Thursday, November 17, 2016

Why Teach? A Somewhat Brief Overview of How and Why I Became a Teacher

For my whole adult life, I have worked in schools; first as a high school teacher and for the past 10 years, as a counsellor. In fact, since the age of 2, I have been in school. And, while it isn't a heart-pumping thrill-ride each and everyday, I love what I do and consider myself so fortunate to wake up and actually look forward to going to work and that I leave each evening feeling like I made a difference and have had an impact on the lives of the youth I work with.

Recently I was cornered by one of my recent graduates, but to be fair and accurate, I was already near the corner of my office when he entered so it wasn't entirely his fault. Turns out he was looking for some career advice and he wanted to pick my brain, metaphorically speaking of course, or else I would not have been interested in the slightest. Career counselling is one of my favourite aspects of my job and I love helping a student figure out who they are, what their strengths are and what sort of careers would be a good fit. We also, if time permits, try on fake mustaches.

This student was considering becoming a teacher himself and, after a short, but enthusiastic, round of applause, he asked about my story - why I went into education and didn't pursue a more obviously lucrative career like pig farming. The whole thing felt sort of like how a researcher who is interested in how a mouse responds to different stimuli must feel, just on a much larger scale. I paused before replying to make sure it wasn't part of an elaborate prank or that he wasn't asking solely to check the status of my sanity. Then. after attempting to sneak out the back door before remembering that I only had one door to my office which he was not-so-coincidentally blocking, I began to think. I took a few moments to stroke my glorious summer project, my beard, as well as considering the answer to his question, a question I've been asked many times before.

Why teach?

A question that is gloriously simple which, coincidentally, is also how my kindergarten teacher described me to my parents on my final progress report.

A question that is as good as it is short and it's also a question kids used to ask me when I assigned too much homework, only hopefully including a comma in those instances.

A question I'd first been asked all those years ago when I was about to enter the Teacher Education program at UBC in 1994 and many many times since by the bartender at my summer job, my friends becoming doctors or lawyers, my private section squash league teammates, a random passerby dressed as a banana who was being pursued by a pack of other guys dressed as monkeys as well as so many others.

Obviously there is no one correct answer, but before I relaxed too much I reminded myself, there are plenty of wrong answers with my having a God Complex and wanting a daily excuse to hear myself talk being just two of them. And my response, when asked this question, is not solely why I chose to teach, but also why anyone would go down that suspiciously well-lit path in the forest when other paths are also well-lit while also having far better signage. Each time this query arises I feel as if I am having to explain/defend my profession as, unlike in other areas of the world, teachers are just not universally held in high regard by society. The implication always seems to be: why did you settle on teaching?

My answer to my student on that day, which was clearly lacking in eloquence thanks to my genetics, was that I just always knew I wanted to be a teacher. He appeared to be considering backing away slowly or creating a diversion so that he could flee to safety or find higher ground in case of a flood, but instead he stayed partially to ask some follow up questions and partially because he'd paid for parking and felt like getting his money's worth. I liked his moxie and said as much, just not in those words.

In the conversation that followed I told both my rags-to-riches story as well as the infinitely more enjoyable, though less based in reality, riches-to-rags-as-part-of-an-elaborate-hoax-to-find-true-love story that I'm trying to get made into a modern rock opera as I write this. I really wanted to try to help my student figure out if education was the career for him, as it is not for everyone. To help, I'd brought along props and a light snack.

My story all started when I was young boy who was often intentionally mistaken for Little Orphan Annie because of my curly red hair and my propensity for breaking out into song while wearing a red dress. That boy, let's call him Frank just in case the Feds are reading, got up each day and went to school, because that's what little boys named Frank do. When not in school, Frank spent a lot of time in an elaborate dreamworld populated by highly intelligent unicorns who bullied him mercilessly. Frank also was highly proficient at the ancient art of whining.

All joking aside, I loved school from the beginning - the classrooms in all their rectangular and nondescript glory, the hallways full of joyfully poor children's artwork, the bells or buzzers or jazzy saxophone riffs that mark the start and end of everything and the sense of community which I am contractually unable to joke about until the year 2024. 

I distinctly recall being in grade three or four and I was, among other things, quite cute, like a smaller, less disillusioned and more infinitely more adorable version of my present self. It was recess and as we ran after one another, screaming, the conversation on the schoolyard turned, as it invariably does among 9 year olds, to our future careers as we had exhausted all that could be said about more macho topics like cars and sheet metal and the negative impact steroids may one day have on professional sports.

We went around the circle, naming jobs we were dreaming of doing and, maybe this is an indirect critique of my ability to dream big, but I was the odd one who didn't want to be an astronaut or a doctor or a cowboy or a princess. I mean I sort of wanted to be a princess, but only a fictitious one or a cowboy but only the kind that has absolutely nothing to do with cows do to my irrational fear of being recruited to "their" side. I remember telling everyone, especially my somewhat proud and somewhat worried teacher, that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up. Then she made a note using her special long, red, tapped teacher's pen in her book while glancing up at me and shaking her head slowly from side to side.

