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The Heart of the Matter: Why I Teach

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor
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Friends and family have been asking you for weeks, "What are you going to do with your time off this summer?"

What am I going to do, you think to yourself . . . I'm going to sleep, people. I'm going to take a break from the fast-paced world of being a daily classroom teacher. I'm going to sit and listen to others talk and take a break from hearing my own voice. 

You might also be thinking . . .  I'm going to appreciate this time I have and re-fuel for the next school year. I've got some great ideas for some engaging projects and experiential, hands-on learning. So, I'm going to take a break, enjoy family and friends, and then spend some time planning out those ideas.

For our new teachers out there, particularly those who just completed their first year, there are some additional thoughts happening. Some may be really truly catching their breath for the first time since last fall, while some may even be questioning their choice to become a teacher. (If you're a new teacher and experiencing any of this, consider taking a few minutes to read Elena Aguilar's "What I Wish I'd Known as a New Teacher.")

Our Resilient Students

What we do have in common, as new and as experienced teachers, are all the ways students have touched our hearts. Teachers longer in the classroom have more stories. Newer teachers have less. But we all have them.

Here are a few students and their stories that have stayed with me, ones that helped keep me in the job as a high school teacher:

Gerardo came from a poor farming community in Mexico. His grandmother had raised him and had worked hard to pay for his schooling there. He arrived in this country at 14 years old, learned English in a year and by the time he was in eleventh grade, knew he wanted to be a doctor. Last I heard he was in medical school.

Melody was an honors student. She had a baby the summer before her junior year. She worked two jobs that school year. She was an incredible writer.

Miguel told me at the start of the year that he didn't like to read. I suggested book after book (which he would read a few pages, then reject). Just before winter break, he chose to take and read, Tuesdays with Morrie. He walked into class that Monday following break and said, "That book changed my life. I read it twice."

Diana was heavily involved in gang life and drugs from age 12 to 14. Then, when she began high school, she quit both. Her senior year she received a community service award from the city for her exemplary community service.

Jessica and her two small sisters and mom lived in their car. They had been without a home for nearly two years. She came to school everyday.

Many of my students' lives were filled with challenges, with pain. Yet they so often seemed to muster resilience and also humor. And when I couldn't find these things in myself, theirs would keep me going.

Teacher as Learner

Burned in my mind is a time when in my first year of teaching, I reached for my car door handle one morning and almost didn't open it. "I can't do this," I thought. "I don't know what I'm doing!" Then, I imagined my students, those who would get to school everyday even though they were faced with enormous challenges I will likely never experience. If they can do this, I can do this.

Each year teaching I grew; I got better. I accepted the truth that this work as teacher means one must fully embrace a learner identity as well. Just as we ask our students to be vulnerable, to share, to reflect, to grow, we as teachers must do the same.

A Whole Child Approach

My resiliency has also grown during the nearly 20 years I've been in this profession. That resiliency comes in part to holding steadfast to my philosophy on teaching and learning -- regardless of new (and sometimes questionable) initiatives or the ongoing political and media attacks on teachers.

That philosophy includes the following: 1) hearts and minds are connected so always tend to both; 2) all learners deserve rationale for what and why they are learning something; 3) we learn with each other and not in isolation; 4) reflection helps us grow, and is a necessary part of learning; and, 5) we need to see our own lives and interests in what we are learning.

I teach because there is an excitement and joy and suspense in the journey. I get to be forever a learner, one who must strive to keep her heart and mind wide open at all times. I teach because this journey as teacher, it requires all the best parts of my humanity.

What are the reasons you teach? Who are the students who inspire you? What led you to teaching and what has made you stay? Please share with us in the comments section below.

