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Teacher Appreciation: Why We Teach

Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute
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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.

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Margaret Regan

Teacher & Founder, Martha's Vineyard Master Teaching Institute

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Being a parent doesn't make you a better teacher. Being a teacher makes you a better parent.

Those savant students who know as much as you do about the subject you teach sure do keep you sharp.

The five most powerful words you can say to a student, a struggling student or otherwise, are ... I am proud of you. When you say this a lot, and always at the right times, students will improve in their academic skills, and sometimes even their emotional and behavioral disorders seem to lighten. At the same time, as a teacher, your silent mantra should be ... Don't give up. I'm proud of me, too.

The moment when their eyes light up and they say this is great stuff and they mean it ... that's it. That's why you teach.

So you want to become a teacher? I'll bet you're good at telling stories; you like to inform; you're probably real organized and real well read; and you're probably pretty decisive and confident in yourself. I'll bet there are a few topics you know a whole lot about. But how will you handle yourself when a kid is rude and disrespectful to you? Every day? Sometimes six or seven ... at the same time? How about when a parent is rude and disrespectful to you when you've done nothing to deserve it?

So you still want to become a teacher? I'll bet you're the kind of person who would make up your own mind about becoming a teacher. Good. You'll make a great teacher.

And one other notion: heroism. You like the heroic feeling teaching and guiding and encouraging and tough loving gives you from time to time. Feels good, doesn't it? Feeling heroic. Overcoming huge odds. It's okay for you to feel proud of yourself.

And you're willing to spend your own money, too. You love to go to The School Box, even online. You love the way the place looks and smells. It's like a toy store for teachers. You feel creative and engaging and dedicated the moment you walk in. The teacher's section at Dollar Tree ain't bad, either. I learned early that kids will kill for stickers. Not other kids. You. They will rush your desk like the Pamplona running of the bulls for a sticker that says they did a good job.

There are very few teachers and parents who are confident enough in themselves to give out tough love. The ones who are confident enough give it to themselves, too. That's how they back it up.

Listen to the advice of veteran teachers and administrators about teaching kids. I've learned that nearly every bit of it is valuable ... usually just a few minutes later.

Patience for what? The patience thing really mesmerized me. Every time you told someone who didn't know you that you were a teacher they'd tilt their head to the left like a dog looking at a piece of abstract art, and a glazed expression would wash over their face, and then they'd mutter ... You sure must have a lot of pay-tience. I finally figured it out. Most people think that all kids are maniacs and constantly give you trouble. A lot of kids are maniacs. A lot of kids are not maniacs. I've had classes of kids who were so engaged and respectful and mannerly that my heart would flutter when I was teaching them. I'd get revved up in the very best way. Sometimes I told them that if they wanted to cut up a little bit it was okay with me. They never would.

Got glyphs? Sometimes students are just as fascinated with your handwriting as you are with theirs.

Name calling. It feels good when your friends and family call you "Teach." And when you commit to extracurricular activities, and some students call you "Coach" ... that's a pretty good feeling, too.

School wasn't so bad. My best friend and I have known each other since the first days of ninth grade and we've been pals ever since. We even live down the street from other now. We both admit that our four years of high school together was the best time of our lives. We loved the bump and shuffle of school. The characters. The mindless pranks. The quirky teachers. I guess I still do.

I taught a workshop one time at a statewide conference of teachers on how to be a successful teacher your rookie year and I told them that you don't really have to love kids to be a great teacher ... you just have to understand them. All the teachers in the room agreed with me. That was a real nice moment. I couldn't believe I had actually hit on some remarkable, agreed-upon truth in a profession I was real green at. One woman was asleep, so I'll never really know if she agreed or not.

Being fascinated helps, too. If you're a teacher and you're genuinely fascinated with children, teenagers, and young people and what they say and do and how they interact with you and each other, then you'll always have fun at work, every day. This is why some people teach until they croak and why most policemen police for a long time, too.