I'm not sure what initially interested me in teaching. I'm not sure about a lot of things, but I'm attempting to keep this piece focussed. What initially attracted me to the job? The power? The responsibility? The ability to unfairly grade others on a curve? Being referred to as "Mister" or "Sir" or "O Bearded One" with only small amounts of sarcasm? For those wondering, I planned from an early age to one day grow a beard and, if all went well, to go full-Muppet at some point after that. But, I did like the idea of standing up in front of a class of wide-eyed kids with all eyes on me, but I also liked the idea of my sitting in front of a classroom of an empty classroom equipped with multiple containers of thick molasses and vats of feathers, but that is a story for a different day.

I'd be lying to say the power didn't interest me. This will be the last time I lie to you. And the responsibility spoke to me with a thick German accent who turned out to be my imaginary German exchange student, Hector, the entire time. I loved the idea that I alone would be given the immense responsibility to fill these impressionable young minds with ideas and the ability to think critically and to problem solve, just like I had the immense responsibility to fill buckets full of hot, sudsy water each Saturday afternoon for reasons my father refused to reveal.

Some would argue that it was my long-term exposure to teachers from a young age, while others would argue it was my exposure to large amounts of toxic glue, but all I know is that I just always wanted to teach and I often wondered why the trees always appeared to be melting before I remembered the glue. Back in elementary school, I was fortunate to have a number of passionate, caring and fun teachers who directly influenced my career path with only somewhat-obvious brainwashing, while also indirectly influencing my love of chalk. Chalk, I must say, is fabulous and to this day my spare time is often spent going outside and drawing immaculate coastline vistas using nothing but white chalk as my family decided that I wasn't ready for colours yet.

But sure, I spent so much of my formative years eating toast as well as sharing the space in and around teachers and school it left a mark which thankfully didn't leave a scar. The scars you see are from my short-lived desire to erase all of my freckles using extra-coarse sandpaper. I just really loved elementary school and, when no one was watching, I often hugged it. One time I called it "mom". Some may wonder if it was my first love, but that was my Raggedy Ann doll with Raggedy Andy being a close second. I believed that teachers were cool as they knew stuff and used their mouths, and occasionally their eyes, to teach things to us. I loved learning and the feeling in my brain as I learned, which I often described to my parents as being akin to how a garburator works. I'd sit there, in my desk, and multi-task - one part of my brain was actively learning, one part was strategically planning on either training to become a teacher or using my newly obtained powers of ESP and the other part was eating tuna fish straight from the can.

I dreamed of being a teacher and on expanding my caveman-like vocabulary too along the way. I wanted to be one of them; to write "nice try" or "close" or "come see me" on top of someone's paper, to enter the staffroom without feeling anxious or at least feeling less anxious then I did doing it as a kid, to resolve conflicts between students using the silent treatment juxtaposed with barking like a dog, to force others to raise their hands when wanting to talk to me which never worked on the schoolyard and to gain entry to their elusive club where I figured there was lots of hidden perks and free nougat.

And throughout high school and into university, I continued to love school and look up to my teachers mostly due to my lack of height, but also because I appreciated how hard they worked and how much they cared. Despite all of the rain, I never wavered from my future career goal. I got up each morning, brushed my hair into a wonderful afro, carefully made sure not to step on the cat, before feeling guilty and going back and stepping on him and then I continued marching towards my destiny as an educator. Others occasionally scoffed at me and my desire to be in school for the rest of my life, while others claimed they were just clearing their throats and that their proximity to me at the time was merely coincidental.

Though I was occasionally confused as to where I was going in life as evidenced by a glazed-over look not dissimilar to a glazed doughnut, I never really considered any other career. "Was this fate or just evidence of a lack of any real imagination" I was once asked? I spent many summers wondering why it couldn't be both while also liberally applying sunscreen. I mean sure, I had the flash-in-the-pan ideas of being a world-famous NBA broadcaster or a world-famous flamenco dancer or even a world-famous frying pan designer thus making all flashes in pans easier what with the copious amounts of pans on hand, but all roads pointed towards education and I skipped all the way there and I haven't stopped skipping till this day. Literally.

But, while I sat there on my chair, swiveling around slowly and dramatically, I considered the question "Why teach?" and all of the times I have had to explain or justify or fight off a pack of hungry wolves with the answer, which happens much more often that you'd think. Teaching in North America, unlike in many other countries, just isn't held in high regard by society. The age old joke that those who can't do, teach persists no matter how many times I demonstrate my ability to "do" things. So often I've found myself not only explaining my love for the work that I do, but also justifying teaching itself.

I strongly believe that teachers are as important to society as doctors and nurses and only slightly less important than creative writers. It just feels like important work, and as I sat there in front of my student, remembering so many amazing and cathartic experiences along the way - my education degree, student teaching, substitute teaching, my first permanent position, directing plays, my year of exchange teaching, and becoming a counsellor - it took all of my power not to weep. I always try, by the way, to weep outside in the rain.

