We need teachers. We need teachers who are not merely well-educated and kind and hard-working. We need teachers who are smarter than most of their students. My original post “WHY YOU DON’T WANT TO BECOME A TEACHER” went up on my previous blog while I was actively teaching in a public high school. I reposted it here in February of last year, a month before I retired completely. Nearly two thousand people have looked at it just since, a thousand just this year. Google leads people to it from all over the world. People in Thailand, South Africa, Nepal, Greece, the UK, and France read it while I am asleep. It is my most-read post. Again.
To my original list of reasons not to teach, I would add what a teacher once wrote in The Oregonian: Administrators think if you’re so smart, why are you still teaching? The assumption on the part of such people is that the way people should rise in this profession is to stop doing it. Rising as a teacher means not teaching anymore. Anyone who continues teaching must be a very dull boy.
Or maybe they simply love the work they originally trained for? Maybe they teach even though they could do other things, but teaching is what they love.
The principal who hired me for my first teaching job at a girls’ prep school was at heart a teacher, not an administrator. Paperwork and schmoozing were not her forte. Or at least not her priority and preference. She was given a position she did not want and was not comfortable in. She did the job well, but once she was allowed back in the classroom, she stayed there by choice.
Like me, what she valued was working with students, opening their eyes to information and skills, making a difference in their lives. Person to person with people early in their lives,
My teaching philosophy during my first years teaching was a muddle, but after more than forty years I understand the job: support students to accomplish more than they know they can do, and they will surprise themselves. Failure is familiar to most people, and few of us are so egotistical to believe everything we do will be perfect. Persisting in the face of failure is an essential life skill. Finding a way to both challenge and support students in their discovery of their own power, in recognition of truth, in development of skills, and in evaluation of circumstance—education is about all that.
If you assume students hunger for beauty and purpose and competency, you are right on track. If you know they hunger for respect, you know people need to be treated with dignity. If you try very hard to be consistent and fair and kind to every single student, you will fail and those failures will keep you awake at night. Those failures will also keep you striving to improve, which is exactly what you ask from students.
“We need teachers who are smarter than most of their students,” I wrote above. Smart people, even those who might be good at the work do not necessarily choose teaching. They appreciate being well paid as much as the next person, they want autonomy and respect, but teaching can put a person in the position of being pinched between the needs and demands of students and the demands of parents, communities, and—oh, yes—administrators. Students are not consistently treated with the compassion and respect I think they deserve and neither was I when I was a teacher.
This sounds bitter. It’s true. Teachers are sometimes treated as disposable cogs in a machine.
We also exist in a middle space between the people who taught us and the people who learn from us. That middle meeting ground makes an essential chain, and every human being links that chain as they learn from parents and teachers and friends and co-workers and lived experience. We take hold of the chain and then pass it along as we become the parent, teacher, friend, co-worker, life experience for someone else. Professional teachers are links in that powerful chain that gathers and then give away skills and knowledge. It is a machine of human lives.
The educational machine is not running so very smoothly just now. Covid and confusion and no clear message at any level about how to handle this.
Gary told me recently that I was lucky to leave teaching when I did. Had I not resigned last year, I would have been teaching this March. I would be worried about my students and how to teach them safely. I would be onscreen too much and all day. I would be approaching the age of 68 while doing genuinely dangerous work.
Instead I am at home and observing from a safe distance.
It does not always feel lucky to have left when I did. My first impulse is to return to my station. I consider how curriculum can be altered and adapted to suit a changing world. Wasn’t I always doing that? I want to be there doing the work. I was to be useful. I remind myself of my age, but in my heart of hearts, I still want to be there, helping to make learning happen.
There are other things I could have done. I worked in a bakery and was offered a management post, I made and sold my art, I designed homes and remodels and drew for an architect. I worked retail. I set type. I made fast food. I did inventory. Some of those jobs were better paid than teaching. Some required less personal investment. I enjoyed everything I committed to, engaging fully with the demands of each position and striving to master skills and do the work better.
Teaching matters more.
I miss teaching because I made a difference. Even though I was imperfect and sometimes annoying or cross, I helped students to get on with their lives. I was good at my job, the work was demanding and interesting and worthwhile, and I felt useful. I was always learning, always trying to do better. I failed sometimes—I know this—but mostly I provided a good example of joy in work, of attention to detail and cultures and different perspectives, and of living a life that mattered.
The world needs good teachers willing to be important in the lives of students, willing to provide possibility and hope, willing to contribute through education.
So maybe you want to be a teacher?