Sales knows no hours. The people who know the most about a company's faults and good parts are the salesmen. The people who know the most about a school's faults and good parts are the teachers. When you're the person actually providing the product to the customer you will be amazed about how much you come to know about everything and everybody, and you're usually exactly right.

For good health, get your sleep. Ever since going to school started thousands of years ago in Greece or Rome or China or wherever, the funniest thing you'll ever see in class, and always has been, is watching an attentive scholar keep from falling asleep. In my experience, I discovered there are about one hundred and forty-eight ways that students attempt this, and they're all hilarious. I think it's perfectly okay to stop class and get everybody to help watch the agony. It's about the only agony of another person you can witness that makes you feel so unguiltily gleeful.

Only three questions tonight! The homework dilemma was never a dilemma for me. Why create more fuss and disappointment. I just tried to get as much work done as possible in the time I had them in a classroom with me.

I never had a parent complain that their child wasn't getting enough homework.

The parents who complained about homework were the parents doing the homework.

Sometimes I gave out homework just to see the sneaky ways parents who did the homework would try to make it look like their child did the homework. Other teachers did the same thing and it gave us even more fun things to laugh and cry about.

That's exactly right. Teachers get a couple of weeks off around Christmas and a week off for spring break, usually during April, and two months off in the summer. Sometimes a whole week off at Thanksgiving. And your point is?

Teachers are underpaid. We are. We are horribly underpaid. And your point is?

Talk therapy. The best principals know what you deal with every day. Without interrupting, the best principals will listen to you for as long as you need them to.

Of all the principals and assistant principals I worked with, even a headmaster or two, the best ones had a sense of humor.

I think the classroom is a sacred place. It is a good and wonderful and otherworldly place to me, and it should be respected and honored and used and enjoyed by everyone. Every morning before the first student walked across the threshold, I imagined what might go on in my classroom and those thoughts always inspired me and made me feel lighter and happier. Every day before I turned off the lights and walked out to go home I looked around the room for a few moments and remembered what went on that day, right there, and right over there. Every where I taught I did that. Every time I left my classroom for the day.

Ms.Garcia's picture
High School English Teacher from Navajo Nation

[quote]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?[/quote]

Some tangible advice:
Have your expectations for class behavior and procedures posted on the wall. I've read wonderful suggestions about how students create community by allowing them that control from the beginning and developing the class procedures and rules on their own, but as a new teacher, you should post them in a highly visible place until you get a hang of things.

Your procedures will change as you figure out what works for your class and doesn't. For example, I used to have certain consequences for tardiness that didn't work for the school I was hired at- so that changed about midway through the year to something more effective.

Another tactic that worked well for me was handing out random cards when my high school students walked in. The card had a colored sticker and a number on it- the students had to find their seat that way and I had an established seating order on the first day without knowing everyone's names (this helped to learn names quickly too). Because I shuffled the cards ahead of time, the groups of friends walking in together got split up and it made it easier for me to have them move around in new groups for get-to-know-you activities.

Some not-so tangible advice:
You're you, so be you. I wish someone had told me sooner that style takes some time to develop and that's okay. I tried so hard to emulate the great teachers around me instead of looking at the technique they used and knowing how to adapt it to my strengths. I also struggled with voicing my educational philosophy. I found it the other day as I was cleaning out my closets and it makes me smile to see what I wrote. Honestly, I had core values, but I felt like I couldn't voice what I really thought. Don't worry- when you come across perspectives that challenge your thinking (and some that you downright disagree with) you will refine that philosophy and have a much firmer ground to stand on.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

I love the comments being shared on this blog. There's such wonderful advice being offered. :-)

Rafael Angel's picture
Rafael Angel
IB PYP MYP DP Spanish B and French B

Thank you for a very enjoyable and thoughtful entry, Margaret.
Your first statement: 'All good teaching originates from the motive of generosity' made me remember what I consider the moment when I started flirting with the idea of becoming a teacher: I was only 12, but maybe I already had the vision.
I have recently been looking at all the substance and information I have collected form my classes, and I can't help but notice how my students' passions along with mine have been the two elements that have motivated me to explore the joys of learning.

