Why I’m a Teacher

This is me.
This is me.


People react to my telling them I’m a teacher in predictable ways. They all seem to assume the same things: I must enjoy spending time with children, living vicariously through teenagers, teaching a pet subject, or lounging about during summer vacations. In small part, these reasons are true. Alone, though, these reasons are insufficient: I’ve only nodded along with these people’s ideas about my choice of profession because I haven’t the time to explain my reasons. It’s complicated. It’s too much to explain in one sitting to a stranger who asks the inevitable: “Whatcha do?” and “Why you doin’ it?” expecting a few words wrapped in a smile. Let me explain now— teaching is like being a stream in a forest. I want to be that stream.

A stream anywhere is a lifeline splitting the ground—wherever it goes, the birds, the bears, the bees, the trees—all visit the stream to drink and to survive. Plants shoot their roots towards it; animals won’t stray from it. A teacher is like a stream; wherever she is, there is life-giving knowledge. Teaching, I give students something to help them thrive. For Johnny, I give the ability to read when he couldn’t. For Frieda, I give the ability to write clearly. For Xinyu, I give the ability to debate, research, and vote.So, I nourish them.

And I nourish their families too. A teacher is also a judge, psychiatrist, manager, family and marriage therapist, social worker, and activist. If Mary’s family is troubled, I’ll likely be the first outside her family to know, and perhaps her only confidant. If Jason’s having mental problems and overdosing on prescription drugs—yes, I’ll be at the hospital too. If Yousuf’s family can’t be approved citizens after five years, it’ll write to government bureaucrats. I’ve seen teachers do all these things; I’ve seen them do it after a long day of school spent building up their students with kind words. That’s what convinced me a teacher is like a stream nourishing and building all around them.

But to be a nourishing stream and a model of humanity for students thirty-five hours a week a teacher must not be burnt up inside—she faces, then, the challenge of bettering herself. This moral transformation is a perk of the job: struggling to explain a concept for the tenth time, a teacher develops patience; dealing with a student with behaviour issues, courage; knowing a student’s personal struggles, empathy; marking students’ papers fairly, a just mind; and, finally, dropping the I’m-a-university-grad-and-too-smart-to-teach-thirteen-year-olds persona, humility. Before the teacher knows it, she’s a pure stream:  a teacher with soul. Is there a better end?

The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, made an observation about streams relevant to teachers.When he said“no man ever steps in the same [stream] twice,” he meant that as a stream is never the same, so too reality is always changing. Teachers, like Heraclitus’ stream, are constantly re-inventing themselves if they’re worth a sticker. At sixteen— I know only now— I was a new tutor, an illiterate, and a bad writer despite high grades. Then, I knew nearly nothing; now, I know much more.My profession demands it. I’ve learned about how the mind operates; how your mind differs from mine; how your family affects your learning; what your lunch tells me about you. And, apart from studying psychology, I’ve learned technology. Smartboards, ipads, elmos, blogs, and the like—these are my new blackboard. Because I’m a teacher, I’ve forced myself into the twenty-first century. Because I’m a teacher, I keep learning. I’ll always be a stream overflowing with freshness.

So, let this be my answer to all those who ask, “Why did you decide to be a teacher?”:I’m a teacher, because it’s like being a stream in a forest. A stream is no small thing. It nourishes others, it keeps pure, it alters and reflects in beautiful ways. Though you can’t see a stream immediately when looking at the forest trees, or hear it in the racket of hoots and howls, you can be sure it’s there. It’s quietly bubbling along the forest floor, minding its own business, observing all around, seeking out roots. I know it may sound odd, but I want to do that for a living.