Why become a teacher? After high school, I told myself I would never teach in a public school. I wanted to be a writer or do something else that was creative. In my senior year of college, I wrote a poem about poetry. In writing it I realized that what I loved about writing was the feeling of being inspired. I loved pushing myself to pull ideas and images together. It was alive. I felt that I had something worthwhile and meaningful to say. In other words, poetry had the power to teach. The only thing I was unsure of was whether teaching had the power of poetry.
And I discovered that it did. A good lesson can have the intensity and artistry of a poem. And when teaching with the Peace Corps, I felt respect from my students. What I was doing mattered to them. So I wanted to do it even more when I returned to this country.
In today’s world, the question is not only why become a teacher but, if you are a teacher, why stay one. Because teaching in some ways is more difficult now than it was thirty years ago. Class sizes are bigger, there are fewer support staff, and the profession is more maligned and more strictly judged. If anyone purposely wanted to undermine the teaching profession and public schooling, they could learn a great deal from the present situation.
So, considering all these factors, why teach? Because it is one of the most meaningful things you can do. After a day of teaching is over, you don’t have to find other ways to make the world a better place; you do it daily. Of course, this can be as true with other professions as well. Focusing on helping others is very different from focusing on how much money you can earn or how you can stand out or look better than other people. It changes how you view your own life. Standing out is isolating, helping is connecting. With the former, you feel bad if you aren’t at or near the top. With the latter, you can feel good about what you do no matter what.
When you walk down the street, you might meet up with an old student who remembers how you inspired him or her. I remember meeting a former student who I thought hated me because I held him accountable for some unacceptable behavior. Fifteen years later he thanked me. He is now a teacher. In any crowd, someone might be there who appreciates what you did for them. So on those days when you forget how important teaching is, or you get depressed because a student dropped out of school or because of some newscast you heard, or you feel overwhelmed by the difficulties many of your students face, you can remember the student who, 15 years later, thanked you for how you changed his life. Or you remember the former student who told you she was the first child in her family to graduate from college and the only reason she was able to do so was the trust and self-belief that you taught her. Now that’s a worthwhile way to live.
*The mural is of teachers from the Alternative Community School painted by a few students.