We asked Stephanie Pace Marshall:

Who were your role models?

My family, especially my parents, were my first and most lasting role models. From my father, I learned the value of the scientific mind and a precise way of understanding the world. From my mother, I learned the value of the artistic mind and kaleidoscopic ways of seeing the world. Together they helped me blend both ways of knowing, which has helped me become who I am.

There were other role models as I grew up. When I was ten, I remember reading the story, and actually seeing it unfold on television, of Rosa Parks [an African- American civil rights activist who in 1955 became famous when she refused to give up her seat on a bus to make room for a white passenger]. I said to myself that someday I would meet this woman so that I could thank her for her courageous action. Thirty years later, I had the opportunity to do so when, as President of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, I invited her to speak with our students and more than 500 guests, so that we could not only hear her story, but thank her for her extraordinary commitment and courage in the fight against racial injustice.

Others whom I admire greatly include Jane Goodall [a noted humanitarian and environmentalist who is known for her scientific thinking and revolutionary studies of chimpanzees], and a young boy named Craig Kielburger. I met Craig when he was 12. He had created an international foundation to help children through education. He continues his efforts to end child labor around the world and provide educational opportunities for all children.

What attributes do you associate with success in your field?

First and foremost, having success in one’s field is being connected to colleagues who share your passion and vision for what might be possible. It is when we work together with “kindred spirits” that we can be the most successful. There are other attributes, of course, that I also connect with success. They are to learn deeply, have an insatiable curiosity, be open to the world, maintain a passion for learning including reading, exploring and visiting new places, and continue to deepen your own understanding.

You can’t turn children on unless you are “turned on” yourself!

Teaching enables us to share with children our passion and our own desire to keep learning. You must know your discipline thoroughly. I have a very strong belief that there are very few limits to what we can become.

A truly successful educator is one who builds the capacity of others to realize their dreams and believes in children and their ability to do astonishing things to change the world.

For instance, the incredible Bonnie St. John lost a leg when she was just five years old, but went on to win a silver medal skiing in the Paralympic Games. Teachers must let children know that they will be there for them and that they are supportive of their dreams.

What are some educational routes to becoming a teacher?

The typical routes to becoming a teacher are to attend a community college and then a four-year college, or to begin in a four-year college where you are majoring in a content field and then studying to become a teacher. Teachers now also are pursuing master’s degrees in their fields and many are seeking additional advanced degrees so they are continually prepared for the challenges of their careers. Usually after two or three years of college (although in some places it begins in the freshman year) students are engaged in student teaching. This is an opportunity for students to get into classrooms and to work with mentors and experienced teachers, and to find out if they really love working with children and helping them learn.

Because we don’t always know what we want to be when we’re young, it is not uncommon for people in other fields such as engineering, science, mathematics, technology, business, marketing or law to decide after they have been in their career for several years that they really love teaching and want to become a teacher. Many states provide pathways for alternative teacher certification, so a professional who has already earned a B.A. or M.A. In his or her field does not have to go back to college for four years to earn a teaching degree.

Are there other jobs that might prepare one for teaching?

As a child or teenager, if you think you might be interested in teaching, it’s important to get involved with younger children as soon as you can. Babysitting, taking children on field trips, volunteering in park districts, working at YMCAs, teaching in Saturday or Sunday schools and participating in community service are all excellent opportunities for you to begin working with children to see if it’s something you really want to do. You also can gain wonderful experience for teaching by working as a counselor, nurse or social worker in human services organizations.

Although you may not begin by wanting to be a teacher, there are other jobs in the social and human services, even in law and marketing, that can prepare you for the complexities and challenges of working with 25 or 30 highly curious minds. 

What are some upper level positions to which a teacher could aspire?

Within the education field, a teacher can move into administration, become a department chairperson, a principal, a dean, college president or a state superintendent of education. Or one can even prepare to move into policy and work in many state, national and international educational agencies… even aspire to become the United States Secretary of Education!

Teaching is a field with skills that are transferable, and they can take you anywhere and everywhere! For instance, a teacher who knows how to “manage a classroom” can become an entrepreneur and manage his or her own business, or manage and lead a division of a company or become its CEO. Success in teaching requires an exceptional understanding of relationships and the capacity to motivate people to do their best and realize their potentials. These are tremendous skills that will make teachers exemplary staff members in any profession.

What do you like most about your job? 

As a teacher and leader, the most joyful thing for me is having the chance to ignite the talents of others. When I help people see their own amazing gifts and talents, and use them in ways that astonish even them, I have an enormous sense of accomplishment. “Seeing light bulbs turn on” is one of the greatest joys of teaching.

What is the most challenging aspect of teaching?

The most challenging aspect of teaching is to know each child so well that you know the conditions that you must create to ignite and nurture his or her own goodness and genius.

What is the most important thing you have learned through working?

Be grateful and generous. Understand that we each have special gifts, and no one can make your unique contribution but you. Don’t apologize for your dreams, follow your heart, be bold. Carl Sagan said, “Dreams are maps.” Slow down so you can learn things well. Honor and celebrate life, and be gentle with the earth. Be stewards of your gifts, passions and dreams. Say “yes” to belonging, because we are all connected in some way. Find your own voice, speak your truth. Decide what you want your name on. Our names are our integrity, and matter more than anything. 

Were you ever inspired by a teacher?

My most vivid memory of being inspired by a teacher happened when I was taking my final exam in my eighth grade physics class. In an instant and with a single gesture, my teacher taught me how to believe in and trust myself. The exam consisted of just one question: Given the distance between the earth and sun, how long would it take an explosion on the sun to be heard on the earth? I read the question several times and said to myself, “That’s a silly question. We wouldn’t hear it.” However, I looked around and saw all my classmates busily working on the question, using their calculators to determine the answer. And I kept thinking, “But you wouldn’t hear the explosion.” So I went up to my teacher and said, “Miss Dynes, you wouldn’t hear the explosion.” She looked at me, put her finger to her lips as if to quiet me, and then she winked! I went back to my seat and wrote, “We would not hear it.” This was a wonderful lesson in learning to not be distracted by the actions and voices of those around us, but to trust our own minds.

What advice would you give a youngster who expressed interest in becoming a teacher?

First and foremost, discover what it is you are passionate about, develop your curiosity and seek opportunities to study and learn as much as you can. We tend to teach “who we are,” and we find the most joy when we are teaching what it is that we love, so decide what it is you love, and then pursue that with great passion.

Spend time with younger children to see if you enjoy teaching them and creating conditions for them to experience their unknown possibilities. Do everything you can to see if this experience brings you joy and great satisfaction. Teaching is a very creative act and it requires relationships, a deep respect for children and a covenant with them to help them become all that they can be.

What hobbies/passions do you have?

I collect kaleidoscopes, hundreds of them! I’m fascinated by their interconnections, magic, mystery, unpredictability, patterns and relationships. They are the perfect combination of art and science. I also love to write and read poetry. It is another language that can take us places. And when I get stuck writing, I dance!

Of which aspects of your career and personal life are you most proud?

In relation to my personal life, I’ve been blessed with a wonderful and loving husband and supportive family and friends who encourage me to do what I love. Writing my first book and getting published has also been a great joy. And as the Founding President of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, I had a remarkable opportunity to create something from scratch, which is very rare in my profession. Today it is internationally recognized as one of the finest institutions of its kind. I am proud of the remarkable students and people involved with IMSA who ensure that the organization’s voice, vision and programs are available to more and more teachers and children around the world.