Why I Teach
It is Thursday morning, and I have a teaching assignment this afternoon. I promised myself I would get this blog up and running this morning, though, so here I am. Where do I start? I don’t want to jump in with musings on teaching quite yet. No, I’ll save that for this afternoon. I’ll start with the very beginning. According to Fraulein Maria, it is a very good place to start.
Why am I teacher? I was asked to write about this a few years ago while I was still in college, and I happened to stumble upon my paper (short essay, really). I have found that it is still applicable to me today, although I have made some edits here and there. So here goes:
Rainer Maria Rilke, an author of the early 1900s, published a series of letters he wrote to Franz Kappus, an aspiring poet who wanted Rilke’s advice and approval of his work. The work is aptly and simply entitled, “Letters To A Young Poet.” In the very beginning, Rilke suggests to his young friend that the only way to know if he [Kappus] would know if he was to be a poet or not would be to examine himself in the middle of the night and see if there is anything else he can think of doing other than writing poetry.
Although Rilke’s advice was offered in the context of writing, I have found that it has many applications in my own vocational goals. I have often asked myself, “What do I want to do with my life?” When I wake up in the morning, I know that answer. I want to teach. I cannot think of doing anything else with my life. A student once asked me why I wasn’t a lawyer, or a doctor. I responded, “Because I am a teacher.” It seemed self-evident to me that that was what I would be, because it is what I was (and still am today). For many people, the decision of a permanent vocation is made in high school, college, or sometimes even later. Not so for me. I made the decision to enter the professional teaching field nearly 13 years ago, shortly after I completed the fourth grade. The decision to teach was influenced in part by my fourth grade teacher, but also by my life-long desire to learn and share what I have learned with others.
I often had individuals, both those I had known and near-strangers, tell me that I would make a great teacher. I tried to take advantage of every opportunity to teach. Perhaps the earliest true teaching experience I had was when I was 12 years old. I was enrolled in a church Sunday school class that had no teacher. My classmates and I were unable to find the individual in charge of the program, so we took it upon ourselves to take charge of our classroom. (In retrospect, I don’t think we looked too hard for him.) I was made the unofficial teacher for the classroom. Each week for six months, I would go to our church library and get the lesson manual and supplies needed for our class. Often I would prepare the lesson ahead of time. At the end of this six-month period, the Sunday school president finally noticed that we had no adult teacher. When he asked where our teacher was, the entire class explained that, in lieu of our teacher (whom we had never met), I had been teaching the class. This experience was particularly noteworthy to me because the Sunday school president’s son was in my class. Shortly after that, we had a “real” teacher assigned to our class, but even today, those who were in our class that year talk about what a great experience it was for us to teach each other, while I lead our class in learning.
I continued to seek out opportunities to teach all people whenever the chance arrived. Throughout my experiences in the public education system, I would lead study groups, help my peers, and give guidance to my classmates. About a year after graduating high school, starting in November 2002, I had the opportunity to serve as a traveling lay minister for my church for two years. During that time, I was assigned to the San Bernardino County area of California. This area was very different, culturally, economically, and socially from my small hometown in Illinois. I was able to learn much about others’ cultures and beliefs, which have been a very positive influence on my ideas of diversity. One family, in particular, I was able to get to know quite well was the Oliver/Woods family. This was a low-income, African-American family consisting of a recently divorced mother and her five daughters, ages ranging from 14 to 8 years old. By getting to know this family, I was able to learn how to tailor teaching to those whose experiences and background were very different from my own, but I was also able to learn that there are many things about all people that are universal, such as the desire to learn and know more about the world around us. While there were many moments when things I said were not understood, due to our cultural differences, these moments of confusion allowed us to discuss them and develop mutual understanding. From this experience, I learned how easy it can be to overcome potential barriers by building bridges of tolerance and understanding.
Another aspect of my work during these two years was to provide community service in the neighbourhoods in which I lived. At one point, we had the opportunity to volunteer at the library of a local grade school. Here, again, we had the chance to get to know children of various backgrounds and learn more about the diverse culture that exists within our nation. Another time, we helped a family with several home improvement projects. As with the Oliver/Woods family, Ana was the mother in a single-parent home with several children. As we helped with the projects around the house, we were able to help the children become involved in many tasks that they may not have been able to participate in otherwise. This experience taught me the importance of not under-estimating children because of their racial, ethnic, cultural, or economic backgrounds. They were often eager and willing to learn and to help, and we were more than willing to help them do so.
Teaching is so much more than presenting information from a textbook. It is also more than creating a classroom that is open to diversity, although these are both important aspects of it. The best descriptions of teaching I know comes from a movie I saw some time ago: “A teacher has two jobs. To fill young minds with knowledge, yes. But also to act as a compass to give those minds direction.” The true teacher is one who guides students to a personal, life-long quest for knowledge, so that some day the student can, as Elbert Hubbard once observed, “get along without his teacher.” To “get along” is to be able to learn, to appreciate, and to understand the changing world in which we live, and it is my hope to be a part of that process.
That is why I teach.