My Passion is My Work


To the people who say not to make your work your passion*, you’re right. Your approach is far more strategic and systematic. You will reach financial independence much faster pursuing a six-figure career than I will figuring out why teenagers are still tempted to cover their arms in glue whenever we create posters. You will also garner far more esteem in the media, on social media, from your friends, and at family parties. You, my friend, are an innovator. A disrupter. Someone who will push your field to the precipice, help pivot a struggling enterprise, or create the newest technology.

I don’t do what you do.

I couldn’t do what you do.

I’m also not sure I’d want to.

The Truth

Let’s be real here. Everything that you aspire to is something that I seek as well. It just looks a little different. I, too, am hoping to level up or make it big. But all that means in teaching is that one day I might have a classroom with a window.

When I innovate, I look for ways to integrate technology into the lives of my students to prepare them to work for you one day. Or to be your boss. Or to work in a field that doesn’t yet exist. The real innovation, though, happens when I find ways to utilize this technology, expand my students’ learning, and adapt again for the kids who still don’t have wi-fi at home.

I read and research enough that I could probably start a blog or a consulting company about education. But three Master’s programs still won’t find me educated enough to max out my salary schedule. I still won’t make six figures. And in all that research, in all that studying, I still have yet to find ways keep kids from drawing on their hands, their arms, their jeans, or each other when the maker bins come out. I look forward to your suggestions in the comments.

The Honest Truth

Your career is challenging, complex, and important. So is mine. Part of me believes that everyone has to be at least a little bit passionate about what they do. But if you really want to go down swinging, if you really want to pledge allegiance to money or financial independence or need or whatever other reason you give for doing the work that you do besides passion, know this: Not everyone should live like that. Not everyone wants to live like that. And things might look very different if we all did.

You see, the world needs people who bat the alarm clock around the nightstand, gulp down caffeine, plaster a smile on their faces, and work the bulk of their day before noon. You need people who will pass out Bandaids to cuts so small they probably don’t actually exist. You need people that will help kids launch baking soda rockets and hold invention conventions and teach them the technology, the math, and the science behind why they’re smiling.

You need people who will help kids learn to all get along, who will teach them that in real life people don’t always get along but you still have to be kind. You need people to come in far too early and to stay far too late without ever being able to fill out a timesheet, collect overtime, or earn bonuses. You need people to buy snacks and breakfast and winter coats and school supplies and books with their own money. You need people who are passionate about young people because the kids that fill our schools today will run our country tomorrow.

A More Honest Truth

On the surface, it seems that my work benefits my students. I certainly hope that it does. But I do the work that I do for one simple reason: me. I am most happy when I am pursuing my passions. I am most happy when I am teaching.

Trust me, there are days when the paperwork, the meetings, the conversations with specialists, advocates, and administrators hints at inevitable burnout. There are afternoons evenings when I pull in the driveway but am too tired to actually get out of my car. There are times when I want to cry because I cannot help kids understand. There are times when I do cry because I understand that some kids are hurting so much, that they know more about life at thirteen than I do at thirty. 

But for every bad moment, there’s its counter. There are days when my students are too excited and amazed by what they just created, so bursting with stories that we cannot get through the whole lesson. There are fist bumps and hi-fives, stickers and cards. There are kids who come back five years later to tell you what they actually learned, to thank you for your time, and to apologize for the five hundred forty-seven times you had to ask them to be quiet in just one week. There are days when I’m so inspired by what I see in front of me that I feel like Robin Williams, I want to Stand and Deliver, I know why these cliche teaching movies get made.

The heartbreak and exhaustion are real but so is the excitement and love.

*Do a Google search for “don’t make your passion your work”. There are lots of people who say this.

My Passion is My Work

45 thoughts on “My Passion is My Work

  1. One of my friends is a teacher and she loves it as well. The thing is, I’m always amazed at the fact she is *expected* to work for free on weekends and evenings. She’s actually paid hourly and not even allowed to clock in for her full shift. It’s shameful how we treat educators in that respect. Teachers deserve to be paid more.

    1. Right. There are definite flaws in the system. And part of the problem is so many of my coworkers do treat it like their passion or their calling. And no one wants to really criticize what they love, you know? Thanks for your kind words, Holly. I wasn’t actually going to publish this post, but I’m glad I did!

  2. Even though this is about teaching, it reminds me a lot of being a mom too. Except there is no pay, and you are on call 24 hours a day… for the rest of your life. We have adopted 4 kids, and have 2 bio kids. There is nothing in my life that I have worked harder at, cared more about, cried over more, seen so much progress, or had so much impact. I think every one has something great they can give to the world. Adopting 4 kids is my something.

