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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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Comments (147)

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Nathan Rozek (not verified)

Changing Peoples lives

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There are many reason why i teach. One is so I can change kids ideas and lives forever. Sometimes their is a kid who seems to of given up all hope and decide he could just go to class with out learning a thing, what good is that going to do. I want to make them kind of people interested in what we are learning and make them active. So not only will they be learning, they will have fun while doing it. We can leave a big impact with the kids we are with for the small time we get out of the day so that is why i try my hardest, and teach the way that i would wanted to be taught so that these kids can do the best thing that they want to in the future.

Laura (not verified)

Why I Teach

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I teach because I love seeing children’s faces after they realized they just read an entire book out loud to me. Granted it’s below grade level, but they are still reading. Teaching young children to read inspires me everyday. To see a student that hates reading time in the beginning of the year because they are struggling and then loves it by the end gives me a sense of happiness. Knowing I am the one who taught them. This is what keeps me going.

Lisa Smith (not verified)

Why I Teach

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I have wanted to be a teacher since I was very young. I began my teaching career teaching the local kids in my neighborhood how to read in a dirty old tool shed. I was 8 years old.

I became a teacher to impact students. I didn't have many teachers in my life that were very good. I had a teacher tell me in 4th grade in front of the whole class, "you are stupid and will never amount to anything"...Wow, I new I could do better. I have been teaching 9 years. I teach elementary technology and media studies. I love teaching. I love my students. I can't imagine working in any other profession...it is my life.

What we instill in the children we teach might make a difference in their life..help them choose a good path, even if life has given them many unfortunate obstacles. You never know which child you are having the greatest impact on. I have had students come up to me and let me know how much I meant to them. Invariably these are students I never knew I was reaching.

Lisa Smith
Media Director
Cody, Wyoming

Jaime (not verified)

Make a Difference

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I teach because I want to make a difference in children's lives. I feel that I am playing a small part in making the world a better place for my children to grow up in. Teaching is not a easy job, it takes work, work at home, when your on vacation, when you should be sleeping. If your not dedicated you should fine another job, where you don't impact children's future and their concept of education.

Susan (not verified)

Teaching

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Please get out of teaching. You can take your self-professed lazy self, suffer through two years of business school and end up making a whole lot more money so you can take longer, exciting vacations. Your attitude, lack of passion and general disdain for your students, colleagues and the hard art of teaching is damaging to those who have to be around it or read about it in places like this. Be bold, be strong and get out of this business that is too important for your lazy self. Go corporate, you'll fit right in.

Margie Herberger (not verified)

Why I Teach

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I love the following line from Elena Aguilar's blog: "I teach because, for me, it's the most effective and most enjoyable way to change the world. " I totally agree. In the classroom, we have so much power to influence our students, even though on our most discouraging days we sigh, "How can we make an impact when we see them for only 45 minutes a day?" Make no mistake, if we do our jobs, students are listening.

As a retired teacher of grades 5-12 Language Arts, I have been blessed to hear from my former students and their parents, describing their current love of reading or writing, attributed to our class experiences. For 36 years, my passion was to make sure that students understood how important literacy skills are to our personal and professional lives. That's why I taught, to hear students excitedly discussing books, catching fire with their writing pieces.

And that's why I continue to teach into retirement, only this time, in Adult Basic Education, for I've discovered another audience, even more receptive and hungry for someone to excite them as they learn to communicate more skillfully, opening doors to better jobs and better lives.

What can be a more important life work than teaching people to connect with language? I can't think of anything I'd rather have done.

Margie Herberger
retired English teacher from Buffalo, NY
currently teaching at Dona Ana Community College, Las Cruces, NM

Annie (not verified)

Why I Teach

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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 !!!!

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