Why Would I Teach For Thirty Years?

What is it about the profession that keeps some people there for 30 years?

 

Many teachers would automatically reply “I love the kids”, but after almost 30 years in the classroom, I have a different answer:  “It keeps me young.”  Not to sound self serving, but I do feel rejuvenated and fulfilled from the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship, and I know that teaching helps keep me in shape both mentally and physically.

I’ll admit that this sounds really selfish, but let’s take a look at this more carefully.  Effective teaching requires mental alertness and acuity. Teaching is a demanding mental task.

I think on my feet constantly while multitasking.  All of my responses—both verbal and gestures—have the potential to ignite or damage that fire in the classroom.  I can turn a child on to learning and help her believe in herself, or I can damage his self esteem.

Someone told me a teacher makes 5000 decisions a day (no wonder I’m tired at the end of the day!)  In a short 5 minute interim in my senior English class, I can respond to everything from “Why in the world does Hamlet choose such an unusual tactic?” to “May I go in the hall and blow my nose?”  My replies to students must be built upon their comments in order to help push them into higher thinking and reasoning.  If Zach’s response to my question about the poet’s purpose is a little off the mark, rather than telling him “No, that’s wrong”, I need to find the way to ask him the correct questions to lead him to a more thoughtful answer.  This constant interplay is demanding, but it also helps me exercise my brain.  I must plan and organize, I must deliver and receive, I must evaluate everything….and wow, then grading.  Grading papers is something I really don’t enjoy about teaching, particularly for an English teacher.  However, that part of the job also requires a commitment to mental focus and careful evaluation.

Teaching is an artful craft, and the more I do it, the more I realize how hard this job is.  At the same time, the rewards are there.  Not the tangible ones, like a comfortable salary or bonus, or even much more than a candy bar for Teacher Appreciation Week, but the satisfaction of seeing your efforts affect a young person in a positive way.  Yes, those lightbulbs, those serendipitous moments when the student says “Oh, is she really suggesting that Dr. Frankenstein might be the monster?”  The joyful, and often playful, discussions and projects in a Senior English class keep my mind young and engaged.

And staying in shape physically? Oh yes.  Not only am I on my feet all day, but being a high school teacher usually involves several good ab workouts every day.  In other words, I laugh and smile a lot.  As I walk through the halls, I notice the kids.  Hoodies, jeggings and skinny jeans, some pants still sagging, ear phones in, back packs.  I chuckle and grin to myself.  They all think they are so unique and yet there is so much similarity.   I overhear comments like “Oh my goodness.  You dropped your phone.  Your life is over.”  So young and so innocent, and yet they think they are so worldly.

Since I first started teaching, students have always teased me about how quickly I move in the halls.  Some of that is due to the fact that we only have 5 minutes between classes, but some of my quick pace is because I am reenergized just being in the building with these young people.  I feel it when my feet hit the pavement at 6:45 AM..and it continues throughout the day. The energizer bunny gets reenergized.

The ab workouts mainly happen in class.  While reading “To His Coy Mistress”, Tommy responds “Is he trying to get her to do the horizontal monster mash?” Of course, you have to laugh.  Adam writes “I have learned so much in a warm and neutering environment.” (Don’t get me wrong, that isn’t how we manage classrooms).  You can’t make this stuff up, but it is all part of the enjoyment and pleasure of interacting with high school students.

So why do I teach? Of course, it really is the students, but it is an added bonus to think how they are keeping me young and enthusiastic!

 

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  • BillIvey

    Finishing up my 30th full-time year…

    … (not counting my three years as a Teaching Assistant at UMass and my year as a lecteur at the Université de Bordeaux – III). What holds me most solidly in the classroom is the energy, passion, creativity, empathy, and insight the kids bring to their work. Nearly every single day is a surprise and a delight, and those that aren’t still bring learning and the promise of a new day and a moving forward. It all gives me a sense of purpose in helping to make the world a better place, to some extent directly but to an even greater extent indirectly through giving the kids the space to become themselves and go out and do good in the world.

    • NancyGardner

      Spot on, Bill!

      I can’t imagine another job that provides rewards like the ones you describe.  Your understanding of that, and your wise articulation of that reflection, lets me know those kids are dang lucky to have you as their teacher!

  • akrafel

    Nourishing the Light

    Thank you for this post.  Sometimes I feel like just an old lady, but you reminded me of how I keep from being just an old lady. I have taught for + 30 years too, was forced into retirement by an illness and am now returning to the classroom part time.  I really agree with you about the selfish part.  I love being in the classroom.  What pulls me back is the light shining in their eyes at being alive and growing.  When we can say the right thing, do the best thing in the classroom and see those eyes light up, the soul bounding upward, it keeps me alive too. All those decisions and love of learning keeps our minds agile and useful. I really missed not having that.  Being part of nourishing the light is important to my ability to shine my light too.  I suppose you could say that is selfish, but it is much more complicated than that.  Good teaching is a wonderful dance between minds and hearts, it is truely an amazing profession.  To be able to care so much for others, to laugh with them, walk and share with them more than keeps me young, although it does that too, it keeps me alive and in touch.  I am so grateful that I am not alone in feeling this way.

    • NancyGardner

      Nourish the light

      I have a feeling you will keep dancing–with your mind and your heart. We have to maintain a balance between school and “life”, but it is sometimes hard to distinguish the two.  