    1. I don’t know you or your family in real life…but I would say that ALL of your kids are your something. One of my very dear friends fostered for a while and has since adopted. It takes such a big heart. As far as parents, I can’t speak from the perspective of being one. But I can say that as a teacher, I can tell you that very few things make more of an impact on kiddos than their home lives. So thank you for making that one of your passions!

  3. I’m so grateful for the wonderful teachers in my life. They stood in where my parents couldn’t or wouldn’t, and it made all the difference to know that someone cared and believed in me.

    Thanks for all that you do. The kids might not realize it now, but you’re making more of a difference than you’ll ever know.

    1. My absolute favorite is when they come back to me and think they owe me an apology for talking a lot, for missing assignments, and other things. It’s too cute! Then we have a good chuckle about growing up and becoming wise. The best compliment, though, is when they tell me what they remember from class or how it’s benefited them. That feeling is better than any paycheck I’ve ever seen!

  4. I think there’s definitely room in the world for those who are passionate about their work, and those who are only slightly passionate about what they do. Being a teacher is clearly a labor of love, and our teachers deserve our respect and an appropriate salary. I wish now that I had been willing to go after my passion (radio DJ), but after college I got married and felt that responsibility to provide more for my wife and me. I wasn’t unhappy with my career, just not so fully passionate. I know there are those who say to make your passion your work, and others who say the opposite, but I think that’s a choice everyone needs to make for themselves. Ideally, you find a way to pursue your passion and have enough of the other things (money, esteem) to satisfy you.

    1. Have you ever thought about podcasting, Gary? That’s so cool that you thought about being a radio DJ. I agree. People need to do what works best for them, and I think it looks different for everyone.

  5. I agree that you should have at least some level of passion for your work. It’s important to plan for the future, but you also want to try to be happy in the present. If you’ve found a job that makes you happy, then keep at it until it doesn’t make you happy anymore. And if that happiness comes from something as important and valuable to society as teaching, then doubly so.

    Thanks for doing what you do!

  6. This is beautiful. I wonder about changing my career to pursue something more meaningful, but then I remember all of my student loans from graduate school. I’ve made the decision to use the good income to escape and then pursue my passions. But if you’re already doing something that makes you happy, why would you be in a rush to retire? I hope you continue to find joy in your very important work. I’m very thankful for awesome teachers who care and only hope my kids have the privilege of learning from people like you.

    1. That makes perfect sense to me, Harmony. You don’t have to make your passion your work. I completely understand the value in keeping the separate. I also think lots of people have many, many passions. With your blog, you could definitely make your passion your work/income!

  7. I really appreciate your honesty in this post. I am in the same boat, as I mostly enjoy working at not-for-profits. The pay isn’t flawless, but the passion is there, and the environment is more suited to who I am as an employee. I love doing new things every single day and learning a ton of stuff because we don’t have the man-power to specialize. I think you are an amazing teacher, purely because you want to be there. Again, great honest post!

    1. Not-for-profits is totally in line with this. You all do so much important work. And I agree with what you said — I love the fact that every day is different!

  8. I don’t have the patience to teach as a career. But I touch the joy in teaching just a bit when I talk God’s Love with my little Sunday School class. My hat goes off and my heart goes out to those who love teaching, who deal with the crap (and my state gives teachers a lot of crap) and still manage to make kid’s lives and futures better. Thanks, Penny.

  9. TJ says:

    If people didn’t follow their passion, there would be no art. There would be no music. There would be less volunteers and more people chasing money. There might even be less amazing teachers.

    A world devoid of passion is a world is not the world I want to live in. That’s one of the main reasons for my road trip, to really cut out all the distractions and find out what I really am passionate about.

    Thank you for everything you do in the classroom and on the web.

    1. I read something really terrifying about how people are being advised not to pursue the liberal arts in college. Sigh. I understand wanting to get a good return on investment when pursuing a college degree, but I also think that there’s some invaluable about being exposed to a variety of thought and viewpoints over time and throughout different cultures. Art plays a big role in that.

      And thank you always being so uplifting, TJ. I appreciate your words.

      1. TJ says:

        Penny – You know it’s very interesting that you mention this about people being instructed to avoid the arts, because I have lately been thinking that my choice to pursue the performing arts with my parents college money was a rather poor decision on my part. I picked performing because I erroneously believed the rule of thumb that “it doesn’t matter what you major in, as long as you major in something” That you have a leg up on the folks who never went to college. When I got out, I learned that in many cases, experience seems to be a lot more valued than a degree ever will be. Maybe because more people go to college now.

