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Why We Teach

I had the honor of giving a speech at the District 287 school year kick-off in late August. I chose to speak about why teachers teach. Click on the image below to see a Quicktime video of the 12-minute speech.

I’d welcome other teachers and readers to share their comments as well. Why do you teach? What brings you back each fall to do what you do?

Below is the text of the speech:

Why I Teach
Since getting this award, a lot of people in the media and private sector have asked me why I became a teacher. Why do I teach? You don’t have much time to think then, when people ask you a direct question in front of a lot of other people. Generally I said the first thing that came to my mind. “Well, I like it.” “I like helping people learn.” “I think it’s important.” But those answers didn’t feel right. There was something missing there, something bigger. Why do I teach? Why do we all teach? The real answer is something that can’t be summed up in a single sentence. I’ve had a chance to think more about this, to reflect on this, on why I teach, why all of us here work with education, we why all teach. I thought I would share with you my answer, with the thought that parts of this answer may resonate within you.

Why do I teach?

I teach because I believe. I teach because I believe that education is the way up and the way out. I teach because I believe that anyone can learn, and that in doing so they can become more than they currently are. I teach because I believe that a society rises or falls in equal measure to the quality of its educational system, and that it’s rare for an educated person to be a killer, a drug dealer, or a rapist. I teach because even after all these years, I still believe in the joy of learning, and that if I do my job right, others can share in that.

I teach because of the influence teachers had on me. I teach because of Will Collins, my high school English teacher, who showed me how incredibly fun learning can be. I teach because of Pete Skipper, another teacher. At a time when I was making a lot of bad choices in life, he took the time to get to know me, to treat me like a human being first, and a student second. I teach because he listened, and in listening so well, inspired me to try to be like him.

I teach because I forgive myself, because somehow I’ve come to grips with my faults, my failures, the kids I lost, the kids who didn’t learn, the kids who never did their homework and failed my class, the broken angry kid that I never connected with. The importance of our job compels me to accept my imperfections, to still care, to still try, to still believe in every single student who will walk into my classroom next week. I can only do that if I overlook past failures.

I teach because of the awesome pay, the perks, the low-stress work environment, and the incredible social prestige that comes with being a teacher. Whoops, that’s from my rock star speech. I remember when I was first teaching and I’d drive to a party in my beat-up, ten-year-old “teacher” car. Talk about a chick magnet. Yeah, baby, I’m a teacher. Come get some! Ok, That’s not why I teach.

I teach because I have found peace in a balance of work and privacy. I will give you much of who I am, but not all of it. I enjoy myself, my family, my individual pursuits. Being a whole person makes me a better teacher, and I am still teaching because I’ve been able to define limits to how much I give, and be comfortable with those limits.

I teach because of the good days, the days when everything works right, when I hear students laughing, when I see students learning. I teach for those special moments, those moments when it all clicks and you see a classroom crackling with energy and focus, when the bell rings at the end of class and catches everyone by surprise, and students look at the clock and say, “Wow, that was fast.” I teach because I don’t need a thank you, a handshake, or a compliment when that happens. It’s good enough for me that it happened.

A few years ago, I was at a dinner party, and acquaintances nearby me were talking about a man that one of the women had starting dating. When asked how the relationship was going, the woman replied that things were going well but she wasn’t sure if it would amount to anything. “He’s nice,” she said. “We have fun and all. I like him, but you know, he’s just a teacher.”

That one hurts. “Just a teacher,” and everything it implies. But the more I think about “just a teacher”, the more I realize this: Just because something is that way, doesn’t mean it should be that way. So perhaps I teach because I hold out hope that if we do our jobs well, with passion and professionalism, that somewhere down the line, a decade or two in the future, the educational climate in the United States will be different, that we’ll have a United States culture similar to that of some Asian countries, where the word for teacher—sensei—is the same word used for medical doctors.

I teach because of the students and their stories. Stories so incredible that they can’t be fiction. Stories of individual achievement and effort that border on heroic.

I teach because of a kid in my Japanese class a few years ago. A kid who comes from a background with every statistical indicator for a troubled life. Single mom. Low income. Living in an apartment. Minority. A kid who has never met his dad. A kid who comes up to me as a freshman in Japanese 1 a few months into class and says, “I want to go to Japan. How can I do it?” I point him to the scholarships that are available to Japan, but I mention that you’ve got to be good at Japanese to get one. This kid gets to work. And he works. And over the course of the next few months he works more than I’ve seen anyone work at anything. At times it was painful to watch, because this is a kid who had to grind things down by effort, who really had to work to get it. By the time scholarship applications are due, he’s got a solid A in Japanese, and I thought he had a decent chance to get one. He came in a few weeks later, at the point of tears. He didn’t get the scholarship. I thought it would be impossible for him, for anyone, to try so hard for something and fail, and have the strength to try again, but he did.

The next year he came back, worked just as hard, applied again, and failed again. This time, I asked him to ask the exchange organization, Youth For Understanding, if they could give him some areas to work on for next year’s application. He came back and said they thought he could work on his English writing in the essays. I asked him to show them to me. After looking at them, to put it politely, they were right. He needed to be a better writer. I offered to help him over the summer with his English writing. I figured that I could email him an assignment once a week, and that he could do the writing in the upcoming week, and that we could go over that a couple of times in the summer. What happened instead was that I’d send an email with about three or four hours’ worth of writing to do on a Monday afternoon, and he would invariably send it back to me the same day, fully done. He wanted this thing that badly. By now, I was noticing things about him that hadn’t been there before. He was learning faster. He was getting concepts more quickly. Simply put, he was getting smarter.

You can’t apply for the scholarships as a Senior, so his Junior year was his last chance. Once again, he worked incredibly hard. Once again, he applied. Once again, he came back with tears in his eyes. But this time, they were tears of happiness. He won.

He spent a full year in Japan, came back, and graduated from high school. Last fall he got accepted to the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Next week, he’ll be entering his sophomore year. That’s why I teach.

I teach because of a nervously trembling Alternative Learning Center student who stands up in front of the District 287 board and talks about how she is emailing her new friends in China, because Paul Bennett and Bill Jepson—despite being told they are crazy for even attempting such a trip with “those kind of kids”—take a group of ALC students to China over spring break, and in doing so change kids’ lives forever. I teach because of the embarrassed smiles on students’ faces when John Awsumb stands at the door to North Vista at the end of every school day and enthusiastically sends each student home with unique words of praise and encouragement, because he knows the power of words, and that one word can sometimes be enough to tip a life to the good. I teach because of the tears of joy in students faces at a graduation ceremony at Ridgedale Alternative Program, tears that bear witness to the incredible power that arises when an entire staff believes that all good teaching centers on human relationships. Yes, I teach because I’m surrounded by so many great teachers.

You can call me “just a teacher”. I’m still going to teach. There are days when I fail miserably at what I do. There are days when I lose my confidence, days when I get bone tired, days when I get overwhelmed, stressed, and struggle. I am still going to teach. I’m still going to bring it every single day because in the end, one smile, one laugh, one more kid who gets through high school, one more kid who gets into college, can wipe away all that frustration in an instant. These are not our accomplishments, these students that achieve because of their determination and intelligence, but in the deepest corner of my heart, I teach because I allow myself one small indulgence, one small indulgence that lets me believe that perhaps some of those smiles would not have existed if I weren’t there, that perhaps one former student with a degree, a good job, and a happy family, might have traveled a lesser road if I had traveled a different one. And that’s enough for me. I teach because somewhere, deep down inside, I’d like to think that sometimes, just sometimes, we make a difference.

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