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Why Do You Teach?: What Sustains Us in Our Work

| Elena Aguilar
Image credit: iStock

(Updated: 11/2013)

In my previous post, I discussed how important it is for me to connect with my students, and how one way I do so is by eliciting their stories.

I also need to make connections with other teachers. So I ask, why do you teach? Most teachers get a dreamy look on their faces when I ask them this question. Most haven't thought about it in a while.

Recalling the reasons why we teach -- keeping them fresh and foremost in our minds -- is, I believe, the key to sustaining ourselves during the long and challenging school year.

I teach because, for me, it's the most effective and most enjoyable way to change the world. That's the bottom line: We need to change this world, and this is the way I'm choosing to do it. Teaching allows me to work on hearts and minds, to guide people in becoming empowered, literate, engaged, creative, liberated human beings who want to join in this effort to change the world.

I've seen it happen. I always believed that my students could transform and find themselves, in addition to becoming literate people and graduating from high school, but now I'm witnessing it. I'm seeing students I taught in elementary school and middle school graduate from high school, discover their skills and passions, and go to college. I always knew they could do it, and now they're doing it. That's why I teach.

I also teach because some didn't make it. Some of the sweet, brilliant, gentle sixth graders I taught many years ago are now on the streets, in gangs, in jail, in trouble. Their names and faces come to mind fast. I vividly remember their inquisitive faces, probing questions, musical compositions, and acting skills when they were twelve years old. I knew them as little boys. They don't look like that anymore. My heart aches. I keep teaching because we're losing too many kids in Oakland.

I work in middle schools because that's where the battle gets most intense but also where we can still reverse problems. I love middle school kids. I love where they are intellectually and emotionally. I love being able to engage them in the kind of rigorous discussions they aren't ready for until around sixth grade, and then I love getting hugs once in a while (in contrast to elementary school kids, who want hugs eight times a day, every day). You can still turn their lives around in middle school. I know; I've seen it.

I remind myself of these reasons, and all the others, quite often. Teaching kids, and adults, is hard -- really, really hard. I need to regularly remind myself why I do this. I have dozens of visual cues on my walls: quotes, photos of old students, and student artwork and writing. I list the names of those who made it, and those who didn't. I have photos of my family, because I also do this work for my son, because of my mother and grandmother, and with the endless support of my husband. I need to have all my intellectual and emotional receptors regularly tuned in to the reasons I've chosen this profession, because it's really hard, and exhausting, and never ending, and overwhelming.

So, why do you teach? Why do you teach reading, or science, or art? Why do you teach kindergarten, or ninth grade, or college? Share your stories. Share them here, share them with colleagues as the year starts, and share them with your students.

And, most of all, remind yourself why you teach.

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I don't teach. I work with schools developing professional development plans for teacher development and student achievement.
I'm writing because my daughter is completing her Elem Ed degree and is about to begin her final student teaching.She hopes to be placed with her Elementary School Principal. I have known her Principal as a parent and professionally for nearly 20 years.She is a consummate professional who has been successful increasing student learning gains for all students wherever she has worked.Her teachers respect her and and she helps them continue to improve by maintaining high expectations, and being supportive and constructive.She has had a lasting impact on my daughter (regardless of whether she is placed there)... and she probably doesn't know it.
Great teachers multiply their own value and worth.

100 reasons why we teach...

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Elena, I'm not sure if you're reading the comments, but our in house teacher blogger wrote a top list of why she teachers (8th grade).

Heres the post:  
http://blog.onlinecollegeguru.com/education/100-reasons-to-be-a-teacher/

Could you plug the post on your blog post?

1st grade teacher from New Smyrna Beach, Florida

Why I Teach

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When I saw your blog I just had to answer. I teach because I love the look on the students faces when (the light comes on)they actually get the concept that I am teaching, and they say ..OHHHH. To me there is not a more rewarding feeling.
I have also been reading about the differences between a novice and expert teacher. I think that I am beyond the novice part, but I don't know if I will ever achieve expert.If I ever get to the point where I think I know it all, I will quit teaching, because I really think that there is always something to learn.

Mediocrity rules!

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I know exactly why I teach and I think about it every day. I teach for the time off and the benefits. That's about it. Those are the only two things keeping me here.

I got into education from college because I answered myself the question, "What's the easiest way out of college...which degree?" with the answer, "Education!" and so here I am.

Every year I tell myself the BS is just too much and that I'm going to leave but I can't picture myself in corporate world and I'm too lazy to do the whole job-hunting thing all over again.

Mind you, I am not miserable. I enjoy my colleagues and my administration. The students are fine when you work with them one-on-one and in the classroom, but with their friends and outside of any classroom they are obnoxious and at times unbearable.

I am just simply not PASSIONATE about teaching. It's a disservice, I know, to my students that I am here doing the bare minimum wishing I was elsewhere. But where else will I get nine weeks off in the summer and two off for the winter?

