This Is Why I Teach

Cindy - Fort Collins, Colorado
Entered on April 6, 2005
Age Group: 30 - 50
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I swore I would never teach, even after my high school English teacher wisely predicted that, indeed, I would. Like he did, I expect my students to think for themselves. Consequently, my tenure as a teacher has not been an easy one. In fact, after one particularly difficult school year several years ago, I wondered if I should stick it out or leave the profession altogether. I longed for a sign. Some final bell that would indicate I should close the door to my classroom forever, or some shining moment that would somehow convince me to stay.

The next fall, I spent one lunch hour explaining to Claudia, an exchange student from Poland, what it meant to “draw the shades” on a subject, a colloquialism from a short story we were reading. In the middle of my explanation, she turned to me and said, “You are a very spiritual teacher.”

Accustomed to the self-absorption of American adolescents, all I could do was smile and shake my head. “What a nice thing to say,” I managed to mumble, hoping that she wouldn’t catch the implication and we could get back to the short story.

“No, I am very serious,” she insisted. “The way I have learned literature in school has been terrible, terrible. And I love these things, this poetry, this literature. You know that I do. I read them for myself.

“But the things you ask us to read are beautiful, and they all fit together somehow. And the way that you teach them, it is wonderful.” (The word became wahndurful as Claudia said it.) “I love them even more.”

My eyes stung with tears, but Claudia went on. “You have seen the movie Dead Poet Society, yes?”

Of course I had, and I agreed with her that it was wahndurful.

“After I see this movie, I wait for a teacher like that who will teach me poetry. And I wait and I wait and think that I will never have such a special teacher,” she said. “But you, you are my John Keating. You are my special teacher,” she said again as we embraced. “You are that teacher to me.”

For all the activity that swirls around us, teaching is often a lonely and ambiguous calling. If we choose to remain in the classroom, there are no visible promotions. Our clients are our students. We sometimes ache with longing to know that we have gotten through.

A writer friend of mine explains that he teaches English for scarlet oak leaves and students who read Robert Frost.

But this is why I teach.

I teach because a girl from a distant country was placed in my classroom at the whim of a computer. Unwilling to draw the shades on the outpouring of her own heart, Claudia reminded me that day that teaching is about learning and loving and sharing the beauty and the power of words. And, like all that matters, these things are enough, for they are truly wahndurful.