Career Day at Norris Middle


Brian K. Sohn, Ph.D., Knoxville, TN.

I went to the beautiful Norris Middle School a couple weeks ago in what seemed to be a kind of sitcom setup: the guy on the academic job market speaking at a career day. That is, I’m, um, technically, unemployed. I didn’t know exactly what I should tell them…when you get a PhD these days you’ll likely be on the job market for 2-5 years? What I did tell them was that I just wrote a 7000-word article, it was published in a relatively well-esteemed journal, and, well, I didn’t get paid for it. They were impressed I wrote such a long paper. But I wasn’t really selling academia to middle schoolers.

Since I figured it would be hard to convince any of them to follow in my footsteps, I started with our common experience—I had helped out on a field trip they took to go rock climbing at the Obed. Some of them loved climbing, others thought it pointless. Climbing is a challenge if you care to do it, I told them, if it’s on your radar. I asked them to think of the challenges they enjoy—I got a few volunteers to tell me theirs: video games, guitar, sports, writing stories. I told them to pay careful attention to the who what when where why and how of those fun, driving challenges. It says something important about you.

I told them my story and talked of my driving challenge, the one that’s so important to me that I made a career out of it: teaching. With words, with actions, face to face, through writing. I love to find ways to help students take on challenges that may not have been on their radar. Because the little spark I provide just might turn itself into a passion you have that you didn’t even know existed, and someday may be your career. They seemed to be following me, so I stayed serious.

But it wasn’t some random teaching anywhere I wanted to do. I was sitting in traffic in Marin County and I got the call. GO HOME. I didn’t catch the next plane or anything, but I did not ignore the importance of where I wanted to teach, which was Appalachia. I told the students to harness their passions to improve their communities.

You may be waylaid, sidetracked, sidelined for a time. But always keep in mind the challenges that are your favorites. They will likely change. I left them with a Myles Horton quote—you must be patiently impatient. Don’t just wait, but don’t expect it to be a one-touch process. You want to start liking school? Find the ways you can make school work for you—how school can help you develop your knowledge, experience, and awareness of your favorite challenges.

They asked a few questions, mainly about the length of time it took in school to become a teacher. A handful of them were fascinated that I had traveled in South America and asked about that. I felt pretty good about how it went. And luckily none of them asked how much money I was making!


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