Using me as just one of the many examples out there, you can see why not all teachers meet peoples' expectations. We don't get paid enough to care !!!!

Julianne Casion (not verified)

Why do some teachers teach?

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You ask the ever seeking question of teachers. Why do I teach? I have been reading about the differences between a novice teacher and an expert teacher, and I have thought long and hard about the differences. I think that whether we progress to an expert teacher is solely based on whether we have established why we teach. Teaching is more than a profession, it is a ministry. It is a ministry to the students to guide them toward success socially, emotionally, and academically. If a teacher does not have this burden for children, it will limit their reflection on their teaching strategies and student achievements. If they do not reflect on their teaching, they will not improve their methods. I think that a teacher, who has been teaching for many years and still sees teaching as a profession (just a job) will never achieve the expert level of teaching. I also think that a teacher who has been teaching for very little time and views teaching as a ministry may achieve the expert level of teaching very quickly in their career. Just a few thoughts to ponder. . .

Jennifer (not verified)

Bilingual Pre-Kindergarten

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After reading this posting, I thought about the real reason why I teach. It's certainly not for the money or the glamour. I teach because I remember back when I was in second grade and my teacher allowed me to have a voice in my classroom. She showed me that children have valid opinions and genuine emotions. I have come across the teachers who do not have the time to listen to their students. When I think about the times a teacher brushed me aside, it still bothers me. I did not choose teaching, it chose me as a direct result of this teacher. Currently, I am a bilingual Pre-Kindergarten teacher in a low-income area of New Jersey. My purpose is to guide them in the right directions and hopefully model positive social interactions so that they can flourish into upstanding citizens. I want to provide them with the learning experiences necessary to build problem-solving skills and give them the hope that hard-work pays off. I teach because I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I am fortunate to have a job that I love because everyday is a new learning experience…whether it be planned or spontaneous.

Megan Adkins (not verified)

Why I Want to Teach

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When I was a senior in high school I did a School-to-Work program. I was thinking about majoring in Psychology in college, but there were no jobs that would let me come observe in that field. I decided I would observe my Speech Team Coaches’ junior high Drama class. Ms. Whitaker allowed me to do so much more in the classroom than I ever imagined. Her students loved her and really seemed to be learning a lot. She started letting me teach the class and from the very first moment I stepped in front of the students I knew I was where I was meant to be. Everything felt right and I was overwhelmed with a feeling of satisfaction. It was then that I decided I would be a teacher, and I have been on that path ever since.
A great teacher possesses confidence and humility. They are confident in their teaching ability, but can also be humble enough to realize when they are wrong, or when something is not working. Teachers should have an open mind and be always willing to continue learning throughout their career.
I dream of being a teacher that makes a difference. A teacher that students will remember and look back on my class as being one in which they learned something and were able to take that knowledge and apply it later on in life. I dream of being a great teacher, like Ms. Whitaker was. I want my students to look forward to coming to my class everyday.

Ayanna Baynes (not verified)

I teach therefore I am

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I teach because I have always loved children, I initially wanted to be a neonatalogist. As a teenager I wanted to save the children of the world. Once in college I realzed two things, 1. I don't care for science and 2. I wouldn't be able to deal with losing a patient. Ironically I now work in a profession where my success rate in children saved is hit and miss. My students have so much wrong at home that it is rewarding to create a bright,colorful, fun, caring environment in which they find solace. I have an empathy for my students that often brings tears to my eyes and uncontrollable smiles to my face. I teach because I'm good at it and I feel like this is the profession I was meant to have.I teach because at heart I am a teacher.

Lisa Falk (not verified)

igniting passion in students

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Ms. Aguilar wrote "Teaching allows me to work on hearts and minds, to guide people in becoming empowered, literate, engaged, creative, liberated human beings who want to join in this effort to change the world." I teach for the same reason, but at the University level. My students are trained to lead fieldtrips in the anthropology museum where I work. I teach because the impact on the personal level for them is great--the students in my class feel empowered--they feel like they are combating racism and stereotypes in the young visitors who they guide through the museum. They tell me that our class lets them apply their knowledge--that it has real meaning for them. Their reflection papers at the end of the term are what make me want to keep teaching the class each semester.

chez (not verified)

Why Do I Teach?

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Like most of you I teach for the fullfilment of helping others. I had very postitive connections with most if not all of my teachers and I felt this would be the ideal job for me. I enjoy my work and look forward to the ups and downs of teaching. I didn't know much about "blogging" as it was required for a class I'm taking for school I recently enrolled in a on-line Masters program and I finally understand how kids feel when they are being taught to learn things that are beyond their level of understanding. As I go through this program I look back on the ways I have taught students especially the ones that were having a hard time(as I am). I wasn't always the nicest teacher or the most understanding but my new goals in life are giving me an opportunity to see things in another way. I honeslty enjoy my job. It's definatley not for the money but for the joy I see in the students eyes when they are seeking approval and get it.

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