So last year I wrote a little essay on a news website about why I teach and it got picked up by Diane Ravitch's blog which was amazing since she's one of my educational heroes. I don't want that to sound like a brag but it kind of does. That is not my intent. Anyway, In the spirit of the new school year, I'm posting it again.
Why I Teach: A Reflection on Purpose
As a new school year begins, I think it’s important for every teacher to answer the question: Why do I teach? This year, this is my answer.
When I reflect on the circumstances that led me into teaching, there are three main things that happened to me prior to declaring as an education major in college. First, when I was 17, my father told me that when I went to college I should earn a degree that came with a title. For example, if I were to major in business I wouldn’t leave college as a businessman. But if I had a degree in education, I would exit as a teacher. Second, my senior year in high school I had an English teacher named Trece Greene who made her job seem important, fun, and honorable. And third, I took an intro to education class as a sophomore in college and I loved it immediately. Path set.
Now after 20 years in the classroom, I look at the reasons I stay. First, I want to provide for my family and after so many years, and an advanced degree, I can do so with the help of my wife’s full-time office job. But I know that most people have it rougher than I do. Second, I love my job. I can sincerely say that I look forward to each and every day spent with students in the classroom. Third, it’s the light bulbs. When a person all of a sudden has an epiphany and figures something out, light bulbs appear over their head. I love seeing light bulbs in my class. Fourth, I teach because there is honor in my chosen profession. Serving 150 students in my classroom and the other 1,400 in my school is a task that I take seriously. When a parent releases their child, the most important thing in the world to them, to my school and also to me for guidance, instruction, mentoring, compassion, and a myriad of other roles which can pop up, I don’t want to let those parents or children down in any way. I still remember my sixth grade teacher who was mean to me in front of the class and would pick on most of the kids. She haunts me. I do not want to be that person and have no respect for any teacher that does the same. Conversely, I remember my fourth grade teacher who made me believe that I could accomplish anything. To this day, that man, Jon Snyder, is a huge inspiration.
There have been some low points in my career so far. The worst thing as a teacher is having a student die. The pain and anguish doesn’t compare to the pain the family feels, but it is difficult to pick up the pieces. I’ve lost too many students. One to murder, one to drowning, one to a plane crash, one to suicide, one to a car crash, one to cancer, and I carry all of them with me. I’ve given eulogies. I’ve stood in front of a class where a chair sat empty and talked to the other 30 students about carrying on. I’ve been in living rooms with mothers and fathers who have just lost their child and cried with them. Low points. All teachers have them.
There are also victories. There have been invitations to weddings from former students. There have been former students become English teachers. There have been numerous thank you cards, college graduation announcements, and friendly messages on social media or e-mail. All of those things make me feel like I have made a difference. Academically, there have been kids who didn’t think they could accomplish something, accomplish it. There have been students move their tassel from one side to the other, who made it through dire circumstances and against all odds, to graduate.
Last year was rewarding and when a student wins, I feel like I win. I had students read their very first book. I had a student whose father had died a couple years prior, who in a writing assignment, wrote about him, showed me, and thanked me for the opportunity. I had one student publish two essays in an online magazine. I had a student write about her eating disorder and get help. I had a student write about his mother who had overdosed and it was his first time dealing with it. I had many students enjoy learning. I had students try to skip class by being in my class because they heard good things were happening there. I had students get an actual library card. I had students tell me (incorrectly) “I write well now because of you.” These aren’t measureable test score results that will be submitted to the state so that I may be evaluated and deemed to be proficient or not. These are real. These are victories where I feel like I am honoring the covenant between myself and parent. Where I am serving my students as best as I can.
Twenty years down and twenty to go and it just keeps getting better.
After reading this a year later I feel the same. I love my job every day and the drive to work is full of anticipation instead of dread and that is gift. I'm a lucky man.
The profession is under attack from politicians but I have to remind myself that they are pretty much idiots who don't have a clue about what happens in a classroom. I just try to ignore it. When I'm in my classroom with my kids, things are as they are supposed to be. One of my 2015-16 school goals was that I'd focus more on the good things (students, learning, community, faculty) and less on the bad things (politics, overzealous standardized testing, institutionalized inequity) and I will do my best to do just that.
I'll blog more since school has started and I'm back in my routine.
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