Here’s a joke: Q: What are the three best reasons to teach? A: June, July and August! Hahahahahahahha… uhmm.. no, wait… That’s not really that funny…
As a teacher (particularly as a extracurricular teacher, and most particularly as a high school Theatre teacher) I always love the inevitable question once my chosen profession has been revealed and after the questioner has been revived from the shock with assurances of no pop quizzes are on the horizon:
“How can/Why do you teach?”
It’s also usually followed by the statement of, “I could never be a teacher… (add the superficial, not fully explored or weighed excuse here).”
Now, don’t get me wrong. This article is NOT a definitive apology (the classical definition mind you) on why all teachers teach. Every teacher will give you his or her own answer. This is mine.
I haven’t always wanted to be a teacher, but perhaps it is something I have always been. Perhaps that is something we all need to be, to some degree.
Albert Einstein said,
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious,”
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Now, believe me, I am no Einstein. Not even close. But I’ve always been curious. I have always tried to figure out how things worked, how they did what they did, and, more importantly, why they did what they did
My room as a child (and even now as an adult) was often covered in pieces of ‘stuff’ I had taken apart, bits I had reassembled, sometimes ‘new’ things I had cobbled together. I think I may have actually reassembled some things correctly. I created my own learning opportunities, letting my curiosity lead me down as many paths as possible.
When I was four years old, I wanted to be an astronomer. The high school yearbook students came around to interview the Head Start students. From my classmates, they received answers like cowboy, doctor, fireman, lawyer, teacher, nurse, etc. Me? Astronomer. I had to explain it to them. It wasn’t (as they thought) someone who told fortunes based on the stars. It was someone who studied the stars, who explored them and everything else out there in space.
That’s my first memory of ‘teaching’ someone, explaining something that they didn’t fully understand in terms that they could understand. In retrospect, I guess that should have been the harbinger of things to come. But, I didn’t follow the typical path.
I was an above-average student, but very much a dilettante and a wonderful procrastinator. It wasn’t until junior high school and meeting a wonderfully vibrant and fiercely passionate choir teacher named Kris Harris that anything clicked with me in the performing arts. Another Einstein quote is,
“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.”
And awaken it she did
I discovered that the hows, the whys, the whats and wherefores, the knowledge of things is interrelated with creative expression and that expression of knowledge and creation was joy. And she did it so simply, taking the most complex thing in the universe, the heart and soul of human beings, and helped her students understand them. Admittedly, I didn’t realize it then. Those realizations didn’t come until much later. (Perhaps a year ago. Maybe last month. Ok, yesterday. Fine. It’s an ongoing process, ok?)
I continued to float through school, doing just enough to get by. (Theatre, my current teaching assignment and ultimate teaching passion, was just an outside hobby at the time.) I applied myself only when it interested me or when I encountered a passionate teacher who was enthralled with their subject. But the changes had begun. And I discovered that I enjoyed sharing my passionate curiosity and creative expression. I was farther down the path to being a teacher.
While the common take on when people decide their future careers is during the transition between high school and college, i don’t remember a conscious decision to become a teacher. It’s just what happened. When I enrolled in college, I started as a Vocal Music Education student. I thought I was going to be a choir teacher. After about a year and a half (sometimes I’m a slow learner) I discovered I was wrong. Conducting takes a lot more skill than I could muster, let alone master. So I again wandered through the curriculum. I studied history, philosophy, languages, literature, and the arts. I ‘tutored’ my classmates as much as they tutored me (“Tutored two tutors to toot?”), following my interests until I ran out of scholarship money. Then I changed schools. But I kept wanting to be a teacher (despite the fervent arguments from my pater familias, ironically a teacher himself).
Upon landing at NSU and I was ‘forced’ to pick an area, I picked English and ended up with a BA in English and minors in music and German. I then received my teaching certification courses and was fortunate enough to be hired at THS as an English teacher. I dabbled in the performing arts and began assisting with the Theatre program. And when the opportunity presented itself, I began teaching Theatre and haven’t looked back.
Upon reflection, the variety of my educational pursuits, the innately passionate curiosity, the fostering of that curiosity by knowledgeable and passionate teachers all molded me into a teacher. It wasn’t a choice, as such. It simply was becoming more of what I was already. And that also has become the greatest contribution I can give to my own students. I make a difference in their lives. I teach them to express themselves and not be afraid to follow their passions, to explore and be curious, to make mistakes and correct them, to become more of what they already are, and to go further than they believe is possible.
I teach them success isn’t measured in a paycheck or an award, but in their own intrinsic value. I teach them that doing something well because we wouldn’t have it any other way and giving anything less than our best is a disservice to ourselves and all that we value. I teach them that success is the ability to overcome mistakes and satisfaction in loving what they do by doing what they love.
Teachers should be the most respected, honored and esteemed members in a society. Teachers in return should hold sacred their duty and the children whom they instruct.
Ultimately, society, the teacher and the student (individually and as a group) should be held accountable for the responsibilities they have each been entrusted with: to nurture, to grow, and to be responsible participants in their community.
The rewards I find in teaching are fairly simple: Seeing students ‘get it’ and the lights go on in their faces as the connections are made in their brains and hearts. Watching them reason through ideas, choices, and arguments, and seeing the success on their faces for not only being right, but proving it to others or seeing them understanding another’s point of view and accepting it, even agreeing to disagree. The elation after a successful show’s run and how reluctant they are to leave the theatre to go home, doing everything they can to still be there and in that moment. The random “Thanks,” I’ve gotten throughout the years as I cross students’ paths later on in their lives. And I hear from students out in the ‘real world’ on how they are doing, happy, successful, making a difference in the world in their own ways.
My very non-comprehensive list of the inexhaustible things outstanding teachers are: engaging, knowledgable, passionate, caring, demanding, challenging, pushes limits for themselves and their students. They have the highest expectations, are flexible, respect diverse opinions, are tolerant of mistakes but demand correction, willing to try new things, new ways of doing. Outstanding teachers are interested in the WHOLE student, not just how they perform in their subject area and hold their students and themselves accountable.
Outstanding teachers know making a difference is the noblest pursuit, that excellence is not an option, it is the only aspiration, and conversely, that failure is ALWAYS an option and to begin from there often leads to success. They believe if you have only made A’s, you have not been challenged enough, that if you make B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s, you have not been helped enough, held accountable enough and applied yourself enough, that grades are not the final say in how successful you are, have been, or will be. Outstanding teachers demonstrate that true education commences at birth and only ends at death, that it is a journey, not a destination and do so daily inside and outside the classroom.
These are all goals I aspire to daily, if not hour by hour. Being an outstanding teacher has never been my objective, but helping my students to become the best they can be, to achieve beyond anything they believed was possible, to strive for their passions, is. In order to do that, I have had to become more than I’ve ever thought possible, hold myself to these same standards, to realize my own inadequacies and overcome them, using those weaknesses as springboards to success. And I’ve had to accept that what I say and do in the classroom has an impact beyond anything I will ever realize in this lifetime. So I had better be the best I can be, if not better.
Addendum: Some links to look at that I’ve found inspiring
Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talks (look up ANYTHING he has online… It’s Awesome!)
Books: The Element and Out of Our Minds – Sir Ken Robinson’s Website