Tara Ann Carter had planned to become a college professor, but thanks to a confluence of unexpected events, she is happily teaching English and African American history to ninth graders at the Hill-Freedman World Academy in West Oak Lane.
Winnie Kwan, a Chinese immigrant and South Philadelphia High School grad studied engineering, but has found her niche teaching students at an alternative school in West Philadelphia.
And after a career in the business world, John McGlaughlin decided to use his skills to teach math at Murrell Dobbins Career and Technical High School in North Philadelphia.
All three have a lot in common: They took unconventional paths to the classroom. They are passionate instructors, and they are among 58 high school teachers in the Philadelphia School District who will be honored Tuesday at the Prince Music Theater for being among the city's best educators.
They won a 2016 Christian R. and Mary F. Lindback Award for Distinguished High School Educators and will receive $3,500 from the program for exemplary teachers.
Carter, 31, thought she was on the career track of her dreams: college professor. She had a bachelor's degree in English from Millersville University and a master's from Villanova, and had been accepted into two doctoral programs. But it was 2008, and the economy was so unstable that there were no fellowships to provide financial help.
During a chance encounter with a neighbor, Carter learned about the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows program, which helped qualified college grads become certified teachers.
After a month of training, she was sent to Bartram High School in Southwest Philadelphia in early 2009 to teach English.
It was a challenge at first, but Carter liked Bartram's community.
"It was a tough first couple of years," she recalled. "But I always fought to stay there."
In 2013, Bartram's principal told Carter the future was uncertain and urged her to apply for another job. Carter immediately sent her resume to the district's database and decided to note that she had won a teaching fellowship at the Keizai Koho Center and was going to Japan to study for two weeks.
Anthony Majewski, the principal at Hill-Freedman, spotted the resume and contacted her the next day. Hill-Freedman, an award-winning middle school, was opening a college-prep high school with an international focus in the fall. Would she be interested?
After returning from Japan, Carter was hired as a founding teacher of Hill-Freedman World Academy, a small magnet school that will graduate its first class in 2017.
One recent morning, Carter took stock of the last 61/2 years.
"I was reflecting on . . . how when I read a book, all the events for a character seem to converge at the same time. I was wondering aloud sort of to myself: 'Is that how real life is? Or is that art?' I think in some ways that's how real life is."
Carter once thought about going back to earn that doctorate so she could become a professor, but that goal has faded.
"I think it was last summer that I said, 'You know what? I think I'm a teacher,' " she said with a laugh. " 'I think I'm really, actually a teacher.' "
Winnie Kwan's uncle told her parents they should leave China because there were opportunities for a better life - with better education in Philadelphia. The family got permission to emigrate in 1997, after Kwan's eighth-grade graduation.
She went to a center the district runs for immigrant students, and took a test. After a brief stint at Olney High School, she transferred to South Philadelphia High.
Kwan also took advantage of a government-funded Migrant Education Program and spent Saturdays at school, trying to hone her language skills.
Nonetheless, there was such a large Asian population at South Philadelphia that, Kwan said, she continued to speak mostly Chinese with her friends, and her English skills lagged.
It wasn't until she graduated in 2001 and went to Pennsylvania State University to study engineering that Kwan realized how limited her English was: She could not speak a complete sentence.
Through a program for immigrant students, she found help. She also began assisting other Chinese students and realized she had to become proficient in both languages.
Officials in the program suggested she become a teacher. Kwan worried that her English still wasn't good enough, but decided to give it a try.
Kwan had gone too far in engineering to change her major to education. So after graduating from Penn State, she went to Drexel University to work on a master's degree.
Through a government-funded program, she began teaching math full time in the district in 2006, working with a learning coach and taking classes at Drexel at night.
Her first placement was at William Penn High School in North Philadelphia. After it closed, she went to Kensington Health and Science. But when that small school needed someone who could teach both math and biology she began looking elsewhere.
The only full-time math position available was at Philadelphia Learning Academy South, an alternative school that kept its name after it moved from South to West Philadelphia.
Kwan was nervous at first because most of the students were returning from placements in the juvenile-justice system.
"Most of the time when people say 'alternative school' it means very, very bad," Kwan said.
But she found an upbeat, helpful staff and responsive students who asked questions.
"They're just kids," she said. "I find every kid is the same. Some are very sweet, also. They may be a little aggressive, but they are the type of people you can reach out to."
Kwan, 35, who offers individual help to her students, is in her third year at Philadelphia Learning Academy South.
"I love it," she said. "It is more of a challenge to change students around, but then it is more rewarding when you see how they change."
On Saturdays, she also teaches in the Migrant Education Program she had attended as a student.
John McGlaughlin had it in the back of his mind that one day he would be a teacher. His mother taught high school English for years, including several years at Girls High, where she became head of the English department.
But McGlaughlin, 69, took a roundabout way to the classroom.
He earned an undergraduate degree in psychology, and a master's degree with a focus on organizational development.
He worked in business for places such as Rosenbluth International and AT&T.
"In some way or another as part of my positions, I've managed to do teaching and enjoyed it," McGlaughlin said.
While at Rosenbluth, he studied environments and how people learn to obtain a doctorate from Temple University's School of Education.
Meanwhile, his brother Tom had begun teaching film at Murrell Dobbins. McGlaughlin went to the Franklin Institute to see some of the short films the students had made.
He was impressed by the talent, the creativity, and the smarts of the teens he met.
McGlaughlin was in his early 50s, and realized that if he didn't start teaching high school soon, he would be too old. "I was really motivated by what these kids were doing and what I said was, 'Now is the time.' "
After taking some teaching courses, McGlaughlin earned his credentials to teach high school math. And in 2005, he got a post at Dobbins.
He has taught several math courses, but this year he's teaching Algebra 1, a critical class. When students ask why they need to learn it, McGlaughlin tells stories about his former students.
He mentions a Dobbins grad who used his math skills to solve an inventory problem during a job interview and was hired.
McGlaughlin tells his students: "Be ready because math isn't just about arithmetic. It's about being willing to solve problems. If you can solve the boss' problem, you're going to get hired."