Turning “Too smart to teach” into a moment of motivation

A high school teacher once told Krista Galleberg she had “too much potential” to become an elementary school teacher. While initially discouraged from pursuing a career in education, the Teacher Powered Schools movement rekindled her interest in classroom teaching, and inspired her to create and launch a student-run organization for other college students interested in the profession.

by Krista Galleberg

Krista Galleberg is a junior studying Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. After she graduates, she plans to pursue a Masters in Teaching and become an elementary school teacher. Her other interests include acting, theoretical physics, and philosophy. You can follow her @kristagalleberg.

“You have too much potential to go into teaching.” This is what I was told as a high school junior by my AP teacher. Although I was accustomed to hearing variations of this sentiment – mostly from neighbors, peers, and friends of my family – I was especially confused and crushed to hear it from my own teacher. This particular teacher was one of the best educators I had ever had, and she prided herself on empowering her students to accomplish their dreams. At that time, she was also a mother to a young child on the cusp of entering public school, and an advocate for social justice and equity.

Yet, when I told her I wanted to be a teacher, she laughed at me. She casually suggested I choose a different career given how well I performed in her class. Looking back, I still don’t fully understand why she laughed in that moment. Perhaps it was because of her own challenging work conditions. I suspect a lack of respect made my teacher feel frustrated and less likely to encourage her “star pupils” to pursue the same profession that she felt trapped in. Nevertheless, at the time, the conversation stunned me.

Afterwards, as I paced in my kitchen, deeply hurt and confused, I reflected that I likely wasn’t the only high-performing student repeatedly steered away from teaching. I suspected that my peers received similar comments, and feared many might even abandon their plans to work in education as a result of this feedback. At the same time, I knew from research that many public schools, especially high-need urban and rural schools, face routine challenges in finding enough qualified teachers, especially in math, science, and special education classrooms. The teacher shortage disproportionately affects vulnerable students, causing challenging education inequities.

Reflecting on my personal and political values, and recalling the joy I experienced working with elementary school students, rekindled my interest in becoming an elementary school teacher. I simultaneously began researching the social dynamics and pressures that hinder the teaching profession so I could help shift this culture.

In late 2014, about eighteen months after my distressing conversation with my teacher, I discovered the Teacher-Powered Schools movement. As I browsed the website, ideas clicked into place – both student learning and the prestige of teaching can improve if we reimagine how schools are structured! Discovering the many benefits of how teacher powered schools create student-centered learning inspired me to found and launch a student-run organization. AlignEd’s mission is to mobilize college students around child-centered learning and educator leadership.

Many of our members find teacher-powered schools to be more attractive than traditionally structured schools. From my perspective, this is largely because educators in teacher-powered schools have more autonomy in their work environment, which allows for deeper learning among students. Furthermore, in these schools teachers are respected as professionals and trusted to make meaningful decisions. Many of our members plan to work in teacher-powered schools, and some have decided to work in education rather than pursue other professions, specifically because they learned about teacher-powered schools and related opportunities.

Based on my experience as a prospective educator, spreading the word about teacher-powered schools can play an important part in addressing the teacher shortage.

In the four years since my AP teacher laughed at me for my interest in school teaching, I have learned strategies for turning discouraging moments like this into productive conversations about educator leadership and education equity. Many of these strategies have been shared by other preservice and in-service educators who are committed to child-centered education. For example, asking open-ended questions, listening deeply to answers people provide, and pointing to concrete examples of equitable, teacher-powered schools, such as the Social Justice Humanitas Academy in Los Angeles, CA, often lead to productive conversations about educator leadership and education equity.

If you have other ideas, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Through collaborative conversations and action, we can collectively address the teacher shortage issue, and promote education equity, at all stages of our career.

Krista’s post is part of CTQ’s May/June blogging roundtable on teacher shortages. To join the conversation, comment on this blog and read the other blogs in this series. You can find an updated list of all posts on this page. Follow CTQ on Facebook and Twitter to see when each new blog is posted, and use #CTQCollab to join the conversation on social media.


  • ReneeMoore

    Our Society is Schizophrenic When It Comes to Teacher Quality

    I applaud your courage for taking what could have been a devastating comment and turning it into a positive motivator for your career. 

    When it comes to teacher quality, many in our society are schizophrenic. On the one hand, many say  teachers should be highly qualified, or only the "best and brightest" should even be allowed into teacher preparation. And certainly, everyone believes that the person(s) teaching their own darling children should be (and usually are) the greatest teachers ever. 

    On the other hand, comments like the one you heard are still too common. The stereotypes that people who go into teaching are those who weren't talented enough to do anything else, or that just anybody can become a teacher. 

    I never heard the "you're too talented" line, but I was openly challenged and criticized for choosing to do my student teaching and spend my career in high-needs, predominantly Black schools here in the Mississippi Delta. Many other teachers I know around the country who have made similar choices, have also heard it. 

    My concern is why don't more of us in the profession do a better job of promoting it and knocking down the stereotypes? (For example: why haven't U.S. teachers demanded that Booking.com commercial be banned from the airways). We need to be the first to encourage talented students to consider teaching as it is the consummate career. 

    • JessicaCuthbertson

      Those Who Can — Teach

      I completely agree that today's educators are the best spokespeople for promoting the profession. This is one of those places where I wonder if humility — a prevalent trait in so many educators – is also a bit of an Achille's heel? Are we so consumed by "college and career readiness" (and selling other 21st century type pathways) that we're forgetting to share the college and career choice we made to enter the field of education? I think this is an area where NBCT's in particular could take the lead, understanding what it means to be an accomplished teacher and sharing this opportunity with others. While this happens in 1:1 conversations with colleagues, I think a more systemic effort to leverage and engage today's NBCT's to recruit tomorrow's teachers is needed –especially in states that boast large state networks/numbers of NBCT's. 

      I know there are many small pockets of "grow your own" programs that do a great job of engaging students in student teaching type experiences prior to their HS graduation in the hopes of recruiting them into the profession (and encourage them to return to their home communities to teach). What would it take for us to take this concept to scale?