Reminders of Why I Teach
A MiddleWeb Blog
by Mary Tarashuk
The parent hovering by my classroom door, just minutes before the school day begins, as I am organizing materials for a hands-on science lesson. The occupational therapist or strings teacher popping in, trying to coordinate schedules, right as I am approaching thatsublime teaching moment. The pressure-cooker of anxiety (both in the kids and the administrators) at the start of testing season.
Usually, I am not bothered by the eager parent and welcome those daily interruptions with a smile. Everyone is trying to do their job in a hectic environment. But sometimes I get aggravated. I need to remind myself why I teach…to get back on track.
I could tell you that I became a teacher because I was inspired to change the world, to make a difference. That’s not the case, although I like to think those nobler intentions were hiding in me somewhere.
My motivations at the time were selfish. I needed to decide on a career at a certain point in my life, and all roads pointed to kids. Kids can be refreshing. Kids are never dull. I loved being a kid myself. In theory, it sounded like it would be a perfect career for me. That’s the nature of theory. You don’t know how it will actually work out in real life.
It’s no coincidence that I ended up doing my student teaching in a fifth grade classroom. It’s an interesting age. They are still eager to learn and eager to please. They haven’t crossed the bridge into the turbulent land of puberty yet, but it’s around the bend. At this age they are starting to consider perspectives other than their own.
Their frontal lobes are developing to help them explore emotions related to cognitive empathy, to see a deeper understanding of the cause and effect relationships in history and in scientific inquiry, and to ponder their implications. They are starting to laugh at themselves more as they discover the irony so abundant in this world.
My incentives for teaching have changed across the years. Today, that desire to make a difference is more apparent to me. Working with kids helps me curb my jaded. It lets me witness much more innocent and open-minded perspectives on life. It gives me my Pollyanna moments. That little girl could find the good in any situation. (Classic children’s literature filled with an infinite wisdom.)
I find myself in the Pollyanna mindset more often than I find myself grumbling to a colleague about whatever is happening in our school (or in education in general). My students, past and present, help me with that. So do some of their parents.
One evening, some years ago, I received an email. I was sitting on my couch grading papers. I guess parents don’t get off at three o’clock either, and they work nights and weekends too. It made me smile.
Pollyanna is living large when I receive messages like this one, written in 2007. I printed it out and saved it in my memory file. (This collection is now dangerously close to taking over an entire armoire in my living room).
I don’t get messages like this all the time, but I save them when I do, along with a multitude of Valentine’s Day cards, Christmas wishes, end-of-year thank you’s, and “World’s Best Teacher” mugs. These are my own personal artifacts, like the ones we discuss in Social Studies. They are the empirical evidence of my own Life Science.
It’s helpful to go through these memories from time to time, especially on the days when things aren’t running smoothly, and I could use some reminding. The process of sifting through, of remembering the years and the families, helps me stay positive. And there are moments in teaching where a good dose of positive is needed to jump start me back into remembering what it’s all about…the why I teach part.
I hadn’t come across that email from Lisa in quite a while. In mid-April, almost six years later, I received this from Anna herself:
This quiet little girl was now a sophomore in high school. She came by the following week, accompanied by another one of my crew from years past. They seemed so mature one moment, and giggly the next.
Anna explained her project in greater detail and asked me to contribute a paragraph or two. She wanted my insights about how I thought access to picture books and developmental toys (or lack thereof) affected children from poor communities, children who didn’t have access to these learning tools.
My face hurt from smiling after they left, and I felt a bit of pride thinking I’d had a little part in helping develop this caring young woman. Another reminder.
Sometimes we teachers are lucky enough to start a ripple effect, although we don’t always get to see the ripples up close. A few weeks after Anna’s visit, I received this:
Ruh Roh was Anna’s nickname in fourth grade. She sent me a snapshot of the mural she painted for the kids at the shelter. It’s beautiful.
Thank you, Anna, for reminding me again of why I teach.
If you’re a fellow teacher reading this: What are your reminders of why you teach? Maybe you’ll share something from your own memory file . . .