Being a teacher isn’t about knowing everything. And that’s just one thing Noelle Doctorian (21), a middle school math and science teacher, has learned so far.
In June 2021, Doctorian walked across the graduation stage at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU) and went straight into a San Diego classroom to teach kindergarten for a month. After June, teaching opportunities were limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but she was determined to gain more experience. Doctorian moved to her hometown of Pasadena and embarked on a job hunt for the school year starting in fall 2021.
“I didn’t see any postings for a long time, and I was starting to get discouraged,” Doctorian said. “I was 22, really the youngest you could be as a teacher. I didn’t think I would get a job.”
Then, a posting popped up on her screen. Duarte Unified School District needed an elementary teacher for a K-8 school, Maxwell Academy. In addition to her kindergarten role in June, Doctorian had taught second grade as a student teacher, so she was hopeful this would be her match.
“I applied and got a call from the principal two days later,” Doctorian explained. “She said she would love to offer me an interview, and then said it was for seventh grade math and science.”
The principal understood it was different from Doctorian’s other experiences, but she encouraged her to do the interview anyway. Doctorian asked for time to think about it.
“The principal said, ‘No, I want you to come. Don’t think about it,’” Doctorian said.
So Doctorian went. This would be the first of many experiences at Maxwell Academy that Doctorian never saw coming.
Fast forward to the first day of school, and Ms. Doctorian was ready at her desk. Not only was the new teacher tackling the STEM curriculum and a grade level she hadn’t taught before, but she was also experiencing a contrast between the private Christian institution of PLNU and a K-8 public school.
Maxwell Academy is a Title I school, meaning the school receives federal funding to meet the educational needs of students. The Title I program is authorized under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, and aims to help disadvantaged students achieve performance standards.
“Some of these students come from really difficult backgrounds or home lives,” Doctorian explained. “Although I can’t say ‘Jesus’ explicitly, I’m showing Jesus through my love, actions, and the way I care for my students.”
At PLNU, every student has heard the phrase “find your calling.” Doctorian became one of the 307,470 teachers working in California’s public school classrooms, she also found the phrase to be essential.
“Before, I just saw teaching as a job. I’ve always had a love of learning, and to give that love of learning to other people is something I enjoy,” Doctorian said.
During her first year at PLNU in the Foundations of Education class, she remembers her professor saying one phrase that still echoes in her mind: Students who are loved at home, come to school to learn. But students who aren’t loved at home, come to school to be loved.
“That sparked something. It turned the idea from ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ to ‘this is your ministry and your passion,’” Doctorian said. “It’s not just teaching math and science. It’s providing a safe space for students in the classroom to be loved and be who they are.”
“It’s not just teaching math and science. It’s providing a safe space for students in the classroom to be loved and be who they are.”
It’s not an easy task, at times. Teachers are facing burnout across the U.S. post-pandemic, and Doctorian said she sees trends like #TeacherQuitTok, which she described as sad but fully understandable.
Despite widespread teacher burnout and shortages, Doctorian relies a lot on her faith to keep her motivated and makes sure she takes time to recharge. She needs it because Doctorian isn’t just building community in her classroom, but also on the broader campus. The teacher has also taken on the role of Associated Student Body (ASB) Advisor, helping student leaders build community among their peers.
During her junior year at PLNU, Doctorian served as the ASB Director of Spiritual Life, an experience which made her feel passionately about student leadership now. She attributes Scott McGowan, the PLNU ASB Advisor, as a model for the role she now fills at Maxwell Academy.
“I want to empower my team of student leaders,” Doctorian said. “If I didn’t have that ASB experience at PLNU, I wouldn’t have had that drive to do the same for my students and to give them the opportunity I had to be a voice for my campus.”
Obviously, Doctorian is busy, but that hasn’t stopped her. She also started a girls mentorship club on campus. Maxwell Academy has a longstanding “Boys to Men” club, but there was no similar program for young women. So, Doctorian formed a “Girls to Ladies” club to empower female students to be leaders in the world as women and provide skills to advocate for themselves. The club participants receive mentorship and support in their academic and social lives.
Doctorian’s care for her students is special, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed. She was recently named Duarte Unified School District’s Middle School Math Department Chair, and in March 2023, she received Maxwell Academy’s Teacher of the Year award. The recipient is selected after a school-wide vote by teachers.
“I still have so much to learn about being a teacher. I didn’t feel like I was deserving of it,” Doctorian said. “Just to see my students cheer and be proud of me was so special. I encourage them to always work hard and do their best. So for them to see me doing my best and living what I preach was really cool.”
It can be rare for someone’s career to come full circle less than two years after graduating. But Doctorian’s has.
Recently, she was asked to speak at a senior seminar capstone class at PLNU, where she shared her story of teaching right after undergrad. It turns out PLNU continues to spark new avenues in her calling even after graduation, as Doctorian has now started a master’s program in educational leadership and is considering one day following in her former professors’ footsteps.
In addition to her next degree studies, Doctorian learns something new every day through the eyes of her students. Now, as both a teacher and a student, she still doesn’t know everything, but that’s part of the job.