Looking for Sage Wisdom
More than anything else, I remember his face, ripped with an ugly mash up of dull red stress and those deep lines of resigned anger in the corners of his eyes, along his forehead, and drawing down at the tips of his lips. He pushed his cart from one classroom to the next with a hunchback trudging, dragging his beat brown shoes with every resisting step.
I was 21 and doing my high school student teaching rotation at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore, MD. I wore argyle sweaters and matching socks; the pennies in my loafers were polished and facing out so that Abe would be leading the way with every fresh step I took.
I spent a lot of time talking to veteran educators to learn as much as I could about what it was like to be a teacher. The advice I got was mostly cautious; the vets didn’t want to burst my bubble about the realities of their job, but they didn’t want to sugarcoat the day-to-day routine that was nothing like what the textbooks preached to us back in the University classrooms.
When it came time to talk with the man with the ripped face, I asked him the same question I had asked the others:
“With all of your wisdom gained in teaching over the course of your career, what stands out as the most important piece of advice you can give young teachers?”
We were in the teacher planning area, and he leaned against his cart and stared at me with his tired eyes. They were once blue, but not anymore. They had a film over them that reminded me of the eyes of a fish who was just about ready to go belly up in the water.
“You are asking me for advice?”
I nodded with a smile. In my hand was a pencil pressed against a fresh page in my journal.
“I hate my job. I don’t know what has happened to the kids but you can’t teach ‘em. They don’t want to be here, and neither do I. I got three years to go until retirement, and then I am out of here.”
The page in my journal remained blank.
“If you are looking for advice,” he said, “it’s this. Don’t get into this worthless profession. I look back on my life and regret every minute of it, spent on ungrateful kids in a broken system. If you don’t take my advice, you’ll find out for yourself in 25 years. Nothing but regret.”
He pushed his cart past me, and I was left with the residual scents of Old Spice and stale black coffee in his wake.
I had a few minutes before I needed to meet my mentor teacher. I sat down and wrote, “Don’t forget this. The moment I begin to feel this way – if I ever do – I need to get out. Leave the classroom. Stop teaching. I can’t imagine that happening, though. I wonder what I will be like as a teacher 25 years from now?”
Those 25 years have come and gone, and I now know what I am like as a teacher, and why.
I know that I love teaching today more than I did when I was a student teacher in early 1987.
Why I Love Teaching
Sean McComb, my former student-turned-colleague and 2014 National Teacher of the Year, asked me earlier this week to reflect on why I love teaching. It’s been something that I have been thinking about all week. After making some tough choices, I’ve whittled the list down to these four very human reasons.
I can think of no greater profession than teaching when it comes to working with individuals who are on the brink of independence. Each year, I look forward to meeting my students who bring with them hopes, desires, dreams, and even fears. Even more important, they bring with them their individuality. Each has much to teach all of us, and I am grateful for the opportunity to provide that space for them to take the risks they need to grow.
Having the Power to Empower
To start a fire, you need three things: fuel, oxygen, and heat. The same is true in the classroom when igniting learning. Each child in the classroom needs three things to grow: materials (fuel), space to think (oxygen), and experiential opportunities (heat). I love to provide all three to my students and empower them to think, create, collaborate, and present their final innovations.
Providing Equality of Voices, Recognizing Individual Strength, Fostering Confidence
Students who are empowered are then respectful of others’ voices, opinions, and ideas. It transcends tolerance; it opens the doors for collaborative conversation at a higher level, where the focus shifts from problems to solutions. I see this often in my classes where students who have embraced their differences generate practical and meaningful solutions that were once unthinkable. In this environment, they are not “stuck” on what divides them; they, instead, thrive on what unites them.
Instilling a Lifelong Love for Reading and Writing
We are a grade-driven world, there’s no doubt about it. Something powerful happens, though, when students are empowered to embrace a lifelong love for reading and writing: securing good grades becomes secondary to the learning that is taking place. The grades they seek are an outcome, not the primary goal, from embracing a lifelong love for what they are learning. In my area, that’s reading and writing. By giving them the tools, the space, and the experiential opportunities, the fire they create won’t be going out any time soon.
Advice to the Young (Teachers) at Heart
So now it is my turn to be the one pushing that cart. I, thank goodness, do not smell like Old Spice, and I am, for the most part, wrinkle-free. So if you, new teacher, were to ask me my advice about why I love teaching, here is what I would tell you.
You entered this profession for noble reasons (God knows it wasn’t for the money). When you sat in Principles of SecEd or Foundations of Education, you dreamed of the many ways you were going to make a difference. You were going to change the world.
I was there, too.
The challenge is handling those first few years where those dreams of changing the world clash with the reality of juggling the myriad roadblocks and derailments that do their best to get in your way. For some teachers, like the one I interviewed at Perry Hall so many years ago, they don’t make it through those tough times. They become jaded and they never recover.
Here’s the secret: We don’t teach to administer standardized tests or to resist the rolling trends of best practices, policies, and politics; don’t let those things dissolve your dreams about changing the world and making a difference. Those roadblocks and derailments are a part of our professional lives as much as the trials and tribulations we face in our personal lives.
We teach to touch lives, to provide opportunity and experience. Teaching is a very human experience; we offer that personal connection that ignites the lifelong desire within to learn, read, write, and make a difference. It’s more about the stuff you can’t test.
You begin to realize this when you begin to let go of the roadblocks and the derailments.
So hang in there, young teachers. We need you. We need your courage, your imagination, your belief. We need your vision that making a difference and changing the world are still possible.
Because if you still believe in it, then your students will as well. And that, my wonderful colleagues, is why we teach: To ignite and pass along the timeless torch of learning, living, and loving to all who enter our classroom.