Why Do You Teach?: What Sustains Us in Our Work | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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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Maria Villarreal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I want to make a differnce in the lifes of children. I want to make a "positive" difference in the future generation. I want to be able to inspire as many kids as possilbe. One way to do this is to let them know that they are respected as human beings and by letting them know that I'm human just like they are. I also would like to inspire them by telling them my personal stories about how as the youngest of five I was the only one to graduate from college. With hard work and determination everything is possible and everyone can do it, just like I did.
Another reason I teach is because of the intrinsic rewards that come with this profession. The little things are the ones that count the most! The little notes with "The Best Teacher" or a pencil (as a special gift to the teacher)...but not just any pencil... the student's best pencil... just to name a few of these rewards.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your posting. I enjoy hearing successful stories about my former students. Yet,I can't help but think about those students who "didn't make it." I know of some who are teenage moms. I wonder if I could have said or done something that might have made a difference?

I've taught for ten years and have been away from the profession for the past five years to raise my young children. Currently, I am working on my graduate degree and I can't wait to get back into the classroom! I can't to see those precious faces each day. I can't wait to make an impact on the children who will be entrusted to me. I can't wait to tell them "great job or good try." I can't wait to tell them how special they are and they are capable of doing anything. I can't wait when a child says "I knew I could do it!" Last, I can't wait because it is the most rewarding job!

Sterling Gray's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love this discussion of why teachers continue to teach in schools today. As a music teacher, I continue to teach because of the lack of exposure our children are getting in terms of quality music education today. I work in an urban school where music has been absent from the curriculum for several years. Most children from these schools lack proper musical skills from other kids in different schools across the country.

I feel it is my duty as a musician to give these children a quality music education that will enhance their learning in other academic subjects.

Michael Parker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think there are many "right" answers as to why individuals teach. For some, they feel the need to give back, while others may have been impacted by a teacher in their educational journey and want to do the same for students now.

For me, I decided to teach for multiple reasons, but the main reason is the fact that I love impacting young peoples' lives. Growing up, the people who impacted my life were the ones who spent time with me. I try my best to be involved in the community, churches, etc. so that I spend more time with the young people of today. I coach two sports at my high school. I coach for two reasons, one, I am very competitive, and two, it allows me even more time to have an impact on students. Young people will pay you no attention unless you pay attention to them as an individual.

I teach to impact lives.

Ginger Holloway's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have tried several different careers, but none have impacted me like teaching has. For me, teaching is a chance to touch the future. I can impact students and they certainly impact me. I have learned as much from them as I'm sure I have taught. Regardless of the stress or difficulty of a day, I wake up every morning and walk into every class again hopeful that I can reach these kids. It is a different adventure every day! And I get to be part of over 130 lives daily. That's cool! I agree with your comments regarding middle school. I teach 8th grade and I wouldn't trade for anything. These kids wants guidance, they want to impress you, they want to work hard. Some of them struggle, but they are motivated, and if I can reach through the walls, I can help them pull themselves up to where they want to be.

Tracy Schluntz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach because, like many including the author, I feel a driving need to feel as if I am doing something to change the world. I teach middle school theatre, journalism and speech & debate. But what I really teach is self confidence. When one of my students performs a speech or a scene that he or she has worked on for weeks and hears that applause, their smile and pride lets me know that I am doing my job.

I love my job because it allows me to become a conduit of success for students who may not "fit" in their traditional classes. In my room it's ok to be silly, to play, or to try on someone else's personality for a while. My special ed or learning disabled students find success in my class because I am able to tailor my curriculum to their strengths, instead of focusing on their weaknesses.

I do this while teaching at the middle school I went to when I was a child. It feels wonderful being back and providing the support for the students that I found when I was a student here.

Robyn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am the fourth generation of educators in my family, which also includes aunts, uncles, and cousins. Teaching is basically all I know. I decided early on that I did not want to teach, however, as I began college, I was ultimately drawn back in. My decision came when my grandmother, who was a teacher for forty-two years, passed away. At her funeral, my family and I stood in a receiving line for over four hours, speaking to mostly former students telling us stories about what an impact my grandmother had on their lives. Seeing the difference she made in her small world drove me to persue an career in education, as well. I knew that I wanted to impact others in some way, and what better way than to shape and mold the minds of children? Like many others, I desire to be a positive role model and to instill values and a love for learning in my students.

Jennifer Conrad's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I work in a low income area in Cleveland, Ohio. I teach students in grades K-3 with emotional disabilities. The reason I teach is to make a difference in the lives of my students. I believe that God gave me a gift and that gift is to teach. I go to work every day to make an impression (small or large)on the students in my class. At the end of the year, it always amazes me how much my students have grown. That is why I stay in the field of teaching.

Jessica's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many people have asked me this question and my answer has always been "because a teacher inspired me". Now, that I have been teaching, I see more reasons why I continue to teach and why I need to. Reading this post reminded me so much of the school I work in now in New York. Some of the students are in gangs, pregnant, and have poor self-esteem. I keep a positive atmosphere in my room and I encourage students to try their best. I know many of my students have many responsibilities at home and are not able to spend as much time studying as they should. I try to give the students a lot of time in the classroom to study and show them different ways to study.

Michelle Rodriguez's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

First and for most, I am excited to have found this blog because it presents a very important question: why do you teach? I have been asked that question numerous times and my response has always been the same: because I believe every child has what it takes to succeed and I want to be the one to push them into succession. Then I have been asked another question: "Michelle, why do you teach in the south bronx?"

The reason why I teach in the south bronx is because that is where I grew up. Living in the Bronx is what made me want to become a teacher. I remember seeing a lot of my friends in middle school and high school drop out and start their families at a young age. If only they had someone to push them, I thought to myself. Then, all of a sudden, I felt like I had a mission. I began to care for these people who were so intelligent but didn't have the will power to continue on with their academic career. The highlight of it all was when I convinced my mother to get her GED. My mother was a high school drop out. She left school when she was in the ninth grade. She didn't leave school because she felt inadequate. She left because there was no one in her life to push her. My mother had the "smarts" and she just needed to be pushed. So, lo and behold, I pushed her and she completed her GED and now has a decent job.

So that is my passion for teaching in the South Bronx. I currently teach fourth grade and as stressful as it is, I love it. I love seeing my students light up when I tell them that they are smart and they have what it takes to have a house in the future, with a good job, and support their family. These are the things that they long for their own families to have and they are inspired to make it!

I can easily teach in a suburban area but I choose to teach where I felt the need to educate. The 2 hour commute does not bother me at all because I know I have 28 4th graders who need me.

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