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.
"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.