Recently William Zhou asked “why teach” on Edudemic and I decided this week’s blog post would be my response to that question. It is a good question to ask. Recent years have been tough for the teaching profession and teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Some like Gerald Conti are retiring earlier than they expected because they no longer recognize the profession they love. Others, like Jordan Kohanim, leave the profession after only a few years because they feel defeated by the repeated message that teachers don’t matter.
I admit the conditions of teaching are bad and while I have faith that the pendulum will eventually begin swinging in the other direction I don’t see any short-term improvements. Budgets are still tight and the folks who believe all learning and teaching can be summed by data points (they are wrong, just for the record, see previous link) are still in the ascendance. But the truth is that I did not get into teaching for the great money (stop laughing), summers off (seriously, stop laughing), and short work days (if you don’t stop laughing, you are going to hurt yourself).
I became a teacher because I knew from my own experience the difference that teachers make in the lives of their students. I have had a wide range of teachers in my life – some bad, some indifferent, and some amazing – and while the sum of that educational experience has helped shape me to be the person that I am today there are lessons decades in my past that still touch me every day. There are teachers who made a profound difference in my life. William Zhou describes teaching as a vocation and I believe this to be true. You have to be called to this work and when you stop hearing that calling then you need to find another profession. I teach, quite simply, for those light bulb moments when student learn something, discover something, connect something. Those moments of transformation when a student becomes a writer, recognizes that they can do what they thought was impossible, and proudly shares something they have created. That is why I became a teacher and that is why I teach. Although I can understand why Gerald Conti and Jordan Kohanim feel otherwise, I know teachers matter and will continue to matter no matter how many apps, MOOCs, and new technologies are introduced.
However, I can fully empathize with Gerald Conti and Jordan Kohanim and the legions they represent. I too am frustrated with our education system and feel like a meaningless cog in a machine. Administrators tell us we matter, but their actions underscore the lie. Sometimes they are as much a victim of the system as we are, but that is little comfort. But teachers are not without comfort and that is what sustains me. It is my colleagues, those amazing classroom heroes who continually fight against excessive standardization to teach creatively and inspire students despite a prevalence of bubble sheets and blue books, who keep me in education.
I was incredibly fortunate in 2008 to begin working with the National Writing Project. I do not know if I would still be teaching without NWP. NWP has brought me into a huge network of teaching professionals who inspire me and teach me, but equally important it has given me inspiring experiences that remind me why I teach. For example, last week the Morehead Writing Project brought students from three high schools in our region to our college campus for a writing marathon. It was an amazing day. These teen writers and the NWP teachers who brought them wrote and wrote and wrote, but that was what we expected to happen. These writers also shared their writing, but that is what we hoped would happen. What we didn’t expect, or hope, was the level of excitement and energy in the room. What completely floored me was the power of their words, their delivery, and their support for each other. We created magic at our Teen Writers Day Out and it is days like those that sustain me during countless hours of teaching drudgery. Of course, it is not all about writing marathons and poetry slams. Just a few days before, our NWP site also held a Research Showcase for our Summer Institute Fellows to share the results of the classroom inquiry projects required by their fellowships. Spending the day with other educators and talking about real classroom and pedagogical issues was rejuvenating personally and professionally. I learned, I shared, I was inspired.
If the conditions of teaching are dragging you down, but you still love the profession then I urge you to find your own experiences, your network, to support and sustain you. I strongly recommend NWP as it crosses the artificial boundaries of grade level and content area to work with educators from P-16, but we are fortunate to live in a time when technology allows us to find and connect with teachers around the world. You can create your own personal learning network through social media and join existing communities of teachers. We need to do everything we can to constantly renew our excitement and energy, because our students need us.