Confessions of a Former Educator

By Matthew Johnson

In my formative years I struggled with a lot of things outside the classroom—tying my shoes (didn’t learn until I was 7), riding a bike (didn’t learn until I was 19), driving (failed the driving test three times), dating (too many failures to summarize)—but inside the classroom I thrived. 

Reading and writing came naturally, and I was placed in advanced classes once they became available. I didn’t always like traditional methods: In high school I decided I was more interested in hands-on learning and applied knowledge, which made newspaper production my favorite class. Once I became a section editor, part of my role was instructing my writers on the reporting process. I became an educator and didn’t know it.

I intentionally chose a big university (over a much larger financial aid package to attend a smaller one) so that I could experience everything I saw in teen movies—even though I never drank a drop of alcohol the entire four years. In retrospect I could have used more than a few drops. I was as sober and serious as a college student could be. But I was somehow more serious about changing the world than I was about my grades.

I had many jobs over the next ten years, and I served either directly or indirectly as an educator in all of them. I trained schools, community groups, and summer camps in mediation and conflict resolution; I chaperoned green and gifted high schoolers through the mean streets of Baltimore, Oakland, and Chicago; I taught at a mostly Black, all-girls public school (I’m White and male) and a mostly White private school—and for many reasons, few of which relate to identity, was not cut out for either.

I have a complicated relationship with teaching. At times the relationship feels unhealthy and unsustainable. Other times it’s romantic. (I mean this in the literary sense of the word.) When I’m teaching in the right context, it doesn’t feel like work, even when I’m putting in 10- or 12-hour days. It feels like freedom. I become a different person: Someone who gets out of bed on a weekday with a purpose. 

Passion can be your best friend and your worst enemy. A couple years ago I transitioned to a more lucrative career that I have passion for in theory but not so much in practice. In fact, I would argue that a lot of educators do not derive much passion from practicing—which is why they’ve chosen to be educators in the first place. It doesn’t mean they can’t practice (I hate the adage that states otherwise.) Practice, in most cases, revolves around the ego. People practice because they want to get better at something and, in many cases (but certainly not all), prove something to themselves or to someone else. Folks with nothing to prove become educators

Of course, by trying to prove I have nothing to prove means I’m in effect proving—that I’m a hypocrite. But I’m teaching you, dear reader, through my hypocrisy. This gives me joy. Otherwise, I’m just a hypocrite with no passion or purpose.

Being an educator means you get to put your flaws on display for educational purposes. Every mistake is a teachable moment. A classroom or setting where intentional learning occurs is the ultimate safe space. It’s one of the few places where you’re given permission—even encouraged—to fail so that you may later succeed. I’m not sure it’s even necessary to label education “peace education” or “justice education.” Education is not only a precondition for achieving anything in life, but it is also progressive in its essence. 

Of course, people can be taught to kill, steal, lie, and cheat. Yet, the act of learning—despite the nature of the teacher or subject matter—is almost synonymous with progress. As we learn more, we improve. But this does not mean knowledge alone leads to the best course of action. If knowledge were the only variable, perhaps this would be the case—but people are driven primarily by emotion, which necessitates the filtering of knowledge. No one has the time or energy to react to everything. 

I am not a psychologist, so I won’t go further down this rabbit hole. I will simply posit that the weakness of people is not that they have too much knowledge: Knowing how to kill or steal does not lead a person to do so. Plus, the more people know certain types of information, such as how to protect themselves from a deadly virus—for example—the more humanity benefits. 

We can blame many things for the evils of the world, but I don’t think we can blame too much education. Thus, serving as a teacher is one of the few things I can do in this world without regret. I hope to do so again very soon.



Matthew Johnson holds an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from Hacettepe University (Turkey) and a BA in Journalism from the University of Maryland, where he began his activism organizing against war, poverty, racism, mass incarceration, and gender-based violence. He currently serves as the Publications Chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association. He has published several articles and contributed to many books related to gender, racial, social, and restorative justice and is co-author/editor (with Dr. Laura Finley) of the 2018 book Trumpism: The Politics of Gender in a Post-Propitious America. He is also a contributor to PeaceVoice and The Good Men Project. Johnson currently works as a User Experience Researcher.