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Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Online Editor

Comments (16) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

To try to explain why I teach seems impossible to me for several reasons. I never set out to be a teacher. I joined an advertising agency did some internship learnt writing and computer skills over there. But after some time I did not like it and did not feel like pursuing it for a career. After I had my son and got divorced my mother told me to do Montessori course. When I did that my long distance teacher encouraged me so much that I decided this was the line for me. Also I was recommended to do online courses which I did from San Diego and Harvard Project Zero courses my instructors were really encouraging and now I do courses on coursera and san diego. All my students simply loved me and it was not because I was superb it was because I was fair and encouraged everyone. I had high expectations for all my students. I also started writing in local magazine and got popular as a writer also. I give workshops to teachers now which and feel like I am contributing to the community. In the past I used to give fifteen minutes talk on radio on how to improve teaching discussing classroom management and teaching strategies. I was an asset to my school and now teach creative writing to group of children .To support others-and thus myself as well-to be creative, intuitive, heroic inventors who record the world as it is actually happening, and thus to build a world of incautious love for the possible good we have not yet imagined: this, too, is why I teach..

Alex Byland's picture
Alex Byland
Special Educator by Day, Max's Dad by Night!

Rebecca, this is a really great subject for summer reflection. The end of the school year feels like a whirlwind so it's nice that we, as educators, can take a step back and revisit our primary motivation for becoming teachers. For me, I wanted to inspire students with a variety of challenges to find learning fun. I always remember how my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Yurko, would make learning so exciting. He introduced fractions by taking us out on the basketball court to shoot free throws. Building relationships with your students and empowering them to continually meet and rise above their own expectations of themselves is what sets aside the truly great educators.

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ECtchr's picture

As someone who's leaving a 19-year career in marketing next month to start teaching, I can't thank you enough for this article. As my first day with students draws nearer, I alternate between being excited and terrified (mostly the latter). Reading experiences such as this and the comments others have posted lets me know I'm on the right path.

Rozalia Dimkova's picture
Rozalia Dimkova
"Creativity is more importante than knowelege"

After 30 years teaching I grew, I enjoy teaching and when some of my students discover he is capable to do end learn somethihg I am happy and satisfied. And the next day he invite me to be a friend on Facebook. I know he trust me and he will improuve his learning skills.

ECtchr's picture

Thank you for the kind words and for the link to the toolkit. There are some wonderful resources in there!

AlyssaB's picture

I teach because of kiddos like Gabrielle. On the first day of school for her second grade year, Gabrielle walked into class with the same smile she gave me on the first day of her kindergarten year. Although her smile remained the same I knew that this year of teaching was going to be much different. The previous year Gabrielle had testing done which revealed many things about the way she learned, but specifically pointed to dyslexia, dysgraphia and dyscalculia. Gabrielle confronted her learning differences head on and did it all with a heart unlike any child I have ever met. She is the kind of human you hope to have in your life. She notices everything and while she is struggling to decode a simple sentence, she overhears a friend sigh in frustration. Gabrielle paused her own work, got up from the table, placed a gentle hand on her friend's shoulder and said, "You're almost there. I know you can do this. Don't give up yet. I'm here to help you if you need me." These kinds of words were an every day occurrences as Gabrielle lifted up everyone in our classroom community.
Alyssa Barr
UCDS, Seattle
www.ucds.org
http://www.ucds.org/spark/index.html

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Mabel Bertomen's picture

It really inspires me reading successful stories of individuals who strived hard going to school and worked hard to become successful. Stories like these, motivates me more. I am on my second year in college taking up teaching course. And this article,helped me realize that I am on the right path.

Patrick S. Morata's picture

I agree to you Mabel Bertomen, whenever I read that kind of stories, it inspire me to do this things in order to teach students,someday. I believed that teaching is not just a degree to be take up but teaching is a Profession. A profession to strive for, a profession that needs work. I really want to become a teacher, someday. I am hoping that I can surpass these struggles in my studies.
Teaching is not just teaching, but teaching is a passion. It is important that the teacher has a passion in teaching. Because, for instance the teacher doesn't have that heart in teaching, then he or she will not have a good performance in teaching. I like reading stories that are inspiring stories, like a teacher who is really loyal in his or her duty and others.
I am hoping that I will be that kind of person, someday. A teacher who is understanding, an Instructor to his or her students, a parent-surrogate to his learners and a model to young man, who are also working hard for their future life. That's all.

That's All.

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