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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Kendall Ford's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach because I love working with children. I live for that moment when a child has their "ahh ha" experience and all of a sudden gets it. You are not only a teacher but a parent, a role model, a nurse, a authoratative figure, and a friend. You are everything to those children and that is a great feeling. I could not imagine doing anything else.

Scott, California's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach because I know that I am making a difference everyday. I build up the confidence of my students, praising them at every chance.

I teach because my students need a positive role model in their life. I teach in a low socioeconomic area where 90 percent of our school's students receive free lunch.

I teach because when they leave the third grade, they need to be ready for the future. I want to be the one that makes them want to learn their multiplication facts and read for fun!

I teach because it is my calling.

Kendra Cumberland's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach because I can't imagine doing anything else. I teach because I love learning and I learn more about every topic by teaching it than I could ever learn by taking advanced courses. I teach because I hope that I can inspire my students to crave learning the way that I do. I need learning like I need food and water. School is where that learning happens for me - whether it is relearning things I learned in elementary and middle school, or learning how not to teach variables to fourth graders, or learning for the first time how my students with special needs finally get to "aha". Learning keeps me going and it keeps me coming back. I did a field placement in college with a teacher who told me she loved and kept her job because she never had to learn anything new or do anything different. I hope that if I ever get to that point someone will have the good sense and the courage to look me in the eye and tell me it is time to hang up my whiteboard marker and find a new job. I can't imagine what school would be like if I weren't constantly learning!

Zoe Weil, President, Institute for Humane Education's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love this question! I became an educator to change the world, too, and what I do now is train people to be humane educators - teachers who provide the knowledge, tools, and inspiration for their students to be "solutionaries" who will build a peaceful, sustainable, and humane world while leading successful, meaningful lives.

Another question that I think is really important for teachers (and administrators and policymakers) to ask is this: what is education for? I believe that the purpose of education ought to be providing students with relevant information and the tools for creative and critical thinking to become citizens who make this world better. If this became our societal goal, our educational system would change and our curricula would be infused with relevancy, importance, and greater value. Instead of simply becoming computationally and verbally literate, we would see reading, writing, math, science, history, etc. as tools for the greater purpose of leading lives that are personally enriched and which contribute to solving pressing challenges.

We offer a distance learning M.Ed. and certificate program in humane education to achieve this goal, and the teachers who enroll want to bring these issues to their students because they, too, want to change the world through education.

Zoe Weil

kim hubber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

i teach for the light bulb moments. I also work with special needs children and love the challenge of diversifying curriculum. No two children ever learn the same way. It is very satifying when you finally make a child understand a concept they struggle with.

Kimberly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach because I truly care about our children's future and making a difference in their lives.

Many of my student's come to my classroom with various thoughts on their mind, the last thought about school and how well they will do. They worry about where there next meal will come from, if that drug dealer in their trailer park will bully them until they give in and try their wares, if that girl will go out with me, if dad will be drunk when I get home, etc. What I try to bring into their lives is 100 minutes a day of peace and safety where they can learn something that may make these worries they have every day fade. So, that they can grow and learn and hopefully get away from the hard elements of their lives and onto goals they really want to accopmplish.

I try to lift my students up and let them know they can accomplish anything they set their minds to. I teach because it matters.

Kimberly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Please get out of teaching immediately, you are not only doing a great disservice to your students, you may be damaging them permanently and also making them hate school.

There is no place in education for your self-serving, spoiled attitude. To be a teacher you must care, which you obviously do not. I do not feel sorry for you in any way, shape, or form. I only worry for your students. You need to get out of education and stop whining about your low pay, and your obnoxious and unbearable students. If I had you for a teacher I would probably be obnoxious and unbearable too.

Kimberly Stark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I do respect your honesty. Even though you are not miserable, you sound as if you are definitely in the wrong profession. I, too, have days- just days- where I get fed up with the whole profession, but I know that I am there for the right reasons. I feel bad for you. You only live once and you are in a profession that you are not passionate about. If you are not happy, then your students are definitely not happy.

Maybe you don't want to work at all. I don't know. But, the children are suffering if you are not giving it your all and you are not passionate enough about them.

Also, why do you feel you do not get paid enough? Do you have your master's in education? Have you taken classes beyond this as well? I used to think the grass was always greener on the other side- my friends, family making the big dollars with as little of a degree as an associates. My sister, for example, is an RN with an associates degree and makes over 100 thousand being a director of nursing at a nursing home. I, on the other hand, make 71,000 and have a bachelor's and masters. But, I also don't teach for the entire year and certainly enjoy the holiday time off. I don't think I am underpaid. I think I do awesome. With the economic crisis our government is in, I am grateful for my job even more. Please try and find some good things about what you do- other than the time off and benefits. Get to know your students. They are people and have so much to share. Find humor in the classroom and laugh with them. Try to do something to help yourself. Since it sounds like you are not going to leave the profession, try and do the best you can while you are there.

Kimberly Stark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am working on my second master's in education currently and have recently been asked this question in the class I am taking. I have to say that I was taken back by this question, because I am one of those teachers who has not thought about this in a long time. I know that I did not go into teaching initially for the right reasons. I was 17 when I graduated from high school and knew that going to college was the only option. After this option, I knew I had to chose a major. I had an older sister who was majoring in education, so I chose education. I got my degree and began teaching right out of college. I always put forth my best effort and always cared about the students. I can now share why I teach. I teach because I care about the well-being of students. I want to help students become successful adults. I don't just teach the curriculum, I teach life lessons. I want my students to have compassion for one another. I want my students to be well-spoken. I want them to learn hard work pays off. I want to set them up for success. I want them to know that they have someone they can count on and they have someone they can trust. I want them to appreciate what they have and make the most of everyday. I want to them value the world and the people around them.

I teach in the Columbus, Ohio area- a suburb. I currently teach math to 7th graders who struggle, math to 8th graders who struggle, and one period of 7th grade language arts.

Nancy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach because I want to help my learning support students find the keys that they need in order to learn and to become self sufficient adults. By the time students reach high school so many of the learning support students have given up on thinking they can learn new material. They view themselves as failures and don't have much hope in their hearts for academic success. I love to find the ways they learn and help them experience success which goes a long way toward reviving that sense of hope and improving their self esteem.

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