my first evaluations as a teacher, that I completely bombed, by the way! But my administrator said, “I’m not worried about you. You have it.” I don’t know if it's a gene, I don’t know if it’s a calling, but in your heart or your being, you know this is what you’re supposed to do.
Mark: Incredible. So it was very intrinsic.
Stay Tuned for Part Two