What I Didn't Know

True Stories of Becoming a Teacher

Edited by Lee Gutkind

20 true stories about what it takes to be a teacher

Every day in every classroom, teachers take on incredible challenges. Some are big, like bridging significant cultural differences, moving back into a school building after a shooting, or learning how to successfully navigating delicate institutional politics. Others are smaller, like keeping first graders on task, or figuring out how to keep teenagers from cussing all the time. Whether in the Mississippi Delta or Malawi; Alaska or Los Angeles; whether in their first day or their tenth year on the job—every day, educators reach deep to find strength and grace they didn’t know they had.

The lessons don’t always come easy, but these riveting, funny, inspirational, and sometimes shocking stories provide real insight into the hearts and minds of those who teach and those who have been taught.



"These true stories of mistakes and triumphs, memorable students and classroom challenges celebrate a demanding, essential, and noble profession." ~ Booklist

"The best first-person account of teaching I’ve ever read. The stories these educators tell are essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand how the politics of educational policy shake out in the daily lives of teachers." ~ Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed

“Candid accounts of what is happening in the intimate spaces of classrooms across the country—microcosms of the issues that simmer below the surface of our world at large."  ~ Brenda Miller, co-author of Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction

"Essential preparation for the headaches, heartaches and choke-up-thinking-about-them joys of this underappreciated profession." ~ John Owens, author of Confessions of a Bad Teacher

"Eschews the narratives of the current education debate and gets to the depth of teaching." ~ Jose Vilson, author of This Is Not Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education

"Want to know why 50% of teachers quit? Read this book! Want to know why the other 50% stay? Read this book!" Jane Morris, bestselling author of Teacher Misery: Helicopter Parents, Special Snowflakes & Other BS


Table of Contents

Foreword Lee Gutkind
Introduction Jahana Hayes
Introduction Irvin Scott
Teacher Edit Lynn DeFilippo
You Can't Say That in Here Anne P. Beatty
I Thought I Was Ready Sherri Wright
Lessons in the Dry Season Sara Ackerman
Nothing Gold Can Stay Ann V. Klotz
Ancient Beef Made Me a Teacher Lori D. Ungemah
Inside the Labyrinth Kristin Leclaire
Trust Fall Leslie Hill
Teaching for America Kate Ver Ploeg
Mayans in East Oakland Anne Raeff
Jiao Wo (Teach Me) Caitlin Dwyer
An Honor and a Privilege Mary Ann Hutcheson
You Can't Wrestle Windmills Chris Girman
Sealed Forever: On Becoming a Teacher Cynthia Miller Coffel
The Substitutes Marcia DeSanctis
It Took an Island: Why I Became a Teacher and Stayed Deborah Meltvedt


Sara Ackerman

Sara Ackerman is a writer and kindergarten teacher. She lives with her family in Ethiopia. read more

Anne P. Beatty

Anne P. Beatty’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, The American Scholar, North American Review, and elsewhere. She lives with her... read more

Jane Bernstein

Jane Bernstein’s most recent books include the memoirs Bereft: A Sister’s Story and Rachel in the World. She is also an... read more

Cynthia Miller Coffel

Cynthia Miller Coffel is the author of Thinking Themselves Free: Research on the Literacy of Teen Mothers (Peter Lang, 2011). A literary... read more

Michael Copperman

Michael Copperman teaches low-income, first-generation college students of diverse backgrounds at the University of Oregon. His prose has... read more

Lynn DeFilippo

Lynn DeFilippo is currently a fifth-grade teacher in Barrow, Alaska. This is her thirteenth year teaching in Alaska. read more

Marcia DeSanctis

Marcia DeSanctis is the author of a New York Times Travel Best-Seller, 100 Places in France Every Woman Should Go (Travelers’ Tales,... read more

Caitlin Dwyer

Caitlin Dwyer graduated with a master’s in journalism from the University of Hong Kong in 2013. She taught English for three years in... read more

Chris Girman

Chris Girman is an attorney and PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he teaches creative nonfiction. He is... read more

Jahana Hayes

Jahana Hayes was the 2016 National Teacher of the Year and currently serves as the U.S. Representative for Connecticut's 5th congressional... read more

Leslie Hill

Leslie Hill taught English and library skills for twenty-five years at inner-city high schools in Toronto, Canada. She left teaching after... read more

Mary Ann Hutcheson

Mary Ann Hutcheson retired from teaching in 2012. She now freelances for magazines and is working on a memoir chronicling her family’s... read more

Ann V. Klotz

Ann V. Klotz is teacher/mother/writer; she is head of school at Laurel School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Her work has appeared in the Brevity... read more

Shannon LeBlanc

Shannon LeBlanc teaches middle school English. She holds an MFA in creative writing nonfiction from Boston’s Emerson College. She has... read more

Kristin Leclaire

Kristin Leclaire’s teaches high school English. Her nonfiction has appeared in Literary Mama and The Bohemyth, and she recently won... read more

Deborah Meltvedt

Deborah Meltvedt is a high-school teacher and project coordinator who loves to combine health and medical topics with creative writing,... read more

Karen Kelley Perkins

Karen Kelley Perkins teaches physiology and biology at a charter school. She earned a master’s degrees in botany and biochemistry,... read more

Anne Raeff

Anne Raeff is proud to be a high-school teacher and works primarily with recent immigrants at East Palo Alto Academy. Raeff is a 2015... read more

Irvin Scott

Irvin Scott is the Deputy Director of Education for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He is currently the Senior Lecturer on Education... read more

Lori D. Ungemah

Lori D. Ungemah spent eleven years teaching English in secondary schools in Brooklyn, during which time she most likely learned a great... read more

Kate Ver Ploeg

Kate Ver Ploeg has lived and biked throughout the United States and abroad. She now lives where she grew up and studies in the University... read more

Sherri Wright

Sherri Wright spent her entire career in education, first as an elementary school teacher, and later focusing on educational programs for... read more


Teaching Moments Irvin Scott

I will never forget my first day in the... read more

The Importance of Connection Jahana Hayes

My first day in a contracted teaching position... read more

Making a Difference Lee Gutkind

When my brother Richard was nearing the end of... read more

You Can't Say That In Here Anne P. Beatty

I was constantly shocked by what came out of... read more