Why Teach Kids? A Thing Worth Doing
This is the second in a three-part series of posts about my reasons for teaching. If you are interested in the first part, you can find it here. This piece has echoes of ideas that I have fleshed-out in other places.
I want a job that contributes something. I have a pretty strong desire to do something useful with my working life. I suppose a case can be made that any job is “useful.” But I think it’s good to aim high here and try to maximize utility in working life. Current trends in employment, etc. being what they are, I figure I’m going to work until I’m somewhere around 60 years old. I started teaching at the very end of my 23rd year. That’s 37 years of time that I will devote to a life pursuit. That’s a long time. It’s exactly as long as I’ve lived to this point. Some people might be content to spend a significant chunk of one’s life working a routine gig that doesn’t focus on too much of anything outside of the need to collect a paycheck or some other goal. My internal compass is pretty firmly oriented in another direction; toward doing work that I think makes a difference. Teaching is a natural fit for this purpose, in that it is relatively easy to make a relatively significant difference in the lives of a relatively significant number of people doing it, assuming you are willing to work hard at doing it correctly.
Lest I be accused of delusions of grandeur, I assure you that I am not harboring some sort of savior complex, or other overblown conception of the work that I do. My own teaching life is spent teaching higher-level science to high-school-aged children. But even from this standpoint (or maybe because of it), I’m pretty comfortable with the notion that my teaching provides a tangible and useful benefit to the life of any student, regardless of their academic standing. Scientific literacy is an incredibly important skill set for every member of American society to possess. Without going too much down a particular ideological road, I’ll suggest that many of the difficulties that permeate our society stem at least in part from a general lack of the ability to conduct a reasoned evaluation of evidence when reaching conclusions about the best course of action. The job of a science teacher in helping students to develop the skills needed to be better at such things seems crystal clear to me.
So there’s that, but the job of being a teacher extends well beyond the subject that we teach, or even the ways of thinking, and skills that we try to foster. Most of teaching is about building relationships and modeling how to be one particular version of a mature and functional member of society. Leave notions of science learners using the biology and chemistry that they pick up from my courses aside, for most of the students that we work with (and here I mean all of us who teach) it’s these relationships that are the primary “lesson” to be taken from the process. Students are actively engaged in learning how to be human beings from their teachers. Assuming they are lucky enough to still have a relatively complete set of parents and close family/friends, we are the only other version of functioning adult that most children have regular access to. So much of the impact that I have is in showing younger humans how to be a kind, compassionate, and understanding older human. It’s the work of providing possibilities for how to exist. Even at the level where I spend my teaching life, with students primed to LOVE the material we are engaging with, they are still going to remember the kindness that I show, and the way of being that I demonstrate for a much longer period than they will remember the nifty analogy I used to explain the functioning of a ribosome or some other smidgeon of my subject.
What’s particularly interesting to me about this aspect of the job is that it is impossible for me to know what parts of being exposed to me as a teacher are going to stick most for students. I have learned from experience that the things that I think are stickiest in this regard tend not to be. I can’t even count the number of times at this point in my working life that a former student has crossed my path and, after the requisite bit of catching up, has told me about a particular experience from my course, or asked about some seemingly minor thing that I have no recollection of at all. They all sound like things that I probably would have done or said, even though for the life of me I usually don’t remember any of them. But my students do, and that’s the point.
This is the kind of difference that a teacher makes, more often than not. There are also the more obvious things that teachers do to “make a difference.” The kind of things that the non-teaching public tends to relate to as either being indicative of charity (ex. founding a chapter of the Gay-Straight Alliance for no additional compensation), or indicative of a teacher letting their personal beliefs cloud the objective job of “teaching” (the same example, as viewed through the more conservative worldview). Teachers are well positioned within the school system to use the system to build significant, sustained structures by which the members of the school can improve the broader community. In functional school systems, the only thing needed to do these kinds of things is a will to do them, a group of interested students, and a teacher or two to help massage the administrative and institutional processes of the system. It’s easy to use a school system to do relatively big things in a community.
At the root, it should probably be the mission of the place.