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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Teacher Appreciation: Why We Teach

Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute

All good teaching originates from the motive of generosity. To help others understand history, literature, mathematics or science is the ground upon which all learning stands. Fundamentally, education is the transmission of wisdom from one scholar to another.

The Leader Who Serves

Indeed, this is what great teachers do every day. They open their classrooms and provide guidance, knowledge, expertise and enthusiasm. Such lifelong service requires great fortitude. Many in the general public believe that teachers have an easy career that finishes every weekday at 3 PM, freeing them from responsibility for the remainder of the day. But for those who teach, the unstinting physicality of standing and circulating all day in the classroom, the ongoing preparation of lessons, and the relentless redesign and sequencing of instruction are exhausting. With the immeasurable number of emotional interactions between ourselves and our students, our benevolence is bound to flag. Fortunately, this is normal and cured with some self-care.

Years ago, a dear friend and Latin teacher was walking past my classroom as I was ushering my students in before the bell.

"Servus Suvorum Dei," he said.

"What, Mike?"

"The servant of the servants of God," he translated. This was his definition of why we teach: to become the leader who serves.

I reflected on that medieval vow as I saw the faces before me -- trusting or skeptical, smiling or nervous. They really did motivate me to serve them. It was an unflinching commitment.


Similarly, in her book What Keeps Teachers Going, Sonia Nieto states that a successful teacher is one who places a high value on students' culture, race, language, gender, experiences, families and sense of self. These teachers sustain high expectations of all students, especially for those whom others may have given up on. They stay committed in spite of predictable obstacles and create a safe classroom haven for their students. By being resilient, by challenging the status quo of educational bureaucracy, and by viewing themselves as life-long learners, they come to care about, respect and love their students. To understand your own motivation to teach, you explore your own history of learning. Nieto says it is the "experiences, identities, values, beliefs, attitudes, hangups, biases, wishes, dreams and hopes" that make teachers successful. She has her teachers write about those experiences that influenced them to become teachers. It is only by mining their own influences they can begin to understand what motivated them to become a teacher in the first place. So teaching becomes a career-long process of uncovering both your own and others' stories.

Consider Malcolm Gladwell's examination of what makes successful teachers. He identifies one quality as the most significant: "withitness" or regard for student perspective. This means that in the classroom, there is a high-quality feedback loop between teacher and student. Teachers communicate both verbally and nonverbally to their students in a back-and-forth exchange to get a deeper understanding.

Of course, optimism also helps. If every year, you received the same students you left off with the year before, teaching would be much easier. But new students, new sections and new school years require a new approach. What startles one class into discussion may leave the next group cold.

Ambition and Passion

Ironically, not all of us set out to be teachers. Many of us to come to teaching from other paths. One middle school teacher who struggled with math and self-confidence was told by her fourth grade teacher that she would never amount to anything. Then in fifth grade, she met Mr. Murphy, who told her she would be getting A's in math from that point forward. In fact, she became a math teacher and did her student teaching alongside her mentor. Now she works in a large urban area with kids who also seem to get A's in math.

Still, others of us were teaching our stuffed bears and younger siblings in our bedrooms when we were ten years old, and knew we were born to teach. But it was the influence of a great teacher who sparked our ambition into a passion. One ESL teacher says, "Although I started school barely speaking English, my teachers loved me. So I loved them back. Because of their influence, I am now one of their colleagues in the same school. They support me now just as much as they did when I was their student."

Likewise, teaching becomes the embodiment of our vocation. "I teach because I love to learn," says a special education teacher. "I am doing what I want to do. I am becoming the very teacher I always wanted to be."

In brief, this is why we teach: to improve the transmission of learning, to honor the scholarship we have so dearly won, and to inspire our students' compassion and ideas. In these challenging times for teaching and learning, we must persist to persevere.

Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute

Comments (14)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Jasmine Hall's picture

I never really thought about it but I was always meant to be a teacher. I am currently a preservice teacher at Prairie View A&M University. Looking back, I was the child who played the teacher while my siblings and toys were the students. I am extremely excited and anxious to get my own class and start teaching. one thing I am concerned about is making them feel comfortable. What advice could you give me to make sure they are as comfortable as possible at the beginning of the year?

Margaret Regan's picture
Margaret Regan
Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute

Providing a "comfortable classroom" means being fully prepared for that first day next year. All good teaching originates from the motive of generosity. This impulse of the teacher to help others understand or learn is the ground upon which all teaching succeeds. This foundation must be solid so that when you encounter that first class of children sitting before you, nervous and waiting for your instructions, you too will be prepared. This jumble of desks and faces, books, attendance sheets, emergency cards, forms for free lunch and health insurance and a homeroom period that lasts forever becomes your challenge. You must make do.

Whatever limitations you face in number of textbooks, classroom space, no syllabus to follow, insufficient number of desks, you are the teacher chosen to work with these students for this year. You are the composer and conductor of their school year. So much knowledge is packed in your mind; but, now you must learn to put it in a logical form for your students. You must make history, biology, research-paper writing, telling time, or multiplication understandable to your students.

The Motivation to Teach
Remember why you chose to teach in the first place. Who influenced you to enter the classroom and what made you accept that challenge?
The faces of those before you - trusting or skeptical, smiling or listless - will motivate you to teach. These students are not the blank slates that someone told you about in Methods 101. Nor are they the keen minds teeming with curiosity for whom you designed that unit on poetry. They are your students, lent to you for 182 days, to explore a new path of knowledge. If you are prepared, your immediate response will be to spring into action giving firm directions about your course of study, your expectations, your guides for success in class. Simultaneously, you will learn about your students' identities, contextualizing knowledge for them, asking provocative questions for them to answer. The greatest moment of opportunity for the school year is in this first hour, this first day, this first week - for it is then that you will set the stage, quiet the fears, and with hope, open the doors to their minds.

Alexis Luetge's picture

Like many teachers, I have always had a passion to teach. I am currently a preservice teacher enrolled at Prairie View A&M University. I will be certified for EC-6 Generalist. I have a philosophy of teaching, but still not sure where I am going to stand as an educator. Sure, I have morals and values, but there is still a part missing how I will actually be in a classroom setting. I love children with all my heart and absolutely cannot wait to work with them on a daily basis. Although, I am beyond nervous to begin that very first day as a teacher, I'm still super excited to have my own classroom to manage. What's the best advice that I can take into consideration on that first day as a teacher?

Guy E. White's picture
Guy E. White
Author of "Building the World's Greatest High School." HS English near L.A.

Goodness is fundamental. Just as generosity is at the heart of teaching, goodness is at the heart of generosity. There is something humanly good within us (educators and students) that we find worth sharing. Each time I walk into my classroom, I try to remember (and say to myself) that each kid that walks in that door already walks in with a full plate -- a full dossier of worthiness. Perhaps it's my generation: respect is automatically afforded to others until they move me otherwise. Persistence in the face of difficulty is... difficult. However, persistence in service feels entirely different than persistence through drudgery. I'd rather serve. Thanks for the article!

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