Tufts University

The Making of a Teacher

WolfA life-changing experience as a school teacher in Hawaii led Tufts Professor Maryanne Wolf to a career in child development.

Tufts child development expert Maryanne Wolf remembers standing at a crossroads of her career in the 1970s in a small plantation town in Hawaii. After completing the first part of her graduate studies in English literature and planning to pursue a Ph.D., Wolf had made a year-long, Peace Corps-like commitment to teach children with a variety of learning challenges in Waialua, Hawaii. It was an experience that changed her life..

"That little tiny town taught me the consequences of not becoming literate," says Wolf, who has spent the past 20 years developing and evaluating methods of testing and treating dyslexia.

"Tufts has a profound commitment to great teaching and great research, and bringing it to bear in the lives of people and places we touch."

— Maryanne Wolf

In Hawaii, her class consisted of students who spoke a variety of languages, including Vietnamese, Portuguese, Spanish, Thai and Tagalog (a Philippine language), and few could read fluently. Although Wolf connected with the children, she realized that building a relationship with them was not nearly enough.

"If 'love' could teach, I might have been the best teacher in the world," Wolf recalls. "But feeling needs to be informed and that is what my colleagues and I do now for the next generation of teachers and learners: contribute to that knowledge base of how the brain learns to read."

Wolf returned to the mainland with new ambitions. In what she describes as a stroke of "beginner's luck," she was admitted to a doctoral program in the Department of Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University. "They took a chance," she says, noting that her background in English literature was hardly typical of someone entering that area of study. Wolf concentrated on the neuropsychological study of language and reading development and disorders, and never looked back at her decision to leave literature.

"It became quite clear to me that this was my direction," recalls Wolf. "It's where literature and word meet the brain."

Wolf thinks fondly of the career detour that eventually led her to Tufts. She remembers when Child Development Professor David Elkind invited her to campus to deliver a lecture about child development and the brain in the 1980s.

"What happened was they became excited about my work in this new area," Wolf says. "And I became excited about the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development. It was—and is—unique in its ability to bring 10 to 20 different disciplines all together to think about children's development," she adds. "That's not the case at most universities."

Wolf's passion for her profession—and her work at Tufts—has never waned.

"I've never stopped feeling like that about my work here," she says. "Tufts has a profound commitment to great teaching and great research and bringing it to bear in the lives of people and places we touch. That is my definition of the good life in any university. I am a teacher."

Profile written by Meghan Mandeville

Photos by Tufts University Photo

This story originally ran on Oct. 16, 2006.