On Becoming a Teacher
“Honestly, I didn’t become a teacher because of the stigma attached to teachers. Now, I wish I had” – L, a friend in Seattle
Over the last few weeks, I’ve encountered an incredible number of people who have confided in my that they secretly wished they could become a teacher. That they love working with kids. That they want to make a difference. That they thought about it, but… something got in the way. It didn’t happen then, but they’re trying to find ways to make it happen now. Some are realizing it all at once and are enrolling in Masters programs to find their way into a classroom – retired engineers learning to teach physics, or philosophy grad students who realize they want to teach English. Some have become entrenched in a career and ask my advice on how they can get involved with an after-school or summer programs. All of them are incredibly passionate. All of them are young – in their 20’s, just like me. All of them, with the right training, would make amazing teachers. With the right guidance, they would be a powerful force in the classroom.
There is a sadness to all of our conversations – tones of regret and nostalgia. Of missed opportunities and uncertainty. Our conversations are deeply personal – or, at least, to me they are. They inspired me to share something I wrote almost a year and a half ago, just as I was about to start my student teaching. I originally wrote it to let off some steam and thought about submitting it to an editorial page somewhere, which is why the tone is the way it is. Now that this blog has become a place for me to pour my unfiltered mind and soul out into the world, I suppose I’ll publish it here. Re-reading it now, some of it still rings true. Anyway – all of this is to say: what follows is personal and opinionated and written just as I was starting my career and I hope you’ll share it with your friends.
Here it is – one of my biggest secrets that is sometimes hard to admit: I am passionate about being a teacher. It is the only thing I want to do in the world: I live for the highs and lows of the classroom – the rush and excitement during a successful lesson and the unparalleled sense of fulfillment that follows. I can’t wait to be in a classroom with my own students and show them what they’re capable of. I get excited when my friends tell me they’re considering a career in education – I want to tell them how wonderful the experience is and how I hope they enjoy it as much as I do. I wish everyone could experience what I feel in front of a classroom.
But most of the time, I keep these feelings a secret. Usually I feel like I live in a society where this devotion is unfamiliar and foreign. Few people know what to do with someone who is passionate about the most underpaid, undervalued, least respected profession with the most stress and least amount of tangible reward. And this is depressing.
There is a conflict between my passion to be a teacher and society’s expectations and stereotypes of a teacher. If I tell people I want to teach high school, the typical response is “Why?” with a look of surprise and disbelief. More than that, most people expect my response to be an impersonal justification – “I get summers off”, “I was always good at Math”, “I can’t find a job anywhere else” –as if I’m blaming my career choice on something external. To tell an unsuspecting person that you’re passionate about teaching because you like the challenges of working in a high school and motivating a classroom full of kids is a sure-fire way to end a conversation. Very few people know what to do with someone who actively pursues a career in teaching – sometimes I feel like a mystery to the rest of the world.
Because of this, I used to avoid telling people I wanted to teach. Some try to convince me it’s a waste of my time and talent – why not go into a profession where you’ll be paid a decent wage and work on something meaningful? It’s hard for me to hear someone say the defining aspect of my personal identity is a waste of time and talent. Or they ask “Teach? Why would you ever want to do that?” with just the right inflection so it’s clear that whatever answer I give doesn’t matter – you’re not genuinely interested anyway. I guess that means all the satisfaction and excitement I get from my classroom experiences don’t matter either. I guess there aren’t any right answers.
These are all thoughts that have been floating around in my head for a while. It took a long time for me to realize just how fundamental the conflict is between my passion for teaching and society’s reaction to it. I’ve been lucky enough to meet some other teachers who are just as passionate as I am – who, when I tell them I want to be a teacher, react with a knowing smile and excitement in their eyes. I’m glad I persevered long enough that someone couldn’t convince me that my passion was a waste of my time. Up until recently I was okay having these thoughts live in my head – but then I had an experience that changed my mind.
I recently visited a local high school where I was doing some classroom observations. I met a very nice person who would be my supervising teacher and I observed a few classes. On my last day of observation, I had lunch with most of the math faculty. I hadn’t met everyone, so I introduced myself as the potential student observer for the next semester. One gentleman responded “So you wanna teach? Why would you ever want to do that?” – with just the right inflection that my answer didn’t matter. Another person: “You should find another profession – take your math degree and get a job somewhere. Any job pays better than a teacher’s salary”. They said it half-jokingly, but the fifteen minute conversation that followed wasn’t funny. An entire mathematics faculty believing my desire to teach, their current profession, is a waste; that there’s something wrong with me for actively wanting to be a teacher. I was in a room full of teachers where my passion was unfamiliar and foreign. I once again wanted to bury the fact that I wanted to be a teacher – to mask my passion. I was the young, naïve outsider in this group of hardened veterans, and my drive and idealism was the laughable quality of a rookie teacher.
The unfortunate fact is that there are societal stereotypes of those entering the teaching profession that are directly at odds with the drive and personality of those who earnestly want to become teachers. The stereotypical teacher is not young and enthusiastic and ready to work hard for every student. My inner drive and desire to teach is constantly battling against a system where my passion for the profession casts me outside the societal expectations – I become a social pariah, that crazy kid who actually wants to teach. I was used to this from my peers who’ve never been in a classroom – I wasn’t expecting it from a room full of fellow teachers.
Sitting in that room, I began to wonder: why should I spend my life entrenched in a system where my passion and idealism makes me an outsider? How long until I conform to this culture of teaching and lose my passion for teaching? Or how long until I leave teaching altogether and find another profession to become passionate about? How long until I’m convincing another young, enthusiastic teacher to get out before it’s too late. This is the culture we live in – one that drives passionate teachers away from the profession, leaving an entire faculty that conforms to the societal stereotypes of someone who just ‘fell into teaching’. A group that has lost all the joy of teaching.
I’m writing this partly as a plea to you, the reader, to consider your own attitudes towards the teaching profession. To reconsider how you react when someone says to you “I want to be a teacher”. To really think about what it means when you say “Really? You want to teach?”. I hope you realize that to some, teaching is a joy and a passion – and that these are the types of people you want teaching your children. These are the people who will improve the education system in the United States one classroom at a time. While you may not be able to change our wages or the class sizes or the classroom conditions, you can change how you embrace aspiring teachers and your own attitudes towards the profession. You can be the person that makes the passionate teacher feel like they’re not an outcast for loving a profession that most people disregard.
I say this because I fear for the number of people who dream of being in front of a classroom but are turned away by the current cultural expectations and societal stigmas; who move on to find something else they’re passionate about because that drive – that desire, that enthusiasm, that motivation, that love of the job – is something that is not encouraged or appreciated. I want those people in our classrooms and as my peers – teachers who are motivated to make their lessons better every year, who love being in the classroom, who have a sparkle in their eye when they talk about the promise of new students and a new year. Teachers who smile even when the classroom is empty and especially when it isn’t. This is the culture I want to find when I walk into the faculty lunch room of a high school – these are the teachers I want to work with when I graduate.
But this isn’t what I found. I wonder how many of these teachers started out like me and how long it took them to cave under the pressures of other unenthusiastic teachers and a culture that doesn’t know how to encourage a passion for teaching. And I hope it doesn’t happen to me.