[ Teaching & Learning ]

Remembering your ‘Why’

lawyer and social studies teacher Kevin Todd photographed smiling in front of a school graphic about the Constitution


Teaching is a second career for Kevin Todd, Watertown Education Association. After practicing law, he is a middle school social studies teacher.

Only a few events come to mind when I think back to my first memories of school. I vividly remember my soon-to-be best friend Geoff throwing a block at my head in kindergarten. I also love the thoughts of Mrs. Northrup’s airplane design challenge in third grade. She was such an amazing teacher. However, what I remember most, and the thought surfaces quite regularly, were lunch tickets in my elementary grades.

My school handed out tickets of different colors for students on free and reduced-price lunches. Red tickets for the poorest students on free lunches; blue tickets for students on reduced-price lunches.

My family was very poor. My father was an amazing dairy farmer on a tiny farm in Northern New York. He worked incredibly hard, but in a family of seven it was rarely enough. I recall being ashamed of our poverty. I felt intense shame having to stand in line for a red ticket; I still do. I cannot speak for my siblings, but I would go to school with something from home to eat or I would go hungry, rather than be seen in line for lunch tickets.

I understand poverty at a level few others do, but I also understand the power of a free public education. I graduated at the top of my class, as did all my siblings. We all went to St. Lawrence University because of the amazing scholarships available to North Country students. My siblings all earned master’s degrees in different education-related fields. Today, we are teachers, a manager of a large day care facility, and a superintendent.

I took a slightly different path and attended law school in Vermont. I practiced law for several years before coming to the realization that it just was not my calling. I was never happy and rarely felt any sense of accomplishment or pride. It was difficult to switch careers and people ask me constantly how I could leave being a lawyer. For me, it became an easy decision. I had to love my career if I was going to be in it for decades.

I talked with my family and knew immediately what my path should be. The skills required of a teacher are not that dissimilar to those of a lawyer — being organized, well spoken and able to speak publicly. I went back to college, gained my teaching certification within a year and have taught in a high-need district in Northern New York for the past 17 years. I have never once regretted making the switch in careers.

I love everything about what I do, yet I am constantly asked why I “downgraded” my career. People cannot seem to fathom giving up a career in which I easily could have made much more money.

This leads to my “why?”

I make a difference as a teacher for children in poverty. I never felt that sense of connection or accomplishment in law, but I do every single day as a teacher. My greatest hope is that I am someone’s “Mrs. Northrup” one day. I strive to create great lessons, interactive activities, and stimulating conversations because that is what great teachers do.

I do not understand why more of us are not flooding into teaching today. Our children need great teachers, and yes it is hard but the reward is only that much greater.

I am privileged to help students who are just like I was. Students potentially stigmatized by lunch tickets, the shoes they wear, the neighborhood they come from, their poverty. I owe it to them to help show that free public education can be their path forward. It changed the lives of my entire family. If I can give that gift to even one student, it has been worth all the pain in getting here.

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What’s your why?

Countless talking heads outside the classroom have a lot to say. We want to hear from you. Why did you choose the teaching profession — and why do you stay? Send submissions up to 450 words, along with a photo, to united@nysut.org.