October 04, 2004

Why Teach?

I went to my 20th high school reunion this weekend. One of my friends, Charles, told me that he could see that I really cared about the success of my students. Another was encouraged by my efforts and said, "that's what the world needs, more committed teachers!" The thing is, other than sharing the fact that this was my 10th year in the classroom, I didn't tell them anything about what or how I do what I do. Their comments, while enjoyed by my ego, confounded me. How did they know I cared about my students? How did they know that I was committed to my service?

Teachers are definitely a breed apart. True we are made, and not created, but it seems like you can always tell a good teacher when you see one, even if you don't see them teach. I ran into an old student of mine at the car wash earlier that day. She shared with me her desire to teach. I encouraged her because I knew already that she would make a great teacher. Her personality is inviting, she seems naturally kind and patient, she doesn't judge but instead shares a warm smile. She will be a great teacher regardless of subject matter or grade level. I could see that in her, just like my friends could see it in me.

But I haven't always been able to see it in myself. The "it" being the qualities and energy of a good teacher. I reflect on my teaching, but usually my reflections display all the things I need to fix, or don't do very well. Still, I endure, and continue to work at improving myself because I just love what I do, and couldn't dream now of doing anything else. However, teaching was not my first choice. I did not see myself as a teacher when I was younger. Other people did: my father and my wife. They suggested I try teaching; and it was a good fit. But what makes teaching a good fit for me? And why do I fit teaching? Have you ever asked yourself why you teach?

For some, the answer is obvious. They teach because that is what they have always wanted to do. For others, they teach because teaching provides a steady paycheck and great benefits. Still others are called by some higher authority to spend their days wiping noses and answering the same question three or more times an hour. If we are to be successful teachers, teachers who change lives, we have to look deeper than the desire, the paycheck, or the calling. I think we have to look deep within ourselves and recognize that not only does the world need great teachers, role models willing to give selflessly, but that we too have a need to play the role or inspirer, sage, and friend.

Not everyone needs to know that their efforts are meaningful. But I do. I gave up pursuing a career in television because I didn't want to spend my time away from my family selling soap. It was fun, but empty. Teaching allows me to make the world around me a better place. I regularly see alumni who tell me that the time spent in my class made a difference to lives and changed them in some way. Not all my students, but many share the same experience. Is there something I do directly that changes them? I'm not sure. Like Charles said, it is very important to me that my students are successful. I don't know yet exactly how that plays out in my classroom, but it is at the top of my list of priorities. As my other friend pointed out, I am completely committed to my students success, but what does that look like?

The answer is that it is different for different teachers. But one thing is certain, if you are not invested in your students success, and if you are not committed to them, then I have to ask you, why teach?