        I also feel like if I was spending my own money, I might have made a “more financially responsible” or “better” choice.

        Even in my college-level classes, a lot of the professors or guest speakers made it clear that if you want to make the arts work as some sort of career, you need to have a lot of support from a spouse or parents or somebody who will subsidize you until you make it….which might never happen.

        With all that said, if I had gone down the path of majoring in accounting, finance, computers, or something more lucrative that would have given me automatic job stability out of college?…would I have turned into the same man I am today? Would I have ever been exposed to the ideas of early retirement and being mindful about money? It’s impossible to know.

        As much as I like to tell myself that I wasted my parents money, reading Plato and Aristotle, learning about different cultures and how they expressed themselves through the arts, learning critical thinking skills – I’m not sure that I would trade those experiences just for a higher probability of bigger paycheck. But I also know that I have a lot of privilege that allows me to say that.

  10. I’ve said this before, but as a parent, I say WE NEED MORE PENNYs IN THE WORLD! My daughter comes home wanting to learn the science behind dinner and is using words I’ve only seen on the SAT and there’s a passionate teacher behind that change. Parents have a place… but teachers have a place, too. Things I’ve told my kids 1000x are immediately validated when a respected teacher says it once! My daughter’s 3rd grade teacher has a doctorate and my daughter sees that and understands she can continue to learn whatever she’s passionate about as long as possible! Also, I talked last week about how I’m sick of people talking about the Pareto principle. Some of us don’t want to stay in the 20% maximizing income all the time! Some of us just want to do what we do and what we love! Good on you, Penny. Keep up the good work!

  11. Great read for me. I look back on my career in science (yes, with a large salary for most of it) and what was the pivot point that got me here ? A brilliant and inspirational chemistry teacher in high school who I will forever be indebted to. He showed me the wonder of science and encouraged me to do chemistry at university

    As a father of two boys who are aged 9 and 7, I see more clearly now how school shapes who we are and who we can become. And that doesn’t come by magic.

    So to you and and others like you in the teaching profession, a warm hug, a thank you and a huge shout out that what you do is REALLY IMPORTANT.

    Did I say that you are teaching me about how to try and express myself better through blogging? A work in progress for sure for me, but you do much more than teach and coach those kids…..keep doing what ya doing….please.

    1. Oh, wow, Mr. Pie. It means the world to me when I hear people say that they can think of teachers who have inspired them or inspired their kiddos. I know I’m not perfect, but I always try to act with the best interest of my students in mind.

  12. I know for a fact I couldn’t do what you do! Tons of respect for anyone that teaches with a passion.

    “Don’t make your passion your work” is an easy comment to throw out, it is far easier to get a job paying 100k than turn your passion into one that does. Most people want the quicker path (I am one of them) – but selling to the highest bidder isn’t as rewarding.

    If you love what you do – keep on rocking it!

    1. I would love a quicker path, but I honestly can’t think of being totally removed from teaching. My biggest FIRE pipe dream is to re-create a literacy center that we visited last summer in Mexico. So even if I could set myself up for FIRE, I think I’d still try to teach!

  13. Favorite. post. ever. I’m amazed and fascinated by your writing. I share a wonderful school with many educators as passionate as you – and it’s exhausting and exhilarating all at once. 28 years later would I go back and change my path? No chance. Six figures yet? Not even close. None of that matters – but the kids do. Thanks for being you 🙂

    1. That is so reaffirming to hear. I only have 8 other years to look back on, but I wouldn’t change a thing, either. Being in a building with passionate coworkers helps so much, too. It’s absolutely contagious!

  14. One of my best friends is a teacher and I could never in a million years do what he does because his passion for and understanding of the kids he teaches is just astounding. He might not make the kind of money that I sometimes make but he does something far more critical to society and it’ll never make sense to me why we don’t elevate that to the most important job in the country. Because are you kidding me? What on earth is more important than educating the next generation? The ones who will share the road with us in a few years, pay taxes alongside us, vote, fight for our country and go on to contribute in their way as an integral part of our society? What’s more important than arming them with the best tools and chances they can get to get out there and do amazing things? “Out there” is RIGHT HERE.

    Thanks for the job that you’re doing, the thankless hours and the costly continuing education. Our society may completely suck at appreciating it but know that some of us here cannot express exactly how grateful we are for teachers like you who care.

