At first blush, it would seem like the path to teaching was freshly paved for Sarah Cardoza, clearing the way for a smooth and straightforward journey into the classroom.
Cardoza’s family ties to education are strong: Her mom, aunts, grandfather and other relatives were — or are currently — all teachers. Her own education experience was positive, with memorable teachers and role models along the way.
But the 29-year-old’s path, like any good journey, included a few detours.
Born and raised in Alaska, Cardoza enrolled in college right after high school to pursue a career in dentistry. She left after a year, realizing it wasn’t a good fit. She worked for a spell as a pastry chef and an orthodontic assistant as she moved around the continental United States, from Wisconsin to Michigan, with other stops in between.
Cardoza had written off college, telling herself she wasn’t cut out for it. But as she moved around the country and tried out different jobs, multiple experiences revealed to her how natural she felt as an educator, whether it was training colleagues or teaching culinary classes.
Four years ago, after moving back to Alaska with her husband, who got a job at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, an opportunity presented itself. She decided to give college another shot. She enrolled in an online undergraduate program to pursue her bachelor’s degree, with plans to become a high school social studies teacher.
Cardoza has spent the last three-and-a-half years working toward that degree, all while juggling parenting and a full-time job. She will graduate next month and, if all goes according to plan, she’ll have her own classroom by the fall.
In our Future Teachers series, we feature students who are enrolled in teacher preparation programs today, undeterred by the rhetoric around the profession, full of hope, energy and momentum for the careers ahead of them. This month, we are highlighting Cardoza.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
EdSurge: What is your earliest memory of a teacher?
Sarah Cardoza: My earliest memory goes back to kindergarten. My teacher was amazing. She was just so warm and loving and nurturing. I refused to nap in kindergarten — we still had nap time — because when I was in preschool, I woke up with a cricket on my blanket and I decided then, at 4 or 5 years old, I’d never nap again. So during nap time, she’d let me help prep what we would do after nap time: snacks and little activities.
Beyond that, I have a whole family of educators. My mom’s a teacher. My aunts were teachers. My grandfather was a teacher. I do remember being very young and helping one of my aunts, like every year, set up her classroom before school started. My mom didn’t finish her education degree until I was in elementary school, but then she became a [high school English teacher]. I spent a lot of time with her in her classroom growing up.
When did you realize you wanted to become a teacher yourself?
There was a specific moment. I was sitting in [Advanced Placement U.S. History] class my senior year of high school, and my teacher was fantastic. She was so sweet. She was so knowledgeable. I thought, ‘I could teach this. I love this so much.’
Coming from a family of educators, it had always been in the back of my mind that I could teach. I’ve seen that teaching has a lot of benefits. My mom was a single mom. I saw how it impacted our small family of three — my sister, my mom and me — and how it afforded us a certain type of lifestyle that was very attractive.
I kind of pushed it down and suppressed it though, because I was like, ‘I can’t do exactly what my mom and everybody else [in my family] does.’ And at that time, my sister — she’s four years older than me — was in her third or fourth year of school to become an English teacher. So I told myself, ‘I’m gonna do something else and forge my own path.’ But it was, I guess, meant to be.
You mentioned the benefits of teaching and the lifestyle that allowed your family to have. Can you say more about that?
My parents got divorced when I was 4. It was just my sister and our mom and me for most of my childhood. My mom had a degree in English, and she wanted to get her master’s in education and be able to teach. As a parent, she would be able to have the same schedule as us. She would be able to have summers off. For somebody who couldn’t necessarily afford child care, she could then be on that same schedule and not have to worry about that.
There’s also a community aspect that was important for her as a single parent. Having relationships with your fellow teachers and then their kids — it kind of brings you into a family that you might not have on your own.
And of course, most school districts offer very good benefits — you’ve got health care and you have sick time, paid time off, holidays off. There’s a lot of things that are attractive in that way, especially for a single parent.
Did you ever reconsider?
Oh, yeah. I had a lot of doubts. My dad’s not a teacher, so a lot of the advice he’s given me about career paths has been, ‘Stay away from education.’ He always told me to get an MBA and go into finance or accounting. But that’s just not me. And so I was like, ‘What am I gonna do? How am I gonna forge my own path?’
After high school, I decided to go the dental route, which was … fine. But then I decided that wasn’t for me either. I left college after one year. I ended up working as a pastry chef. I learned how to make different types of bread. I learned all about the food industry. Then I taught pastry classes and culinary classes.
I feel like I was always in positions in work and life where I was teaching others, whether it was training [a new colleague] or legitimately teaching — cooking courses and things like that. And it just always felt natural to me. So when my husband and I moved back to Alaska four years ago, he got a job with the university and that kind of opened up the gateway and like the pathway for me to consider going back to school.
I told myself this story that I would never be the kind of person that could get a four-year degree. Like, ‘That’s just not me. I don’t have the patience. I don’t have the time.’ By then, I was a parent. We had our son. It just didn’t seem feasible that I would be able to go back to school. I didn’t think it would be possible.
It was kind of like this lie that I told myself. I had some personal inner work to do there, to get rid of that narrative. And what I’ve found is that you may think, at one point in your life, ‘I’m not going to be able to do it.’ That’s kind of how I was after that first year of college. I felt really defeated. I didn’t do well in my classes because I didn’t have a clear vision. I felt kind of like a failure. But I think it does take growth and sometimes it takes time and maturity. Being able to go back to school at the age of 25, I was able to take it much more seriously.
So in January of 2020, I re-enrolled in school and started taking my classes again. And ever since then, it’s just been affirmation after affirmation, like validation that I’m on the right track. I had my own path and my own journey along the way, but this was what I was supposed to do. And it has felt really comfortable and like it all makes sense: This is what I should be doing. I should be teaching.
Why do you want to become a teacher?
My decision to become a teacher really has to do with a lot of my previous teachers. High school is a time in your life when you’re really learning about yourself and who you are as a person. You’re testing a lot of limits. You’re questioning a lot of things, and you’re building your own belief system. And I just feel like my teachers were such helpful guides for me, not only academically, but outside of the classroom too.
It was because of them that I had such a positive experience in school. When you’re in high school, sometimes you make poor decisions. I never felt judgment from my teachers. I always felt encouragement, like they truly wanted the best for me and saw potential in me.
I just think how I could do that and make that difference. You know the quote, ‘You don’t do it for the income, you do it for the outcome’? Even just this year, my student teaching has been so validating for my decision to become a teacher. You’re not going to reach every student. Not every student’s gonna even like you. … But I have seen, in the last year, how much my freshmen have changed and grown. It’s been really cool to see. I’ve also been teaching 12th grade seniors, and they’re just on their way into the world. I’ve really appreciated seeing them grow and start to take on more responsibility.