"Why Teach?" (Response to #OklaEd Blogger Challenge)

Mindy Dennison#OklaEd blogger extraordinaire Mindy Dennison recently issued a challenge to fellow edu-bloggers to address the question, “Why Teach?” She’s already received a dozen quality responses taking a variety of approaches – including my personal favorite so far from the Marauding Mentor. MM details many common reasons for going into teaching and finds them delusional at best before concluding – “…but we need you…”

I appreciate the many posts about how rewarding and fulfilling teaching can be. I’m thankful for so many out there who connect with, nurture, and challenge their students throughout each year. I’d have to agree that’s the primary energy on which we feed – those little moments of success, of insight, of realization. It’s not particularly selfless; it’s simply swell when you manage to say or do just the right thing to help some young person’s day suck less than it otherwise might. 

It’s less swell when you fail, but still... 

The biggest reason I teach is that it needs to be done, and no one else will do it. Don’t misunderstand – there are many, many people across the state and the nation teaching. Many are amazing and will never be recognized as such. Others are largely dead weight but between systemic problems and teacher shortages, we have little choice but to keep them. Most are somewhere in between, depending on circumstances, and can be good when the spirt moves or the situation promotes such. They rise and fall with the pressures of their reality.

But there aren’t enough. It’s a running joke with my superiors when I’ve yet again managed to stir someone’s pot or complicate an otherwise simple situation (I simply do NOT understand how this occurs so regularly!) that I freely submit to their wrath and invite them to start interviewing that long line of highly qualified professionals who desperately want my job.

Because no one wants it, you see. So I keep stirring. For the children.

(Actually, several probably do want my job – I have a sweet gig, teaching-wise. But they’d all be coming from other teaching positions, keeping the net shortage the same and merely shuffling the particulars.)

The fields are ripe. Teenagers are a huge pain in the ass, but they’re not all as stupid as they’d like for you to think. Many of them are quite entertaining if you let yourself see and hear them, and far more than you’d think are hungry for an adult with a reasonable sense of professional boundaries to show even token interest and affection for them.

Many have the potential to be rather smart, if driven to be so. They won’t wander there on their own, thus ruining decades of anticipation regarding the miracle of technology changing education forever as students hungrily devour knowledge according to their individual interests, but most will meander along the trail with some success if you stay focused and on your horse and have a good pedagogical cattle dog.

I kinda lost that metaphor along the way. Hopefully you get the idea.

So we teach.

I’m smart and capable enough, but not as naturally gifted as so many others who don’t even consider this as a serious career. They don’t want it, or don’t ‘get it’. So I do what I can do, and over time I’ve become reasonably good at it. I must. We must.

Because the need is great. One of my favorite posts on this topic was, of course, written by me. The Spartans at Thermopylae were outnumbered and outsupported by the Persian hordes storming their shores. But they stood in the gap for as long as they could – not from any delusion of winning, and not because they could guarantee it would change anything substantially. They did it because it was the thing to do. They couldn’t control the outcome, but they could damn sure go down swinging.

Come home with your lesson plans or on them.

I’m not comparing a little high school history teaching to the kind of dramatic sacrifice made by the 300 (of course I am), but I do believe we’re too easily distracted and derailed by talk of reform and assessment, of structure and standards. We lament funding and formats and charters and TFA and technology and teacher school and sometimes I just don’t even care about ANY of it.

What difference does it make what names, hair color, or preferred weaponry each Persian brings with them? Do we honestly believe there’s some strategic scenario in which we win? Some combination of lobbying efforts and public enlightenment that turns this one around for those in the gap? Occasionally we can sweep aside an Ephialtes or celebrate a Dienekes, but that’s not why we stay.

We teach because we believe. 

Kierkegaard spoke of an essential “leap to faith,” but such terminology is a bit presumptuous, even for me. Being in Oklahoma, we could just as easily go to Scripture, where “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11.1, NIV). 

Both of these capture the idea that our convictions don’t stem from having a pretty good plan. They’re not the result of measured goals or cost/benefit analysis. They’re certainly not based on having the slightest idea where we’re going or how this will turn out.That’s what makes it ‘faith’ – it’s terrifying and futile and probably wrong, but we commit as if we know know know know KNOW what we’re doing makes sense.

I teach because I choose to believe. I choose to believe in my kids and their possibilities, even as I recognize we’re going to lose some of them. Probably most of them. 

But not all of them. 

We must save enough to hold the gap. We teach because someone has to stand here next.

Given that we’re talking education, I should probably quote a book:

"We are all bits and pieces of history and literature and international law, Byron, Tom Paine, Machiavelli, or Christ, it's here. And the hour is late. And the war's begun. And we are out here, and the city is there, all wrapped up in its own coat of a thousand colours…

For if we are destroyed, the knowledge is dead, perhaps for good…

Right now we have a horrible job… It's not pleasant, but then we're not in control, we're the odd minority crying in the wilderness. When the war's over, perhaps we can be of some use in the world."

"Do you really think they'll listen then?"

"If not, we'll just have to wait… A lot will be lost that way, of course. But you can't make people listen. They have to come round in their own time wondering what happened and why the world blew up under them. It can't last."

Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)

I pride myself, however, on spreading my wisdom and insights with all peoples equally – profound, and yet so very accessible. So, rather than look to Existentialism, Literature, or the Word of God, I’ll conclude with R.E.M.:

All the people gather, fly to carry each his burden – we are young, despite the years.

We are concern; we are hope despite the times.

All of a sudden, these days, happy throngs - take this joy wherever, wherever you go.

R.E.M. - These Days


Thanks for caring and giving of yourself to teach our future! Great post!

I sometimes think humans have a sense of humor to help deal with things that otherwise would drive us over the edge. It is amazing how many teachers have a sense of humor or at least a well-sharpened wit.

"Come home with your lesson plans or on them." Heh.



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