On Diane Ravich’s blog (which I cannot recommend highly enough) there have been several posts on the subject of why people become career-teachers. The first of these posts were spurred by New Jersey Governor (and perpetual bully) Chris Christie’s comment at the RNC, “Teachers don’t teachers to become rich and famous. They teach because they love children”.
I realized that I wanted to become a teacher when I was a senior in high school. At that point, I had worked with kids at a summer camp for a couple of years and worked as a ski instructor in the winters. I loved reading and writing. I loved the whole academic experience and most importantly I loved sharing and passing on knowledge.
I was fortunate to make this realization so early in my academic career because as an undergrad I was able to seek out opportunities to mentor, observe, and interact in a variety of classrooms. I didn’t have the gall to say that I wanted to become a teacher to “change the world”, but I certainly had a bit of chip on my shoulder.
As a junior in college, I spent a month as an intern in a Boston public school, working with an amazing English teacher. We were talking after school one day and she asked me why I wanted to teach in a high-needs city school. I regurgitated some stock answer about helping kids who really needed it.
She looked at me very seriously and said, “Don’t come here to save the kids. The students don’t need saving and they certainly don’t need a teacher who believes they need to be saved. What they need is a teacher who believes in them and who is not afraid to challenge them”.
Beyond that, it’s been my experience that coming into any situation with the goal or expectation of saving the world is a recipe for burn out and disappointment. Of course, this is not to say that teachers shouldn’t try to affect change. Educators are uniquely positioned to have a profound impact on children’s lives, but it is unfair, unrealistic and even disrespectful to approach teaching with a savior-mentality.
I had another experience with this “save the children” attitude in my first year teaching.
I was talking with one of my parents’ neighbors and I explained where and who I was teaching. She looked at me like you might look at a newborn puppy and said, “Aw, that’s so wonderful. Thank you so much for doing that”.
Surprised by her patronizing tone, I said, “Well, they do pay me. I mean, it’s not volunteering”.
She said, “Oh I’m sure they do, but it’s so nice what you’re doing for those type of kids”.
As a teacher, I want to be respected for my work, not pandered to or pitied.
I don’t blame this woman for her reaction. It’s the same type of “you poor dear” attitude that many upper middle-class, suburban folks take toward inner city students. They care, I really believe that, but they often fail to understand the realities of poverty and inequity.
So what does all this have to do with why I became (and remain) a teacher?
I don’t have any illusions that I’m saving my students. I don’t pretend that the hour they spend with me each day will erase the effects of poverty or ease the pain of violence. I teach because I have a passion for sharing knowledge. I love learning, challenging, and being challenged.
In my classroom, I push my students to think, read, and write critically. We look at everything from classic texts to modern films to lived experience and attempt to draw conclusions. We make arguments and support them with evidence. We learn together.
That is why I teach and I doubt Chris Christie or any corporate reformer will understand it. It does not fit with a results-driven, free market definition of success. I don’t teach to feel better about myself or to build a resume of experience “in the trenches” (a term that I hate). I don't do it to make millions or have summers off or retire early with a fat pension (neither of which I do).
I do it because sharing knowledge is what I love to do. I love the challenges, the headaches, and, of course, the successes.