Anyone who knows me, knows that I am very passionate about education. I tweet, I blog, I annoy people on Facebook. But I am passionate because I am a teacher. It is fundamentally who I am. I remember teaching swimming lessons in grade school with my mom and getting the kid in my class who in June wouldn’t put his face in the water but by July he was beaming with pride after he jumped in off the diving board. I remember walking out of my Accounting 201 lecture as a sophomore in college and heading straight to the LAS office to change my major to secondary history education. And I have never looked back. I am starting my 18th year as a teacher.
Teaching is the one profession where everyone feels like they are an expert because everyone has spent 12 plus years in school (Bruner, 1986). The perception is that teaching is easy. Claims are made that some people are born to teach. Movies and television best exemplify the role of the teacher in the imagination of America.
From the hero who comes in and saves kids from themselves, those teachers were just born to teach. Or conversely, look at the buffoons who run our schools (“2 months Bender”).
But these narratives are far too simplistic. Because while that phrase, those who can do, and those who can’t teach is the way teachers are represented, it couldn’t be more false. And here is why.
First, teaching is craftsmanship. It is a mix of art and science. Like artists and scientists, teachers are not born. Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers calls this the 10,000 hour rule. Those who excel at something put in a minimum of 10,000 hours of practice. While that "rule" is actually challenged, the point is that teachers spend hours developing their science of teaching. Teachers continually strive to improve their craft through lesson (re)design, continuing classes, advanced degrees, workshops, reading journal articles, etc. etc. etc. One simple example is the endless amount of teacher chats on Twitter. Teachers aren't paid to tweet with other teachers. They do so because they seek, in the words of Daniel Pink, mastery and purpose of their craft.
Teachers also refine their artistic side through years of experience. Humor, passion for a subject after teaching it 100 times, getting kids to learn without even realizing it, are all part of the acting and the dance of teaching. Deborah Ball, Dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan calls the work of teaching intentional and unnatural. For example, typically we ask questions about things we don’t know the answer to. But when teaching, we often ask questions we do know the answer to but need to ask the questions in a way that draws on kids’ natural curiosity and leads to inquiry. The word education itself comes from the word educe or to bring out, to lead forth. It is not just filling up the pail with facts. In the words of Paolo Friere, it is teaching kids to read the word and the world. Those who can teach, and they teach well, as a result of the relentless pursuit of their craft.
But teaching is far more than the craft enacted day to day. It is subsumed by love. It is a love for learning and a love for kids. It is a love that transcends age, race, gender, socio-economic status. It is the selfless acts that nobody sees. Giving up eating lunch to help a student or colleague, exhibiting patience when the time for patience has long passed. It is a warm smile when kids enter a room, a hug, a high five.
Spending multiple hours planning so that the kids have a good learning experience for 50 minutes. Treating 30 kids like they are all your own children. Without love, classrooms are cold warehouses, but with love they are warm and dynamic spaces. And we all have several teachers we can reflect on and realize it was their love that made us love their class or a particular topic.
There is also the love that students have for their teachers. My own daughters beam when they talk about their teachers. And it is love and trust that make classrooms work year after year. I have learned more and grown more as a person because of the students I interact with.
Finally teaching is really fundamentally about hope. It is a hope and a faith that kids can aspire to the greatest of heights. While the media would have us all believe that we are getting dumber by the day, schools are failing, and kids are more disrespectful than ever (all false), education is really designed so that in the words of JFK, “the torch can be passed to a new generation”. Teachers possess an unwavering hope for all of their students to succeed. A hope that this year, kids will learn more than last year. A hope that they can impact the life of a child to go on and do great things. A hope that our society will be better than we are today. Schools represent the promise of our democracy so that all have access to the American Dream. I have yet to talk with a teacher who doesn’t want to inspire kids to soar to the best of their abilities. Nothing inspires me more than when a former student comes back and tells me about all the great things they are doing.
Teachers don’t do these things in isolation. They teach in community schools, on athletic fields, after-school programs, and many other contexts. Teaching is an exercise that is vital to the health of a community. And because of those teachers who can and do, communities thrive on the skill, love, and hope that they bring to children each and every day. Our children, our communities, our world. So while we often hear how important teachers are and how much they really should be paid (but aren't) and how much they should be respected (and are not by ed reformers and politicians) or conversely how bad our educational system because corporations would love nothing more than to make a profit on a system that is locally controlled, consider the actual role teachers play in our lives. Consider the immense amount of themselves they pour into their work with kids. As we begin the promise of another school year, I take pride and comfort knowing there are teachers, who can and do for our young people and for our communities.