A Teacher’s Purpose

The day of my college graduation ceremony all I can remember is crying. There are plenty of pictures to recollect my family’s glee, the joy I saw in my classmates and the pride on my teacher’s faces. All I remember when I think about that day, however, is crying. Why was I crying you make ask?  Because on the day of my college graduation I had decided that, after five years of preparing and studying, I no longer wanted to be a teacher. 

The final requirement for my graduation was a student teaching seminary. This was, perhaps, not the best way to organize it. I wasn’t assigned a school by my university; I wasn’t supervised by a fellow teacher; no, I was supposed to find a job. A real teaching job. My teacher would then check my lesson plans and come watch me a few times, and that was it.  Most of my classmates found jobs at the school affiliated to our university and became classroom assistants, learning from the tutelage of teachers with years of experience under their belt. I decided I had to be different, being the contrary soul that I am. I sent applications near and far, and got denial or silence. I hadn’t, after all, graduated yet. The few offers I got were to teach ESL, something I had been doing in some form or another since I was 14. Something I no longer wanted to do. 

And then my birthday came, and a family friend called to wish me a happy day and see how I was doing with my life. I told him I couldn’t find a position anywhere. He told me to come work for him at one of the most well known schools in the country. I applied, got offered an ESL job and refused. I then mentioned my interest was in teaching Literature. A few days later I got a call offering me a teaching job. Teaching Social Studies (a subject I will now confess I knew very little about) to 13-year-olds. 200 of them. I accepted on the spot and ran to the library to prepare my lessons for the upcoming year. Fortunately for me I had an entire summer to prepare. 

At the start of class, then, my classmates were facing classrooms with 25 students with the main responsibility being placed on someone else. I was faced with 5 classes, each with 40 boys that were ready to challenge me to the highest extent. The very first day I was exhilarated. Did you see how participative? How smart? How engaged? I was rocking this teaching thing! This was the best thing I had ever done in my life! It was amazing! I assigned homework, left school and went to my afternoon classes feeling the highest high I had had in my life. 

Next day my students handed in their homework. Every single one of them had plagiarized their work. Every one of them got a 0 on their work and I left feeling dejected. How could they have done something like that to me after we had such a wonderful first day? How could they have been so lazy? And then, my first day of parent teacher conferences I was bombarded with parents telling me how my actions were evil. I self righteously told them exactly why they were wrong and I was right.

It took me about a month to realize that I had been wrong.  Yes, I know. Slow learner, right? I had never explained what I wanted properly. I hadn’t taught them to research. I hadn’t guided their process, and then I had been disappointed. When I look at that first year now I cringe thinking about what I did, all the mistakes and flaws in my plan. How tired and resentful I was. How I very much wanted to quit, but couldn’t quite face my student loan bills with a “can’t do it – this ain’t for me” attitude. How I fought through it. 

Seven years later I still am in touch with some of those students. A couple of them continue helping me with school events even though they graduated two years ago. When we discuss that fateful first year with them, and that particular disaster of my first assignment… turns out most of them don’t remember what I considered to be an epic disaster. A few remember it with glee, speaking about how it had been the first time they had been told that copy/paste was not an adequate way of getting information. When I ask them what they do remember (cringing in preparation for them to tell that they remember me being a disorganized mess), most of them remember one thing. I listened to them. I was with them when they were down. I was interested in them.  Sure, some remember the subject matter I taught.  The activities they enjoyed. Most, however, just remember me. 

Nothing here is new. Perhaps all of this is simply a rambling mess and you are wondering why you are reading this through (and if you are I am most grateful to you that you are). Mostly, I just want to say to you, fellow teacher, and to myself, don’t forget who you are. Don’t forget why you are doing what you do. . Just as much as they matter to you. 

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