  • marsharatzel

    Students push me 2 overcome aches & pains

    Dear Nancy,

    I have been at this about 20 years and you took the words right out of my mouth.  I completely understand your comment about how students put a smile on your face as they roll their eyes, experience friend drama and triumph over material that is difficult.

    My only worry is endurance.  I teach science and there is loads of equipment to be setup, taken down and I feel the physical stress.  I think it was better when there weren’t so many demands on my planning/before/after school time….so I could drag everything out and set it up or put things away.  Now I’m stuck in meetings and data meetings or filling out more paperwork….and I don’t have the time to do both.  It stresses me out.

    But leave it to students to find ways to energize me and make it worth all the physical aches and pains.

    • akrafel

      Endurance

      Endurance was an issue for me too.  The physical stress of the job simply laid me down because I was not taking enough time in my day for me.  I needed more rest as I got older and I just did not do it, so my health collapsed.  So my advise to you is to rest more. Teachers are such strivers.  We do not give ourselved permission to just sit down, drink a cuppa and rest.  Pay attention to your body.

      • NancyGardner

        Excellent advice

        Your advice is for veterans or beginning teachers.  We sometimes laugh about all of the exposures to germs, but that is a factor as well.  We have to maintain that balance and take care of our own needs…hard for us to do sometimes!

    • NancyGardner

      The job demands have changed…

      The endurance factor isn’t just “aging” as I know the job has gotten more and more demanding.  Meetings/forms/paperwork/emails/etc,etc wear you down, and sometimes feel totally disconnected from the joys and routines of the classroom experience.  I think we all feel “young” when teaching, but old and tired when doing the other stuff.

      I actually started teaching in 1974, took 13 years off to stay at home with three young children, and then returned in 1989.  It is still invigorating, but I now realize how hard we work!

  • LilianaSanchez

    it keeps me young

    Nancy!

    Such a beautiful positive post! I love it!

    You expressed beautifully what I feel teaching ”  keeps me young”, well I have not taught for 30 years yet but it is the feeling I have when I wake up every morning!.  You also said ” fulfilled from the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship, and I know that teaching helps keep me in shape both mentally and physically.”, and yes this is the beauty of teaching we are everyday exploring life, thinking in solutions and giving all our heart.

    You said ” it may sound selfish” , but is instead of selfishness, is our duty to be aware of all beauty and self improvement that comes with teaching. We have so many opportunities to be creative, to be empathetic, our emotional intelligence, our observation skills all improving, and as you said physical and mental alertedness growing up our neurons!

    thank you for such a beautiful post!

    Regards from Oxford-UK

     

    • NancyGardner

      Across the pond!
      Liliana–many thanks for your comments and reflection on the beauties of teaching. So glad to have you in the CTQ collaboratory.
      Nancy

  • LizPrather

    The Constant Interplay

    Nancy, 

    Excellent post! I love your humor, energy, and passion.  I’m finishing my 20th and a fourth block creative writing class of 40 expressive, high -energy, all-drama freshman just about did me in, but it was one of the most successful classes I’ve ever had because of the energy it gave me, even in the midst of the exhaustion. 

    The constant say-back, the individualized feedback, that is the part of teaching that is hard to quantify – the dance, the interplay, the nuance of response, how to calibrate the answer to lead to the next thought for one student may not be the right leading question for the next, or you might just state the answer for a third. 

    Thanks again for a great post!

  • NancyGardner

    The art of teaching..

    Liz-

    A class of 40 dramatic freshpersons would certainly be exhausting, but energizing–impressive that you are still “dancing”.

    You really capture the beauty and difficulty of our craft. It’s a subtle idea  others don’t completely understand unless they have actually been in the classroom for a few years  (as a teacher, not a student!)  This also supports the idea that teachers get better with experience and that we must give more support to teachers who are just starting their careers.

    Happy well deserved summer “break”–as I know you will simply be working on the choreography for next year’s new batch of students.

    Nancy 

     

     

    • benowens

      Teaching (done well) = The Fountain of Youth

      What a fantastic post, Nancy! And having met you in person, I can vouch for the fact that teaching is indeed a fountain of youth for you!

      Your post also got me thinking about how a better job I now do in my teaching career with respect to a work/life balance than I did when I was in the corporate world. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my previous career and I’ve always been a bit fanatical about my diet and exercise, but I absolutely LOVE teaching and I believe it shows. So, like you, I think my daily interaction with a diverse group of students that are less than half my age keeps a smile on my face and a spring in my step. The elixir of adapting to their individual needs, guiding them into new places of discovery, listening to ideas (and their music!), and being a role model helps keep me young at heart and eager to face a new and exciting day each day and each year. May we both have many more years of this youthful vocation ahead of us!

      -Ben

      • Nancy Gardner

        Summers are for rejuvenation..

        You're totally right about the balance, especially as the years begin to mount up.   And summers must be used for some rejuvenation.  I read fiction and fun stuff in the summer, not serious books.  I also rarely set an alarm clock so my internal clock wakes me up rather than the 4:50 AM school alarm clock.  It usually takes me a few weeks to adjust to "sleeping in" until 7 or 7:30, but it definitely feels better.  Relax, rejuvenate, recharge…