Why I Love Teaching

Teachers have such a questionable reputation we seem to need smexy actors to say how grateful they are to have had us in their lives. We’re talking some pretty serious (or, in the case of Matt Damon, plain ole pretty) celebrity endorsements of a system that, love it or lump it, is necessary. Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach – right? Ummm, no.

Those who can, do their greatnesses and make their contributions because someone cared enough about them to push them, to guide them, to motivate them into becoming the great Whatever that they are. I know that we want to think we did everything all by ourselves, but we didn’t. We like to use Einstein as our great example of someone who didn’t follow a traditional educational path. After all, he failed his school entrance exams and was dropped from a math class. The fact that people use one of the most self-directed learners in human history as an example of how education fails the population overall is laughable. Einstein was beyond motivated by the world; he was obsessed with it, beginning with his fascination with a compass when he was five. However we feel about the legends, Einstein’s inspiration to pursue physics was, drum roll please, a physics teacher.

We can rattle off laundry lists of the teachers who wronged us in some way, but what about the ones who made a positive difference? I have three. My first was my seventh grade math teacher, Mr. Shorb. I was a year behind my brother in school and had become accustomed to the standard comparisons of who was better in academic subject X or sport Y or attribute Z. It was annoying. Comparing people between each other is a detriment to both, which is a post for another time. Mr. Shorb was a Very Popular Teacher. As I reflect on his contributions to education as an adult, he had amazing classroom management, a great sense of humor – and, get this – loved his subject.

I had been doing my usual academic job of doing well but not too well as to stand out, when he pulled me aside one day. I was convinced I was in trouble because I hadn’t memorized the poem we were all given to recite for extra credit. He reminded me that I was still one of the highest performing students in the class even without the extra credit and that, even if I wasn’t as good as my brother in math (which he said was only possible, not probable) I had every reason to be proud of myself without comparison. What?! I had not heard those words before. Not only did he separate me from the comparison mill, he gave me reason to think I could shine all by myself. Thanks, Mr. Shorb.

Mr. Raftery was my high school educational guru; he was my independent study teacher my senior year. I read the books and told him what I was going to write about; he graded my work. He offered advice on revision and literary analysis. He donated his time once/twice per week to hang out and talk books and thought. I kept the books we read together as a reminder of how amazing teachers can be. Mr. Raftery, you are one of my favorite people. Ever.

One teacher, however, stands out above the rest. Ms. Amy wasn’t even my teacher; she was my son’s. When I walked into her room and saw the other children and the classroom, I had an “Aha!” moment that resonates today. Teaching and learning, when authentic, is extraordinary. This was a room where the students were respected, challenged, encouraged, motivated, and celebrated. Through the countless waves of educational reform, one fact remains: good teaching is good teaching. It looks different to different people, because we all have different needs. Ms. Amy is the reason I dropped the career path I was on and enrolled in graduate school to become a teacher myself.

I have three powerful role models guiding me through every day I have in the classroom. Like Mr. Shorbes, I want to see each child as unique unto themselves. Like Mr. Raftery, I want to spend a couple times a week talking books and imagery, or sports and math with a student who wants to spend more time on an area of interest. Like Ms. Amy, I want each of my students to know I celebrate them and assume a level of competence they don’t know they have. Yet.

I love education because I haven’t removed myself from the learning and teaching cycle. I hope I never do. Our jobs are difficult and too many people misunderstand or devalue what we try to do as teachers. My goal isn’t a score on a student’s standardized test or an excellent performance review – my motivator is that I hope one person remembers me as a person who taught them they were unique, worth the attention, and capable.

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