Teachers being pushed out of the comfort zone

Teachers share how they overcame their reserved personalities


Photo courtesy of Julie Choi.

Physics and chemistry teacher Julie Choi poses at her graduation ceremony.

As a student, physics and chemistry teacher Julie Choi was quiet. The one who always sat in the corner, easily missed, having teachers mark her absent even when she was present. She always had music playing on her headphones. She surrounded herself with friends who were also quiet and studious, and she never talked to her teachers.

Though she had been an introvert all her life, Choi started to break out of her shell during her transition from high school into college. Choi explains that this change began after she realized that none of her teachers knew enough about her to write her letters of recommendation for college.

“[This realization] made me realize the impact of how important social connections would be, and how I [did not] have [them],” Choi said. “And I felt like in high school it was hard to change because all these kids know you from elementary and middle school and you have an image that you can’t break out of. And college was a way to start over and start anew.”

Math teacher Josh Kuo also found college to be an opportunity for a fresh start, where he was able to explore his personality and join social groups a bit more.

“When you go from high school to college, you re-explore all your friends, you make new friends and all the little cliques are just got broken apart,” Kuo said. “And you get this second chance in a way. Everyone’s new, everyone has a fresh start, so you can sort of rebuild your social life.”

For Choi, that fresh start came in the form of her college’s social club, a club where people of all different backgrounds bonded over food and activities, which she believes was the biggest influence in her change in personality. As a member of the club for four years and serving as an officer since her second year, Choi was immediately required to become accustomed to talking to strangers, since the club required her to do things like handing out flyers and meeting new people daily.

Spanish teacher Maria Autran’s own opportunity for a new beginning came in middle school. Though she was always a shy girl, Autran became very conscious of the things that set her apart from her peers in elementary and middle school, like her above-average height and her poor eyesight. This made her feel alienated from her peers, and her self-consciousness eventually made her fear connecting with her peers.

This changed, however, when she moved to a public school and met a teacher that worked hard to identify Autran’s strengths. After learning that Autran had a natural talent for memorization, she frequently asked her to recite poems she memorized in front of the class during holidays and other events. Autran says that by putting her on the spot, her teacher helped her feel less shy and discover her own strengths.

“When [my teacher] said, ‘You [should] recite the poem in front of everyone,’ I felt good because I could do it, and I didn’t feel so shy,” Autran said. “So I think it takes someone [giving] you this support … somebody telling [you], ‘I trust you. You can do this.’”

Choi’s own experience of recognizing the abilities of a student and making a connection with them contributed to her desire to become a teacher. Originally, she had always imagined her future career as a doctor, and while studying for medical school she enjoyed tutoring as a side hobby. However, as Choi started her medical school application, she found herself writing all about teaching. 

Her life changed when she was asked to tutor a high schooler. She had never taught an older student, but his mom desperately asked her to try. Choi found that all the student needed was a connection, as his sister was a stellar student and he didn’t believe he could live up to her legacy.

“I would tell him, like, ‘Hey, good job, you can do it,’ and all of those positive reinforcements,” Choi said. “And it sounds cliché, but it actually really helped him transform his grades … And after seeing that change in a person’s life, I was like, ‘Maybe it is important for me to be in high school, because maybe – not to every single kid – but maybe to one kid, I can make that kind of impact.’” 

Similarly, it was the impact of one of Kuo’s high school teachers that influenced his decision to become a teacher himself. After struggling in math, especially in middle school, his high school teacher was able to assist him, and the experience eventually inspired to him become a geometry and precalculus teacher.

“I [felt] that was really cool, and I wanted to see if I can be that for someone else,” Kuo said. “And also, I [learned] a lot from him, and want to pass that down and see how I can help others.”

Choi believes that the changes she underwent during her college years have allowed her to have a greater impact on her students and helped her to realize the value of life. Reflecting on her high school years, Choi wonders how much of an impact her life really had on those around her.

“[The experience] makes me feel more empowered to voice my opinions because I think there were points in my life in high school where I felt like if I wasn’t there, I think the world would have run okay,” Choi said. “If I wasn’t there, what kind of an impact would it have on anybody?”

[The experience] makes me feel more empowered to voice my opinions because I think there were points in my life in high school where I felt like if I wasn’t there, I think the world would have run okay. If I wasn’t there, what kind of an impact would it have on anybody?

— Julie Choi

However, Choi also occasionally wishes that she hadn’t overcome her shyness, acknowledging that there are times when being so direct causes her to come in conflict with others. Finding the right words to  convey her point without coming off too strong, such as when drafting emails to colleagues, is a continual struggle for Choi.

“The thing is, I voice my opinions so much that I’ve almost become confrontational to people,” Choi said. “Like if I have a thing that I believe in, I have to speak about it and I have to push through it … Some people say, ‘You don’t want to cause all these fires with all of these people; pick and choose your battles.’ And I do think that has value because I can’t; I’m learning to now retreat and find that middle ground where I’m happy and comfortable.”

When Autran interacts with students, most of the time they come to her with a specific subject-related issue, occasionally opening up about their personal lives, in which case she tries to understand their situation. However, with teachers, she finds that it is more of a workplace environment and less of social interaction, which results in less of a tendency to actively try to build a relationship.

“Some teachers befriend other teachers, [which is] fine,” Autran said. “I feel close in culture, for instance, to Ms. Abarca, so we interact more because the culture kind of unite us. It’s not difficult for me to talk, but maybe to create a connection, a deeper connection, it’s not very likely for me to do it maybe at work. I have other hobbies [and] activities and develop friendships with other people, but at work, I kind of keep my boundaries maybe intentionally or personality [wise].”

To Choi, teaching is more than a job — she views it as a hobby as well. Many people around her told her that she should consider becoming a teacher, but she hadn’t realized that there didn’t need to be a distinction between what she enjoyed and what she pursued as a career. After this realization, she found herself observing biology teacher Pooya Hajjarian’s class to see if this would be something she would enjoy.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is fun,’ and I could see myself doing it every day, and I get paid,” Choi said. “And [Hajjarian] was like, ‘Yeah, isn’t that amazing, that you can do that in the job?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do.’ If my job is enjoyable all the time, it’s like I have a hobby and a job all in one. And I kind of fell in love with it.”