As a teacher, is it even possible to pick a singular “This is why I do what I do!” eureka moment or reason? I started to investigate.
Jen Ryan, a math teacher in New Jersey, expressed, “I teach for the little moments that remind me that I am making a difference in my students’ lives and an impact on their futures.”
Hannah Byosko, a writing instructor at a NYC literacy nonprofit, said, “I teach to connect, to laugh, to share knowledge and love. I teach because it is a puzzle, a challenge, and I teach because my students inspire me.”
In each of their responses, I repeated, “Yes!” and began to consider three of my own “little moments” and “puzzles.
Number one: It is the last day before holiday break. Andy*, who often leads with snide remarks, leaves my writing workshop with his backpack aggressively flopping on one shoulder. I call after him, “Have a wonderful break!” Five minutes later, as I clear up loose papers from a robust day of writing, he pops back in. He thrusts a card at me, and I smile and say, “thank you,” as he mumbles a goodbye before swiftly slipping out the door. When I open it, I see a heartfelt scrawl thanking me for believing in him. I slowly fold the card over and momentarily place my hand on top of it. It is now pinned to my cork board.
Number two: It is my first year of teaching and today my kids are talking about Greek myths. All of them are obsessed with Percy Jackson. They have all become experts, whereas I vaguely remember the time I did a project on Helen of Troy in 6th grade and wore a golden crown. One writer, Daniel*, walks in 20 minutes late. As he settles into his seat, I ask him, “Hey, Daniel. We are talking about Percy Jackson. Do you know any myths?” Without a breath, he smirks and replies, “You mean like God?” I stifle my laughter, so as to not disrespect anyone’s religious beliefs, but I learn something very important that day: Never underestimate the wit and intelligence of a nine year old.
Number three: “Hey, can I name my character…” Josh* interjects, finishing his sentence with a lewd name he knows because of an internet meme. It has been three sessions, and Josh has trouble respecting boundaries. He looks to me with a shining smile, waiting for a reaction. Instead of chastise him, I simply state, “Well, my only concern is that it is so well-known that it will take away the originality of your story.” He is taken aback and then mumbles “Yeah, okay, that’s a good point.” Remaining aware of pop culture jokes does come with its benefits.
I began to reflect on why these were the moments that emerged. I had a bunch of purely positive and joyous memories; I couldn’t even count those on two hands. They showed me that I love the earnest participation, the inhibition, and the laughter. But, the moments above reminded me that I also love the hesitation, the snarky remarks, and the frustration.
I saw my own growth as a teacher in Andy, Daniel, and Josh. They prompted me to think of my own influential teacher in my first college literature class. He was the perfect combination of encouraging, critical, humorous, and relaxed. He didn’t force us to write “reading check” responses; he wanted to know if we liked the readings. He asked “Is it good?” and then waited for a response. The first few weeks, everyone stumbled. No teacher had ever just asked us that.
Once we got the hang of it, one of my fellow students chose to share his reaction in terms of a colorful, four-letter word. I was shocked. I had never heard anyone be so bold to use a curse word in a class. My professor didn’t waver. He just instructed, “Elevate your language. Try something more specific.” He allowed us to laugh and make dumb jokes, but he didn’t let us take the easy route.
Since then, I find that I teach to navigate moments like that with young thinkers. Whether it is Josh, risking punishment for attention, or Daniel with his desire to quip despite his readiness to learn. Or, maybe it is Andy who does want to trust his teachers but needs more consistent encouragement. I teach to help students feel as free to think as I did in my literature class. And, I teach to ensure that I am not forgetting how one learns.
So, to answer my initial question, no, I do not believe the reasoning is a simple answer. We love it for selfish reasons, for selfless reasons, and for reasons we cannot even articulate. Perhaps the fact that it can’t be answered with one or two reasons, but with a string of different experiences is why us teachers love it so much. At least, I know that is true for me.
*names have been changed