A Teacher’s Words That Changed a Life: “This is Not the Life You’re Meant to be Doing”

Pearson recently sat down with a handful of teaching veterans who’ve been recognized as Teachers of the Year in their own states. They talked about their craft, their students—and the future of learning.

During a Firefight

In the middle of a gang firefight in Washington, D.C., Dr. Elizabeth Primas sought out cover with one of her students on the floor.

“He kept telling me, ‘I’ve got to get them!,” Elizabeth recalls.

“I started talking with him,” she says. “I told him this isn’t the life he’s meant to be doing.”

Elizabeth was teaching a literacy camp inside a community where “not one” person had graduated from high school.

“It was a struggle,” she says. “He was in that gang.”

A New Fascination

Her camp class soon went on a field trip to the Baltimore Aquarium.

“He’d never been to an aquarium before,” Elizabeth says, “and he fell in love with it.”

She quickly started to fan his enthusiasm by picking up books about fish and sea life.

“He went on to graduate from high school—the first in his community,” she says.

“He got a full college scholarship, then went on to get a Master’s degree,” Elizabeth says, “and now he’s working as an oceanographer in California.”

A Safe Space

In 2000, Elizabeth was the District of Columbia Teacher of the Year—and she shares her student’s story in the video on this page.

She recalls another student who was “struggling with issues in his home.”

Elizabeth helped with breakfast and provided him with clothes.

“He would come early and he could go to the bathroom and wash up and change his clothes so he wasn’t embarrassed when the other kids came in and saw him have to go change his clothes,” she says.

The student struggled with reading—and didn’t want classmates to read with him.

“I found out he was very good with folding shapes, very good with symmetry,” Elizabeth says. “So he became the expert and he wore a little star when we worked on tessellation and symmetry—he’s the one who went around and helped each child.”

“Once he realized he was good at something,” she remembers, “he started to allow them to help him with his reading—by the end of the school year he was reading on grade level.”

Reading and Beyond

Laura Drake, 2013 Wyoming Teacher of the Year, recalls a student who came into her classroom as “a complete non-reader.”

“I discovered that this child had a little bit of dyslexia,” she says, “so I worked very diligently with him.”

By the end of the year, Laura says, the student scored in the 92nd percentile for reading.

“Just recently, I ran into his mom,” she says, “She said that he was still excelling in school—that he’s excelling and learning.”

This is part of a series of conversations with great teachers. Hear the other inspirational stories: