I believe in teaching. It was not always so. Near the end of my second year teaching, I was offered a contract for the next year, then asked not to sign it. I’m still not sure I get why.
So I quit teaching for a year—I wrote and sold advertising, worked with the mentally handicapped, and started thinking about what teaching was really about. I realized it was about the students and the subject matter and, only then, about me. I was a vehicle, not the content.
I managed to find a job in a small Nebraska town, and have been teaching someone– middle schoolers to graduate students–something for over thirty years now.. In those thirty years I’ve found I’ve yet to truly master my profession. There’s always something new to be learned about pedagogy and about my subject matter, which in my case, are the same thing, since I now teach teachers to teach. The journals and books I read burst with the stories and theory of humankind’s greatest enterprise—to pass on what we know and can do to the next generation. Not that the next generation always wants this, and that’s where the fun is: to take theory and make it live through a case study or dramatization, to make the students work harder than I do so they truly claim their learning, not suffer under it. One of my few good habits is jogging, and I still find myself restructuring lesson plans and activities on my morning runs, imagining what will happen if I use group work instead of Socratic questioning, for example.
More than the act of teaching itself, I love the “side benefit”s better. I get to engage with 20 to 80 people a day: learning incidentals about their lives, noting their strengths, stoking their ambitions, and in some cases, advising them to another line of work. I get to talk to colleagues who truly enjoy what they do and who plumb each other for ways to do it better.
And those 20 to 80 lives a day, once 100 plus when I taught high school: those translate into x-students. Both by more traditional means and now via electronic networking, I have been contacted by over 100 x-students. They want to tell me about their lives—the successful are disproportionately represented—but I’ve also had one student contact me whose name I didn’t remember. She wrote back, “Don’t remember? You taught me two twice because you flunked me the first time.” Another wrote and said that she remembered me well, but was I a math teacher or an English teacher when I taught her? (I was the latter.) This illustrates what I now know is most important about this business I love. You engage learners by connecting with them, by being their partner in the learning enterprise.
The term “servant leader” makes me nervous, given the context it normally appears in, but that’s what a good teacher is. I’m glad I learned to serve.