Why become a teacher? Why chose one profession or job over another? Why do anything? I have to admit that after high school, I told myself I would never teach in a public school. I found education valuable, but the school I had attended was too big and restrictive. I wanted to do something with my life that was meaningful, alive, creative, like write novels, plays or poetry or do something adventurous.
In my senior year of college, I wrote a poem about poetry. After completing it, I realized that what I loved about writing was the feeling of being inspired. I loved pushing myself to go deep inside, to pull ideas and images together. I then 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. After college, in 1969, I entered the Peace Corps and taught children from ages 9 to 19 in a rural village. I felt respect from my students. What I was doing mattered to them. So when I returned to this country, I wanted to do it even more.
In today’s world, the question is not only why become a teacher but also, if you are a teacher, why stay one. Because teaching in some ways is more difficult now than it was forty-eight years ago or even ten years ago. Class sizes are bigger, there are fewer support staff, and the profession is more maligned and judged.
Corporate and right-wing interests have been trying to undermine public schools ever since Ronald Reagan and his Nation At Risk report was released in 1983. This report claimed public education was responsible for everything from a decline in educational achievement, college graduation rates, to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It claimed public education threatened the security of this nation. All of these claims were later proven untrue. Betsy DeVos, and her corporate allies are continuing these attacks, calling for public funding of private, religious, and charter schools, while cutting funds for The Department of Education, public schools, etc.
Considering all these factors, why teach? Teachers are on the forefront of a cultural battle between democracy and oligarchy, between compassion as a driving force and fear, between open questioning and questioning those who are open. The present administration, with its readiness to invent facts and attack anyone who disagrees with them, have made the pursuit of truth possibly dangerous, and have made educational methods to discover what is true to be even more crucial to our survival.
I think teaching is close to a sacred activity. 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 true of 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. 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 even if no one, except for an occasional parent or student, recognizes it.
And students do recognize what you do, although it is sometimes years later. When you walk down the street, you might meet up with a former student who remembers how you inspired him or her. I remember meeting one such student who I thought hated me because I held him accountable for some unacceptable behavior of his in a class. Fifteen years later he thanked me. He is now a teacher. In any crowd, someone might be there who appreciates what you once 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 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.
This post was originally published on IraRabois.com and is republished here with the author’s permission.
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