If teaching is incredibly challenging, afforded little status, and doesn’t pay well, why should people teach?
When I left my teaching career in Los Angeles to pursue a doctorate in an Ivory Tower far removed from my classroom, the withdrawals were vicious. I had never been much of a crier. My students would probably categorize me as a “warm and fuzzy” type, but I rarely cried during my four years in the classroom (at least after that initial bout of sobbing in the bathroom during my first week). Maybe I didn’t have the energy to cry, but teaching brought me far more joy than sadness. During my first dreary fall in Boston, however, my husband sometimes returned home from work to find me curled up on the couch with tear-streaked cheeks. He was as surprised as I was at the tears. My life was “better” now, wasn’t it? I controlled my class schedule, had plenty of non-structured time, did not have to grade papers or plan for classes, and had hours to sleep and put back on the pounds I had lost while teaching. My courses felt sufficiently intellectually engaging, but something profound was missing from this whole experience. Of course, I missed my students terribly, but I had stayed long enough to move with many of them from freshman year through to high school graduation. In a way, we went to university together. When I got here, though, what I truly mourned was the loss of the most fulfilling experience I have ever had, and in some ways, a loss of part of myself.
I barely qualify as a millennial, and I don’t relate to much of what is said about the millennial generation. However, a recent study suggests that when considering their first job, the older generations sought out positions where they could make money, while the millennial generation sought out jobs where they could find purpose and make a difference. And yet, millennials do not seem to be pursuing teaching, as the horrifying predictions about the impending teacher shortage indicate, but they should. And this is because of teaching’s “intrinsic rewards”(a term I borrow here from the famous sociologist Dan Lortie). As a colleague of mine told me, “Teaching is the hardest job ever in life… but it’s also the most rewarding.” Here are some of the reasons why:
- Teaching is never boring. If you have ever had a desk job, you might well-understand the experience of checking the clock. Frequently. Wishing it was lunchtime already. Or 5pm. This is NOT a common experience for teachers. Instead, teachers look up at the clock and wonder, how the hell is it already 3pm? Class periods fly by because teaching requires you to be fully present for every moment. And no day is the same, as students come to class with different moods, different needs, different challenges and different contributions each day. Also, students can be hilarious! At least once my students made me laugh so hard in the middle of class that tears started streaming down my cheeks (my students fondly remember this as the only time they saw me cry).
- Teaching is really life-long learning. While the perception of teachers might be that they teach the same content every year, I never reached a point where I could teach the same curriculum in the same order with the same lessons. Every time I taught a new novel, I had to (re)read it and analyze it from the perspective of my students. And if after a decade of teaching the same content, teachers do reach such a point, the students will bring new challenges and inspirations with them to class each day. Tailoring class activities to engage the particular students before you each year requires you learn about the things that interest them. Finally, the students teach you so much about life while you try to teach them academic content. In my four years in the classroom, my students taught me about the realities of racism, the meaning of hard work, struggle and family, the power of faith, resilience, and more. And they inspired me to continue learning every day.
- Teaching creates new family. When I interviewed friends who also left the classroom after years of teaching, they told me that one of the things they missed most about teaching was the family they found within it. If you intentionally work to form relationships with your students, they become like family; they want to get to know you, they notice and care if you miss work, they value your opinions – just as you do for them. And often your colleagues become like family, too, because you share students, school structures, and poignant experiences. When I left my school for this doctoral program, I missed my second home and my school family almost as much as I missed my parents when I left for college.
- Teaching serves a purpose beyond yourself. What is more important than working toward a better future for our society? Many of the teachers I have interviewed decided to enter teaching because they want to make the world a better place and believe, as I do, that education can help shape society. Helping students to develop the tools of empathy, critical thinking, metacognition, self-reflection, and of course reading, writing, scientific inquiry, and arithmetic, can benefit their future – and truly the future of our society. In this way, teaching truly is a noble profession, as it serves a great purpose than personal advancement.
- Teaching makes you a better person. Relatedly, I have also heard from other teachers that teaching made them a better person. In learning about others, forming bonds with parents and families, and pursuing a path beyond your own self-interest, you become better. I am convinced that I was absolutely the best version of myself when I was in the classroom, the version of myself that caused me the most pride. This is because teaching is a job of service, one in which your every waking need is no longer the center of your universe because you have a bunch of other human beings consider. And unlike parenting, you can to go home each night, get a full night sleep (unless you have babies at home!), and then return the next day with a fresh focus on how you can better serve your students.
- Teaching grows your heart and feeds your soul. When a colleague of mine retired after 35 years of teaching, she told me that she felt content to move up to the mountains now because she had led a “life well-lived, well-given.” In the service of others, in the service of a better future, teaching is a meaningful, purposeful life-long career, the kind that many of us search for. At the beginning of my career, a student gave me a magnet that read, “Teaching is a Work of Heart.” I did not fully understand this idea at the time, but as I progressed through the years in the classroom, the work somehow became a part of me. Sometimes painful, but mostly wonderful, teaching awakened a piece of my heart, causing it to expand.
- Teaching is a powerful identity. I have heard a number of teachers utter some version of “once a teacher, always a teacher.” And I, too, believe this to be an accurate depiction of what happens when you teach. There is something so special about this profession that even if you move away from classroom practice, you still feel like a teacher. And every time you see another teacher, you feel this great affinity for them, as you share a keen understanding of some important part of life that you only realize if you teach; somehow, I “get” them and they “get” me, in part because we know that life is about more than just us.
There are many more reasons why teaching is a fabulous profession, worth pursuing despite all the crap that teachers have to deal with; but these are some of the reasons that I have never stopped itching to get back into the classroom. This is also why I study teaching & teachers because I know how much teaching matters.