Why I teach

I didn’t start out wanting to be a teacher. I wanted to be a nurse like my mom, do computer stuff like my dad, be a gymnast, tell stories, be a lawyer, be a journalist, a professional snark, a poet… maybe Dorothy Parker… My grandmother, a teacher, warned my cousin (now a recently retired teacher) and warned me away from teachering.

Obviously, we both listened.

Actually, I tried to not be a teacher. I majored in English and took every class not conducive to secondary education that I could. Not easy when my second major was secondary education. I wrote for the school newspaper, I freelanced for a few local papers. I minored in political science, something I would never be hired to teach.

My college, Western Michigan University, placed students in teaching practicums and situations immediately. I tutored athletes on probation, shadowed many teachers in the area’s schools, taught my classmates in numerous mock lessons. I was excellently prepared to be a teacher.

But I didn’t want to be one. It was thankless, parents seemed to be adversaries more often than partners, administration got in the way or fouled the system, legislators slapped teachers at every point. After all, weren’t our schools failing?

And yet, I became a teacher. Not my first year, when I was one of the 60% in the school who were brand new. That year I learned I could be a teacher. I cried a lot that year, and not just because I was homesick. My second year I learned to ask for help, and how to say goodbye to students. I felt the first sharp little stabs of responsibility: these weren’t someone else’s kids; they were mine. Mine forever. A part of me.

I didn’t really become a teacher until after I left it; angry, humiliated, exhausted, and depressed, and then returned because I didn’t know what else to do with what running a coffeeshop for 4 years taught me: I am good at being a teacher.

Being a teacher isn’t lesson plans and towing the line. It isn’t following a curriculum or administering discipline. Teaching is finding out where a person is and nudging them toward the future by any tool, trick, trap, or tapdance you can use. Teaching is telling stories, bearing witness, battling demons. It’s researching like a lawyer to argue for the value of every kid, and it’s skipping (literally) class to make a kid smile, give up, and come into class. Teaching involves every facet of your personality, your character, your heart. It really, truly is part of who you are. Just like every kid who was ever in your class. Teaching is messy, scary, heartbreaking, all-consuming, and sometimes absolutely soul-crushing.

And I wouldn’t choose to be anything else. I am a teacher.