Why Teach Kids? Self-Care and Preservation
Note: I recently found a somewhat long-form piece from a while back that I never really did anything with after I wrote it. So I’m going to slice it up into more manageable pieces and post them over the next few weeks. The source material was written before my initial departure from the classroom, but given my upcoming return to teaching, I think it’s a useful exercise to get this out on the page for examination.
The order in which these pieces are presented is nothing other than an artifact of how they were written.
I want a job where I'm happy. When I was a teenager, I worked at a movie theater. It was an “art theater,” as far outside the mainstream movie theater experience as could likely exist while still paying an hourly wage. It was the kind of place where old liberals congregate when they’ve committed to settling down in a particular geographical location. A place that had a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival from well before I started working there in the mid-90’s. It was about as laid back a work experience as any that could be on offer for a long island teenager with extreme left-leaning tendencies. And for all of that, I was still an incredibly terrible movie theater worker. I’m sure there are many reasons why, not the least of which being that I was a crappy middle-class suburban teenager, with all of the lack of drive and self-awareness that such a frame implies, but the main reason why I think I was so terrible at the job was because it was boring to me. This isn’t a knock on the job or the place. I don’t think I’m casting aspersions when I point out the role of a movie theater jockey is dull and repetitive. There was a lot of time to read and smoke cigarettes, but fundamentally there was no real intellectual challenge to the work and fundamentally there was no real intrinsic value to me in the gig. I could (and eventually would) easily be replaced by another, probably-less-crappy teenager. Put another way, the job didn’t do anything for me except give me a paycheck, and as such it didn’t hold interest for me.
Now before I get too much farther, let me acknowledge that I totally understand what a luxury it is to be able to pursue or not pursue a job because of something as abstract and self-important as the individual intellectual merits of the thing. The vast majority of human beings who have ever lived on this planet have had much less liberty when determining where to put their working effort, driven by far more reality-based considerations (ex. not starving to death). The very fact that I can write something like what I’ve written above means that I’m in an elite place in human existence where I have a level of privilege that lets me make choices based on such pleasantries. Pleasantries that (particularly at that point in my life) I did remarkably little to earn other than be born to white, middle-class Americans at the end of the 20th century. I get that, and if you think that disqualifies me from writing about my experiences, then you probably want to stop reading right about here. I also don't mean to suggest that I was not grateful to an organization that paid me to do this work, and tolerated my substandard efforts for years. But if I can convince you that even with all of these issues piled up in a heap that I still might have a valid thought or two about this kind of thing, then let’s press on.
To get back to my earlier point, my experience as a menial theater worker demonstrated to me very clearly that it would be in my best interest to find work to do that was work that I wanted to do, instead of work that I had to do. That is probably not rocket science to anyone reading this, but I think it’s an important point for my thinking about teaching. When considering the types of work that I would like to do, the number of possible options that I might entertain boils down to a handful. Remove the jobs that require some amount of artistic talent, or “luck” more generally to make ends meet, and that number shrinks even more. Finally, factor in some of the other reasons that will follow this one, and I’m left with really only one possible option: Teaching.
I think it’s fundamentally important to understand this about my teaching: There are many ancillary reasons and rewards to the job, but ultimately the main driving force for me is that I simply can not envision doing anything else. For all the other reasons why teaching is a good job, the number one reason for me is self-preservation. Doing the work of teaching science to kids is not a hardship. I don’t think it demands any sacrifice, or nobility. I would just be plainly miserable in another type of job, and I have learned from experience that I should try to avoid situations wherein I am miserable. It’s as simple as that.
I am not an example of the "selfless" teacher. In fact, I'm exactly the opposite. Teaching is one of the most selfish things that I do, and I have the good fortune to make a living doing it.
Is this resonant for you? Is it dissonant? Drop me a line or leave a comment if you have something to say.
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