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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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Maria Villarreal (not verified)

Why I Teach...

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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.

Maria Villarreal (not verified)

Why I Teach...

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I teach because I want to make a difference in the lives of children...I want to make a "positive" difference in the future generation. I want my studens to know that someone trully cares for them.
I want to inspire my students through various ways. I want them to listen to my personal stories about how I made it through college. Tell them that I'm the youngest of five, a single mother, and with hard work and determination everyone (including them) has the opportunity to reach their dreams just like I did.

Another reason I teach is because of the intrinsic rewards that come with this profession. Things like little notes that say "The Best Teacher" and a little present like a pencil, but not just any pencil...their very own special pencil, make a huge impact in my life as a teacher and as a human being.

Jinnie (not verified)

Kendall, I completely

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Kendall,
I completely agree with you! I live for those "light bulb turning on" moments! I also think that our students really do think the world of us. We had a very tramatic event occur to a teacher at our school and the students clung to me. They needed that strong support and someone to comfort them as they cried. I was honored to be that person for them and to be able to help and comfort them.

Lindsey Boop (not verified)

Why I teach

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I teach because it's so rewarding seeing my students succeed. I enjoy finding new ways to reach all of my students. It is a constant learning process. I love to see the spark in my kids eyes when they understand the material that I'm presenting to them! Being around my students has helped me discover what my purpose in life is. I also love being a positive role model in their lives. So many kids seem to be raised from older siblings or come from rough homes. I let each of my kids know what they are capable of doing in life. Even though I work with second grade, you wouldn't believe how passionate they are about doing well academically and behaviorally. I try not to dwell on the hurdles we face on a daily basis. I see the smiles on my students faces and know that my job is to help them. They serve as such a compliment to my life!

Kirby (not verified)

Hi there Carol. I

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Hi there Carol. I especially liked your blog because it was very similar to the one that I posted. I was also encouraged by my family to do what I love, and I did just that! I love being a teacher, and especially witnessing all the "aha moments" that you mentioned. It's so rewarding to watch every student's success shine through. Keep your love for teaching alive!

Kirby (not verified)

I teach because...

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I teach because I want to make learning fun again. I want to share the excitement for learning that I still have burning inside. I teach because I love the look of success on each child's face when they have experienced their self-worth. I teach because I believe that a strong academic foundation is the core to lifelong learning. I teach because I care about each student's success. I teach because my career is rewarding, and fulfilling each day. I teach because it is my gift to share with others. I teach because I love it, and am thankful that I chose the right career path that brings me ultimate happiness.

Shana O'Connell (not verified)

Why I teach...

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I teach because I love learning and working with children. I am truly passionate about learning and experiencing new things. I didn't realize I truly loved learning until college. Elementary content came easy to me as a student and high school wasn't really a challenge. I went through the daily routines and assignments with ease. College was where I developed that genuine love of learning. I went in declared as an Elementary Education major due to the fact that I knew that was where I wanted to be. My best and fondest memories both inside and outside of the classroom was when I was with children. I love waking up every morning and seeing my students in line at school ready for the day to start. Everyday brings something new and exciting. You never know what’s going to happen. There are so many different personalities and emotions when working with children. Some days may be fantastic and some may be horrible. I get a new chance everyday to have students “get it”, make a connection, or try something they’ve never done before. I am the one that assists children in accomplishing something difficult or succeeding when they didn’t believe in themselves, because I believed in them. Teaching is a life. For me, it’s THE life.
I keep teaching because I want the chance to make a difference in children’s lives. Wherever they come from, whatever their home life may be, when the students are with me, I get to be the positive role model, their teacher, a care-giver, a confidant, and a support system in their life. I ask you. In what other profession do employees have those types of opportunities? Not many. That’s why I keep teaching.

Ann-Margaret Pedro-Lewis (not verified)

Why Do I Teach?

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Why do I teach? It is the only profession that allows me to be me! Many educators knew from a very young age that they wanted to become teachers. I never visualized myself standing in front of students on a daily basis. I worked in accounting for approximately fifteen to eighteen years of my adult life. The money was good. Life was good.

My family and I relocated to Pennsylvania. I became a stay-at-home mom. In the year 2001, my mother passed away. She was a secretary in my elementary school. Yes, mom was there from 1968 – 2001. I never understood why she would go back day after day.Once all of my children were attending school, I became a parent volunteer. One day turned into five days a week. I was hooked. A teacher suggested that I should become an educator. I said to myself, how hard could that be!

This is now my fourth year teaching and I love it. The kids are amazing. I enjoy the fact that they accept me for who I am. As a parent, I know what I would want from my children’s teachers. I make sure that I give all that I have to my students every day. No I can truly say that life is good!

Yolanda (not verified)

Why I teach

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I love reading your story and the reasons why you teach. This year is my second year teaching. I actually changed careers to become a teacher and I'm enjoying every moment of it. It is so rewarding to see my Title I students grow in knowledge. One of the things I have been doing lately in my classroom is trying to inspire my students. Some don't have any role models in their lives. For that reason I want my students to know that they are important, they are smart, they deserve the best, and that they will need to work hard to achieve things in life. They know that at school I want them to work hard in order to earn a good grade and privileges. Setting high expectations for my student’s is important and it works... It is so rewarding when they make the high grade or even a passing grade. Sometimes they don't believe it but I tell them that I do because I believe in them.
Yolanda

Markeeta Gillenwater (not verified)

Why I teach

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I never wanted to teach. I was against the idea of teaching very early in life. My mom was a teacher and she worked long hours with no respect. I was not going to do that. Sure I wanted to work with children, sure I enjoyed planning activities, but I refused to put up with all that. Until I started college that is when I decided I should get my undergraduate degree in education, then go on and get a doctorate in physical therapy. That would ensure I could work with kids. I continued with my plan all the way until the end of my first semester in PT school and I was miserable. I longed for my student teaching days. I decided what I needed was a break, so I took some time off. During my time off of school I worked as a summer camp counselor. It was then that I realized what I was meant to do. I had a gift and I was wasting it. I completely withdrew from school and started applying for jobs. Now I am in my second year teaching, working on a master in education. The thing that keeps me going is remembering how much I disliked doing anything else. I never felt as if I fit in any other place. I know that I am where I am supposed to be, doing what I was meant to do.

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