I never wanted to be a teacher. In fact, I distinctly remember sitting in my high school English class wondering how Mrs. Ransenberg could tolerate discussing the same novel year after year with different students. What could be more tedious than deciphering Faulkner’s prose for teenagers? How many times could one person lecture about passive voice? At what point do all words start sounding onomatopoeic and all food start tasting like cafeteria-style Johnny Marzetti? I thought that on the spectrum of enlightening and fulfilling jobs, teacher fell somewhere near bookkeeper and only slightly ahead of librarian.
Yet years later, I find myself teaching high school English. Although I consider my job to be one of the most important aspects of my life, I still willingly confess that I do not teach for the love of teaching. I am a teacher because I love to learn, and I’ve come to realize one abiding truth: The best way to learn is to teach.
As an undergraduate and graduate student, I thrived on thought, and gobbled up literature and writing courses. I admired my professors and believed that their Jeopardy-like knowledge of historical allusion and literary technique represented a banquet of intellectualism I could feast on forever. If financially I could have remained a student for life, I very well may have.
When reality hit home, however, I recognized that, like most people, making my own way in this world required a steady job and a paycheck. I obtained a teaching certificate because it seemed logical, because my mother had been a teacher, and because I had several good friends who were teachers. It was a safe decision. Nothing noble or predestined, nothing extraordinary. That would come later.
After seven years of teaching, I’ve learned more about literature and writing than I did in 20 years of studying the subjects. Perhaps it’s the responsibility factor. When you are put in charge of 25 students for 50 minutes a day, you feel compelled to give them the best you can, to prepare for their onslaught of questions, and to relate their lives to your lesson. It could, however, be the repetition. Re-reading The Great Gatsby every year has allowed me to understand and appreciate the sentimental nuances of language in meticulous detail. Word by word.
Of course, I recognize that ultimately the students, with their fresh, unadulterated perspectives, play the largest role in my continued learning. It’s a wonderful truth that of all relationships, the one between teacher and the student is truly symbiotic. On a daily basis, I learn as much from my students as I try to impart to them, and this is why I continue to teach. My motivations are selfish, and so be it. It’s still a tandem ride, this learning and teaching, and on any given day I find myself leading and following, following and leading.
Betsy Woods teaches English at Milford High School near Cincinnati, Ohio. In nine years of teaching, she has taught American and British literature as well as creative writing. Woods is also affiliated with the Ohio Writing Project at Miami University.