Why I teach: Giving voice

I teach, mostly, because I like it. I find it intensely interesting. It is creative and varied and this suits me, since I’m someone who gets bored easily. Teaching is challenging and when I do it right, I can get into a zone of flow, as psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi put it or a “high” as fifth year teacher Kate Mulcahy calls it in this great post, Those who can only do, don’t teach.

I teach also because it’s become a part of my identity—a dynamic element of who I am—that I continually develop. Veteran teacher leader Nancy Flanagan described this sentiment in her recent post, Not another “Why I left the classroom” story:

Teachers in my generation didn’t have to ponder every spring: should I stay or should I go? They considered teaching their life’s work, an honorable choice, a service to their communities…Teaching—even in easier times—has never been for the faint of heart or the wishy-washy. Stay in the classroom because you believe you’re a teacher and you’re committed to teaching.

I recently discovered another reason why I teach, or at least, what drew me to teaching. I’m writing a book (I’ll share much more about that soon!) and the process of writing something longer really forces me to go into depth on my teaching practice—both what I do and why. The “why” has led me down some interesting memory pathways.

I found myself remembering in detail a moment in college where I discovered how to write a true essay, one where I really had something to say and said it in my own voice. I had been reading a lot of literature as well as literary and other post-modern critics, heavy on deconstructing power structures.

The quick version of what I had to say is this:

We keep reading this extremely insightful criticism of the hierarchy and the elitism that the Western world upholds through language, literary circles, cultural norms and narratives, politics and political narratives, media, etc. My mind has certainly been opened by this criticism. And yet, week after week, we are reading and writing in language that is so specialized that it’s basically incomprehensible to anyone but elite literature scholars. And we hold these discussions inside of an elite institution, where we are our only temporary listeners.

The post-modern critics were making such important points in what seemed like the quietest way possible, and this bothered me. I wanted to be having this same discussion in language that could be understood by most people, in connection with a broader, more inclusive, community. (Perhaps this post suggests that the critics actually had more reach than I thought at the time but my frustration was visceral.) I was moved to leave academia and go where I might actually change who gets to participate in the narrative that surrounds our society. This was one of several crucial moments that called me to education.

There is the misguided “save the kids” syndrome with which some (especially those with privilege) enter teaching. I don’t feel moved when I hear people talk vaguely about teachers “changing lives” and “making an impact.” But I feel passionate about teaching kids from all backgrounds how to voice who they are. I want my students to become aware of the opportunity they have to participate in and co-create the story of our global society.

Am I trying to change the world? I’m slightly embarrassed to say yes—absolutely. But if you could see the future and told me that the world would be the same when I retire, I would keep on teaching.

 

[Image credit: goinswriter.com]

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