Monday, January 24, 2011

Why I Teach

Sometimes students ask me if I get nervous or anxious before the first day of school.  The answer is Yes!  And No!  Since I was four years old I have been ending each summer with a First Day of School; how could I be nervous anymore?  When I think about it like that, I’m fine.  Been there, done that.  In fact last year I don’t think my blood pressure moved a beat in August.  It all just felt like the movie Groundhog Day.  The kids and lessons might have been different, but it all felt like a re-run of something I had done before.  But I got the chance to make it better. 

But when I stop and think about what I really do, it does scare me.  Families and the general public trust me to care for and teach their children.  They expect their child to learn and be safe in my classroom.  They know their kids have dreams and they expect the schools, specifically teachers, to help their child reach them.  Think about the responsibility involved.  Am I up for it?  Am I worthy of meeting those families’ expectations?  Do I have the energy and passion left for another year?  Do I know how to help every kid reach his or her potential?  These thoughts make me nervous, anxious and terrified for each and every First Day of School.

As I approach 20 years of teaching I have reached the point at which I thought I would be worn out or bored or both.  I’ve always been someone with varied interests in activities and places, so I knew there was no way I’d be able to teach for 20 or 30 years and certainly not in one place.  But I feel like I’m just getting started.  The vacation time, which I disdained at the beginning because of what so many think of teachers’ schedules, serves to replenish my energy.  I’ve immersed myself in the challenge of closing the achievement gap and learning more than ever.  So if I am still learning how to teach and still have the energy, what really keeps me going back year after year? 

It sounds so cliché, but truthfully, it’s the kids who keep me coming back.  For some teachers it may be the kids who love school, have attentive families and do all their homework who help keep their enthusiasm and sanity.  For others it might be their love of their content area they can’t wait to share each year.  Some teachers love the process of teaching kids how to read or write effectively.  And I suppose some just like the summer vacations at the end.  For me, it’s the dreams of the so-called average kid, the one who might slip under the radar, the one with undiscovered, untapped potential.  And it’s the kids with green hair, tattoos, bad attitudes and obscene t-shirts.  And it’s the disconnected and disenfranchised kids who keep me coming back.  Show me a kid willing to challenge everything school is all about, for that matter, all that society is all about, and I’ll show you a pretty enthusiastic teacher.  I’ll be in my classroom everyday by .   

These kids have dreams, and I get the honor and pleasure of playing a part in helping them each achieve whatever future they envision.  These kids have dreams that most of us only have as teenagers.  Most of them don’t have to worry about mortgages, loans, bills, families and retirement.  So these kids want to be dentists and oncologists, no matter how much time and money it takes.  They want to be painters and tattoo artists, poets and Saturday Night Live performers and want punk bands and hip-hop groups no matter how much hard work, luck and restaurant-serving it takes.  They want any job that will let them travel to other countries and cultures.  They want to own restaurants, salons, and fashion design houses no matter what the odds of success might be.  They want to shake thing up with muckraking journalism, no matter how homogenized our media gets.  They want to be civil rights attorneys, nurses and social workers regardless of the hard, challenging, emotional work ahead.  They want to cure AIDS, build gorgeous buildings, cook gourmet meals, make people laugh, cry and dance, and solve the world’s problems.  Then there was the kid last spring who, when asked what she wanted to do, “I don’t know.  I just want to change the world and make a difference.”  They have dreams that require a combination of education, luck, hard work, money and time.  They have dreams that only the innocence of youth allows.  I can’t help but admire each and every one of them.

The entire world of possibility is open to these kids, and I get to play a part in it.  They are just about at the last point in their lives where they get to experiment with who they are and what they are all about.  Most of them don’t have life’s constraints or cynicism altering their plans just yet.  They have families and communities that, to one degree or another, will pick them up if they stumble.  They can take risks without things like a mortgage to haunt them.  And I get the challenge of figuring out how to make history or literature relevant and important to each of them.  And it’s a blast.    

It’s not always such fun.  Sometimes the opportunity to make a difference takes on a more sinister tone.  It’s never fun being told by a kid that he or she needs help because a parent beats them.  Emotional and physical abuse is far too common in my students’ lives.  Their families are dealing with poverty, drugs, and crime, and the kids are supposed to be able to focus at school and learn.  Too many are dealing with pregnancy.  And far too many just don’t have any guidance or support at home.  They come to school seeking whatever they can get.  For some, teachers may provide their last, great hope.  For some, a classroom is sanctuary from all the rest of their lives throw at them.  And their faces get etched on my mind and keep me awake at night.   

But that’s a lot of idealism and altruism to fuel a career.  There’s a more self-centered, even selfish, element to this too.  There’s something about teaching that indulges me.  I had no idea how personally it would affect me.  Over the years I have lost track of the thank you cards, gift certificates, gracious emails, and pleasant phone calls from parents and students.  There’s a lot of power in those notes of gratitude.  But there’s more.  There’s the dental school graduation invitation from the young lady who I told when she was 15 that if she became a dentist, I’d be her first patient.  I wasn’t, but she tells me I have a free cleaning coming my way when I visit her practice… in Hawaii!  There was a phone call from a US Navy submarine in the Mediterranean the month the current war in Iraq started.  The sailor was just calling to say hello and let me know he was doing well.  There have been numerous wedding invitations, including one wedding between two former students with a request to sit with their parents at the reception.  There was a mom who called me her daughter’s Mr. Holland.  I’ve been blessed with numerous students who have discovered my love of food.  There have been hunters who love sharing a bit of deer jerky, steaks or tenderloin, fishermen with pounds of fish unavailable in markets, and bakers who just know I’d love their chocolate chip cookies.  There have been baby shower invitations, collegiate singing and acting performance schedules, Eagle Scout presentations, church performances and invitations to family Ramadan dinners.  How could all of that not motivate me to be my best each day?

But there are dark days.  There are days that find me thinking surely there’s something else I can do to double my money with half the frustration.  There are days that leave me so exhausted I fall asleep by 7 and don’t get up till morning.  There are days where the adults are so frustrating I’d rather just close my door and not deal with another one.  There’s the perpetual grading, rarely the fun part of the job, constant meetings, a system that needs lots of change and 70 hour weeks.  There are the computer and emotional meltdowns, bureaucrats and politicians.  I don’t care to ever hear anything else about standardized tests or lack of funding.  I don’t want to see another memo reminding all of us to simply do our job.  I’d rather see a memo inviting those who can’t do their job to go do something else.  And I have dreams too – I’d like to own my own pub, be a food and travel writer, tour guide, race car driver, James Bond, elected public official, novelist and gentleman farmer.  (I suppose re-incarnation might be necessary.)  But on these dark days it never fails, by some power of the gods, an old student drops by to share the latest achievement, invite me to a game or performance, or to just say hello.  And I am reminded that I do this job for the thrill of seeing kids dream and take steps to realizing them all. 

I don’t know if I will be able to do this for 20 more years.  Like everything else in American society, there seems to be a push towards greater homogenization and alignment, greater business-style management.  I’m not sure I want to go though all that.  But as long as I get to discover kids’ dreams and play my little part in getting them there, I suppose I can do it for quite some time! 

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