As we continued to chat, I thought about my own path towards teaching and also about what continues to motivate me today, after over 20 years in education, to keep getting out of bed in the morning and head off towards school. My student wondered aloud if I ever found the job and the routines boring, while also wondering numerous other things that I was able to pick up on what with my natural telepathic abilities. Again, the answer is quite simple; I just really enjoy working with students and helping guide them. I feel that the job is a true higher calling which initially made me quite concerned what with my debilitating fear of heights.

Sure there is repetition, and some days are monotonous and mundane. Other days are a tad dry and uneventful. Still others are tedious and dull. And let's not forget about those days that are unvaried and unstimulating. It is just a fact that not every moment of every day is exciting, but that is true about all professions. But, the good moments and days heavily outweigh the bad or boring. Sure, I sometimes look out the window of my office like a trapped-inside-puppy dog and briefly flirt with the idea of becoming an accountant or an accountant's brazen, no-holds-barred assistant, before I come back to Earth and snap out of it. Thank you mom, for the travel set of smelling salts!

Though I've been at this for a while, and there is an occasional feeling like I've seen and done it all, what prevents it from becoming stale for me are the students. Each group of students is unique and they come with their own challenges and original personalities and I love getting to know them all as people. I see working with a new group of students sort of like doing a similar yet new puzzle with a similar yet different answer to the last puzzle I did. As one group leaves, I miss them and bemoan that my work will never be as enjoyable, and then the new, young and exciting group comes in and I get hooked once again. I honesty care about helping them all and that is something you can't fake or grow tired of, unlike that week when I attempted to convince my friends that I was a part man part frog which got old really fast.

And my colleagues. Too many to mention now and even if I could it would really negatively effect this piece of writing to the point where I'd just abandon it and go for a walk. Going for a walk every once and a while is great exercise by the way - give it try. Anyways, I have really been so fortunate to work with so many passionate and enthusiastic teachers in my 20+ years, who have greatly added to my overall love of my work. Sure, I have also seen with my own two eyes, aided by thick, constantly-smudged glasses, a small number of people who were ill-fitted for the profession. Teachers who didn't inherently like students and seemed to be in the job purely for the vacations or those were bored by their subject material and taught on auto-pilot or ones who just seemed unhappy and cranky all the time. But, these types of educators are few and far between, sort of like random, but pointy, thorns in the strawberry patch that is education. As I spoke to my student, I took a minute and imagined I had a big bowl of strawberries and whipped cream in front of me right now and I exaggeratedly licked my lips which was one of my bad habits along with stupidly fondling thorns.

The focus from my friends in the private sector when the topic of public education is brought up is often on the bad apples, the teachers who aren't that good. They argue that teachers are glorified babysitters who have it so easy with too much vacation time who leave at the bell and don't work hard. I always find that line of reasoning so offensive as it is so far from the truth. Sure there are a few bad apples, but I always say to them find me a profession where there aren't any including, but not limited to, apple farmers as some of those farmers are totally mailing it in. For the most part, the schools I have worked in have a staff that really cares and that is clear as soon as you take a few steps inside the building. After that I usually take a few more steps, followed by a short break to stretch my hamstring and then I resume stepping until I find a place to sit down.

And the pay is sufficient, at least for my current lifestyle. Sacrifices have had to be made along the way. I mean I won't be holding any champagne and caviar parties anytime soon unless it is BYOCandC, and then I'm all in. But I'm doing better than okay what with my full head of hair and new sneakers and set of shirts and sweater tops that don't scream "80s!" To be clear, I definitely wouldn't turn down more money if someone was in the mood to pay me more, unless it was hush money as I staunchly refuse to hush unless I have some sort of diagnosed throat ailment or if they sweeten the deal as I have a sweet tooth or, more accurately, a mouth full of sweet teeth.

So, to the question "why teach?" I told him, the answer is because deep down inside you love working with youth. It definitely isn't for everyone and it has to be much more than loving the hours and the holiday time. There will be plenty of days when you are tired or stressed or don't feel like going to work for a variety of reasons, but once you are there, you'll find yourself rising to the occasion because you just care, a whole awful lot. If that describes you, I finished, then yes, teach. But not everyone is as lucky as just knowing like I was. Not everyone has taken such a straight path towards education. So, volunteer at a school or community centre or youth group. Tutor or coach or mentor. See how it feels. You'll know. It will either fit like a boot or it won't and remember as my preschool teacher always said "never wear boots that don't fit".

I watched him leave just wishing I could be the one doing the leaving at some point in the future. I'm not sure if my student will pursue teaching and I'm not sure if he found our chat illuminating or helpful or coherent. But I enjoyed the chance to take a trip down memory lane and to reflect on my journey. I have some days when I daydream about "what if" I had gone a different route in life and whether I'd be even happier or more satisfied or at least write using fewer travel metaphors. Impossible to say, but what I do know, is that I am fortunate to be where I am at this approximate midpoint in my career. I experience satisfaction, fulfillment, reward, and accomplishment each day and I'm just so lucky to enjoy what I do. I just hope my student is able to find the same for himself, either in education, or wherever his path takes him.