What Does it Mean To Be a Teacher?

Allen Platter NEW-

“I hate this stupid job!”  I cursed after my elementary students left the classroom. It was the end of another agonizing day at work.  The children had brutally taken advantage of me – just like they had the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that.  I’d been a schoolteacher for a little over a year.  I was a fledgling neophyte: fresh out of college, timid in demeanor, lacking in confidence to project an imperious “teacher-voice,” and devoid of experience to implement effective behavior management.  I wanted out of this Godforsaken career. A year as a teacher was one year too much.  But alas, it was only the end of the first month of school. I leaned back against the chalkboard wall.  My legs buckled with fatigue, and I solemnly slid to the floor.   Burying my face in my hands, I let myself go completely, and cried.  I chose my fate to be a teacher.  And now I would reap the punishing harvest I’d sown.

Then I heard a knock on the door.  Randall, the school director and kindergarten teacher, was standing over me.  He watched me in silence for a few moments, then pulled up a chair to commiserate.  “You want to talk about it?” he asked softly.

I could have expressed so many raging feelings of stress, pain, resentment, and fear.  But instead all that came out was a peculiar question. “What does it mean to be a teacher?” I muttered between sobs.  And immediately I felt stupid for asking it.  I wished I could take it back and exchange it for a verbal onslaught of woeful complaints to illustrate to Randall just how shitty my day was.  After all I wasn’t in the mood to have a philosophical debate about education.  But it was too late.

I didn’t know that this question – “What does it mean to be a teacher?” – would alter my life forever.  I didn’t realize that by asking it, I would activate the first turning of the wheels that would carry me through a prosperous and rewarding teaching career. Randall began: “Deciding to become a teacher to educate school children is like deciding to become a doctor to cure sick people.  You would have to be utterly insane to endure the pain and heartache that come parceled with both professions.”

I felt even more hopelessly defeated, completely let down by Randall’s response.  How could he say such a thing?  Was it really true that teachers’ lives always suck?  Were teachers really destined to forever endure the punishing stress of their career?  I felt a wave of anger surge across my face.  My head trembled with frustration.  I wanted to cry out, “Then why the hell am I here?!  I want to go home!  I’m tired of this shit!  I’m a failure! I can’t do this anymore! I made a mistake!  It was all just a big mistake!”

But Randall just smiled at me with sterling affection.  “You would be crazy to be a teacher,” he repeated.  “Unless…” He paused again to let it sink in.  “Unless what?”  I wanted to whine, but I kept my mouth shut.  “Unless you truly do it out of love, compassion, and care for the children.”  His empathic smile turned into a victorious grin, as if he was already convinced that that was all he needed to say to change my mind.

He was right. Five years later, I am still a teacher.  I love my job.  And I already know that I will love it more and more as I continue to innovate my craft.  Since the episode with Randall, I’ve done a lot of personal reflection, tackling all kinds of self-inflicted inquiries such as: Why did I react to the students in that way? What did or didn’t I do well today, and why? How did students respond to the lesson today? What evidence do I have that my students are learning?

The point I am making here is simple: reflect on your actions and…oh the places you’ll go!  I’ll let Dr. Suess finish it for me: “You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting,  so get on your way!”