    And there’s a lot of things I think are broken about the current system but that just highlights how special it is that any of you can still be passionate about it. Lastly, just because a job is your passion doesn’t mean we should take advantage of that and accept paying the lowest possible wage for the job.

  15. I absolutely could never teach in a million years and I am in awe of you.

    For me, I need a balance somewhere in between. I need to earn a comfortable level of income that gives me security and options, and also to love my work as much as possible (and luckily I’ve managed to have a very good balance in my career).

    1. That balance is so important. There are times when I do think I could be paid more, but really, my husband and I are both fortunate to work where we do. There are many districts that pay a lot less!

  16. It’s great that you do what you love. I’ve never found a job I love haha. I look at some doctors or vets and realize I could significantly increase my pay if I picked that career path. Then I realize I hate blood. Gotta do what works for you!

  17. Great post and I love that you indicate that everyone could have different viewpoints on this subject. I personally am a big fan of following the money. Right now, the job that I have is in a field that I want to be in and am passionate about so I got lucky there but I made sure that it could pay the bills and fulfill my dream of reaching FI early.

    I had a huge passion for tennis and wanted to play professionally but I don’t think I could have done very well!

  18. Thank you! I am so tired of hearing “don’t make your passion your work” it’s really annoying and some people do very well when they make their passion their work.

    I think it’s dangerous and egregious actually to say to not follow your passions. I think what you do is so important.

    I wish I had teachers that had cared more! Some of the teachers I had acted like they were wardens in prison. Boo!

    I think people are made or broken, a lot of times both, in their homes and schools. Just earlier today I read this interview with the Mad Fientist and how he said “saving isn’t everything” & other gems:

    “[I] went so hardcore that I made myself really unhappy during the process,” he says. “I just didn’t want to do anything that involved spending money. I just wanted to get there as soon as possible.”

    Early retirement is supposed to be freeing and empowering, not constricting. By avoiding anything that involved spending money, Brandon ended up dodging his friends and depriving himself of even the little things that brought him joy.

    “One extra dollar in your bank account is not going to make you really happier,” he warns.

    I’m thankful he was honest about it as not everyone is.

    Sometimes I wonder if minimalism, simplicity, and FIRE is the new consumerism. People in the PF community build blogs around it, sell products/services around it, etc.

    We’re being packaged a new model or what we think is a new model.


  19. Oh my goodness yes yes yes. I am highly invested in liberal arts education, because I do believe it makes for better citizens, which is better than “informed consumers.” For a long time, I felt like I wasn’t doing enough for the world. I thought I should be volunteering or solving poverty or something. But, I often think about that scene from Stardust Memories where Woody Allen’s comedian character feels like he doesn’t do enough for the world, and aliens confront him and say, “You want to make the world a better place? Tell better jokes.” If I want to make the world a better place, I can start with being more present for my students. We’re so fortunate to work at a job where “good work” is inherent. We get to help students cultivate curiosity. We help them become more independent. It’s incredibly satisfying. There’s such depth to it. It’s not easy work. It’s not convenient. It’s demanding. It suits some of us. I don’t even think about the passion piece of it. I know those articles too. I’m tired of them. Frankly, I think passion is unsustainable. We can’t be fiery about something for long periods. We can be interested. We can be committed. We can be dedicated. I don’t think the ROI on dedication can be expressed in dollar amounts. Which I like.

    I’m rambling. But I’m also saying, “Heck yeah.” I hear you.

  20. I’m so glad — no, much more than glad — that passionate, thoughtful people like you dedicate their careers to teaching. Whether it serves the kids or you, it’s super important, and we all owe you a lot of gratitude.

    The thing about pursuing your passion is, for a lot of us, it doesn’t work out. I for sure didn’t set out to have a career that pays six figures. I had my sights on something very different, that would have paid next to nothing but fueled my passions and was *important*, and I tried really hard for years to make it work. But eventually it was clear it wasn’t happening, it was too late, it was time to grow up and accept the inevitable. So I fell into what I’m doing now, and sure it pays well, but it’s not without a hefty dose of sour grapes that the passion career didn’t work out. So, not sure what my point is, but just to say that there’s more than one reason why someone might be in a certain non-passion career path, and it isn’t always just because they were chasing the big bucks.

  21. I’m so glad that we have people like you teaching. We need passionate people doing good work. That’s how I feel about my not-yet-lucrative business. I love that work. It has many frustrations and silly rules and paperwork and my clients can be frustrating. The same question over and over. The same poor choices. But watching them grow and change is incredible.

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