Moreover, I guess I teach because, besides the fulfilment I get from it, I also want be explore the concepts that I choose through the views of the students'. I guess that's my way of trying to stay relevant for them.

As a matter of fact, I have just written an entry on my blog about these joys, and I would like to share it with you all:

Thank you, again.

Jeffrey Benson's picture

Excellent discussion. I know a lot of my passion for teaching comes from my politics, in the broadest sense--that our world can and should be on a daily basis filled with fascination and worthy challenges, and that each of us has the capacity on a daily basis to forge a life of joy and meaning--the politics is that schools demand far too much obedience to the powers that be, and we are too often engendering a passive population--to experience and expect fascination and joy and meaning is to swim against the tide of teaching kids to be compliant consumers of rules and curriculum, and the world organized as it is. I know when i seek to find joy and challenge and meaning in each of my students (and the teachers and principals I coach) I am offering them the same rather radical view of our potential shared lives. I wrote a book some of you may know, "Hanging In" which implies all that and i wish i had had the privilege of this discussion when i was writing it; i would have been even clearer about this motivation. Connected to all this, I seek your input: i am organizing a course for veteran teachers on how to reclaim and revitalize the energy that brought them to the profession in the first place, and in some ways serve as a support network and well-spring of determination and passion. What would you have us read/share/do?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I'd use Parker Palmer's work. There are so many good things in his books and his Center for Renewal ( has some great resources as well. The School Reform Initiative ( has good protocols to help with the discussions as well. It sounds like fascinating work. Good luck and let us know how it goes!

Erick Wilberding's picture
Erick Wilberding
High school teacher, adjunct college professor

Some very thoughtful reflections. And the Servus servorum Dei is memorable, something coined by Gregory the Great who was himself well known as a teacher--many very old churches in Rome still have marble plaques indicating where he spoke 1400 years ago.

A full answer should have different facets, but one definitely is the conviction that what we teach is important, it's not trivial. It makes life more meaningful. There's something urgent and exciting to know.

Erick Wilberding
author, Teach like Socrates

Rafranz Davis's picture
Rafranz Davis
Executive Director of Professional and Digital Learning, Lufkin ISD

I teach because my heart won't allow me to do anything else. As cheesy as that sounds, it is the truth. Trust me...I've tried! When I think about my students over the years and where they are now in their own lives, I understand fully why they needed me and also that I needed them.

If I could offer any advice to new teachers that are deciding if this life is for them or not, I would say...

If your heart tugs at your soul when you work with children, you are in the right place. Don't do this because it is a great "fall back". Do it because your heart won't allow you to do anything else.

When you teach for the right reasons...even when it gets tough (and it will)...the bad days aren't so bad. The great days are only a smile away and the rest can be solved with a bit of reflection.

Mike Raven's picture
Mike Raven
Former Head of Department (Science), Teacher, Brisbane, Qld., Aust

I'm a retired teacher.

Looking back across the years I have no regrets. I enjoyed (mostly) the classroom interaction with the students. I enjoyed working with fellow colleagues.

A couple of observations.

1. I think that teachers should be given far greater recognition as teaching professionals (and pay)

2. I also think that teachers should have more freedom to individually decide how they will teach and assess.

I discuss these issues in my latest post, "Teaching Professionals", on my blog.

I realize there's no one easy solution. But I think big changes are not too far off.

Mike Raven

Mark's picture

Great post and keen insight into teaching. The title Servus Servorum Dei is one of the many titles used over the centuries for the Pope. First used by pope Gregory the Great (590-604), who is known as the Patron of Teachers.

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