Why I Teach
Teaching is one of those professions—lots of people think that they might like to try teaching one day. The truth is that while many people consider teaching, few pursue it, and even fewer ever become teachers. When people decide to leave the profession, I feel a profound sense of sadness, but I do not blame them. It’s one of the few jobs in the world where you have to be “on” all the time. If you’re having a bad day there’s no hiding in your cubicle and surfing the net. You have and audience every day and you are expected to perform. This can be too much stress, and it takes a certain kind of person to deal with it every day. In addition to this, the profession is run by legislators and government officials. It can be frustrating to report to the public at large, or worse yet, a government official with no experience in education.
I had no intention of ever being a teacher. I come from a family of lawyers, and it was assumed that I, too, would go to law school. I thought that all the English classes involved in my English education major would help me when I took the LSAT. I remember lamenting the fact that I had to take student teaching—“too bad I have to take student teaching and I’ll never be a teacher. That seems like a lot of work.” Life had other plans for me. I fell in love with teaching.
Student teaching was rewarding, and I left with good reviews from my master teachers. It did not, however, prepare me for the horror that would await me at my first teaching job. I was alone at my job. I taught a special needs reading class which was unique to the district, so I was not assigned a mentor. No one helped me navigate the basics of teaching: where the bathrooms were, where the principal’s mailbox was, where to turn in lesson plans, how to operate the copy machine and internet. I was drowning, and no one threw me a life preserver.
What I didn’t realize then, but I do now, is that teachers are a proud group. They are proud of their abilities and sometimes this can cause them to turn a blind eye to the new members of their group. They are under-paid and under-appreciated and it’s critical to them that people understand that teaching is no easy profession to be embarked upon lightly. They are also used to seeing people come and go. According to the statistics, somewhere around 66% of all new teachers have left the profession within the first five years. In my first years of teaching I was insulted by my superiors, ignored by many, and degraded in front of my students. I didn’t quit, but I spent a lot of nights crying.
The reason I stayed isn’t the reason that many would suspect. It has nothing to do with affecting young lives or changing the world. The reason I stayed was to change stereotypes, but not about the kids—about myself. For many I was an affluent, self-absorbed, white girl. I never worked in college, I had my own car at the age of fifteen and access to daddy’s platinum card by the time I was eighteen. A lot of people never get past the surface. Be it color, gender, or socioeconomic status, there are a million ways to classify people, so you never have to bother getting to know them. Even my brother used to refer to me as “one of those sorority types.”
Teaching allows me to be someone other than the product of my father’s success. No one knows me or my family—there isn’t a teacher in sight in my family tree. I get hired on my own assets, and I keep my job based on my ability. I work in the kinds of schools my parents never would have allowed me to attend. I only went to private school, and I only teach in public. I work with kids who are crammed into substandard housing three to a bed. I’ve heard my kids talking about dodging drive-bys, and seen homes swarming with insects. I’ve seen the real world that my parents fought to keep away from me.
People are astounded when I tell them I teach teenagers—maybe I could be an elementary teacher, but never older kids. I’m proud of what I do. Most of my friends from college are chasing the all-mighty dollar, and wouldn’t deign to do something as low-paying of teaching. I’ve already done the money thing—now I’m doing the meaningful thing.
I may or may not be making a difference in my kids. I try my hardest to treat each one of them with respect and dignity which can be hard to find when you’re a teenager. My old students call and e-mail me, and I see the fruits of their labor turn into well-rounded lives. Maybe I had a small role in this—maybe not. What I do know is that teaching has made me a better person. I understand the world better and understand the gifts that I have been given. We all win a genetic lottery if we spend our childhood in warm houses with running water and electricity. Even better if we know both our parents and have regular contact with them. I hope that at the very least I can repay the great gifts that God has given me—I’ll probably come up short in this lifetime, but I’ll do my best.