Him: "Wow, you want to teach in New York and D.C? Those are some tough areas. You know that those districts and cities are so big that you probably aren't actually going to make a difference, right? I mean... you know that, right?"
Me: "Umm... yeah, but... it's not about that..."
That was the best that I could come up with in the moment. I quickly tried to mask my flustered lack of response by spitting out my work-in-progress philosophy of teaching to my non-teacher friend:
"It's just that... I love teaching. I don't know how else to say this without it sounding weird, but I love teaching these kids. If I had to go back and teach at (*******) again [a "picture perfect", White suburban, upperclass high school where their biggest problems were kids cheating to get high grades and substance abuse due to pressures at home to get good grades... albeit, all big problems that need to be addressed, just not my cup o' joe], I'd quit teaching and find something else to do because it was not fulfilling for me.
These kids... they make it so I can show up to work nervous, anxious, and recovering from a bad night or a bad week of teaching and completely turn my week around. Behavior and antics aside... I love my students."
So Why Teach?
How many adults can say that they love the people that they work for? I don't mean the people who sign your paycheck or the people who hold your employee contract in their hands -- I mean the 25 - 120 people you see from the time you "punch in" to the time you "punch out" every weekday. I mean the people for whom you refrain from hitting your snooze button one more time each morning. I'm talking about the people who give you hell and yet count on you to be there every day. I'm talking about...
OK, OK... This is starting to sound like another stereotypical sound bite. Self-righteous proclamations by young, privileged, green teachers in urban schools are a dime a dozen nowadays, so I'll stop there.
What I wish I had told him is I don't teach to change the world, a city, a school district, or even an individual. Who am I to single-handedly climb onto soapboxes and rally the crowds with romantic notions of "change" until they start thinking like me? No, no. I cringe at the thought. This is not why I teach, nor is it why I like to teach in urban communities.
I teach because I love having dozens upon dozens of interactions in one day, sometimes even in the span of one hour. I teach because I like feeling my problem-solving brain cells buzz with each new snag or new form of an old snag. I teach because I like the "ah-hah!" reactions of students after making a new science discovery. I teach because I love watching students interact with each other and lift each other up when their friends need a boost.
Yes, I am merely another cog in a runaway machine, but so are politicians, administrators, standardized test-writers, good teachers, bad teachers, hardworking parents, academically-prepared students, students with learning disabilities, students of Color, White students, janitors, counselors, drop-in tutors, and college admissions officers. They all are never going to stop doing what they do despite mass confusion about best strategies towards meeting ill-defined and oftentimes conflicting end-goals so why should I? Are they making a difference? If they are not, then why do they do what they do? If they are, then what makes them so different from me that I shouldn't try to, as well?
And if I don't "make a difference" (whatever that even means anymore), screw it. I'll teach anyway. I don't have the mental capacity to foresee what my kids', the nation's, or my future holds. Hell, that's another reason to teach -- because we don't know what the future holds, because the future is not set in stone, and because we can contribute towards shaping it.
But no matter. At my immortal-minded, naïve, inexperienced age, I'm not thinking long term. I can only focus on doing my best each day, enjoying doing my best, and giving my students enough encouragement to stay in school and continue their education for themselves just a little bit longer. When my days no longer are fulfilling, I'll quit. 'Til then, I'll teach.
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Besides being inspired by that conversation to write this post, I was also inspired by the passion in the form of professionalism by a local teacher and fellow alumnus of Mills College. Please read about and/or watch the video about her research through teaching when (if) you find a free moment in your chaotic end-of-the-year teaching lives.
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