What Does It Mean To Be a Teacher

“I hate this stupid job!” I cursed after my elementary students left the classroom. It was the end of another agonizing day at work. The children had brutally taken advantage of me – just like they had the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that. I’d been a schoolteacher for a little over a year. I was a fledgling neophyte: fresh out of college, timid in demeanor, lacking in confidence to project an imperious “teacher-voice,” and devoid of experience to implement effective behavior management. I wanted out of this career. A year as a teacher was one year too much. But alas, it was only the end of the first month of school. I leaned back against the chalkboard wall. My legs buckled with fatigue, and I solemnly slid to the floor. Burying my face in my hands, I let myself go completely, and cried. I chose my fate to be a teacher. And now I would reap the punishing harvest I’d sown.

Then I heard a knock on the door. Randall, the school director and kindergarten teacher, was standing over me. He watched me in silence for a few moments, and then pulled up a chair to commiserate. “You want to talk about it?” he asked softly.

I could have expressed so many raging feelings of stress, pain, resentment, and fear. But instead all that came out was a peculiar question. “What does it mean to be a teacher?” I muttered between sobs. And immediately I felt stupid for asking it. I wished I could take it back and exchange it for a verbal onslaught of woeful complaints to illustrate to Randall just how horrible my day was. After all I wasn’t in the mood to have a philosophical debate about education. But it was too late.

I didn’t know that this question – “What does it mean to be a teacher?” – would alter my life forever. I didn’t realize that by asking it, I would activate the first turning of the wheels that would carry me through a prosperous and rewarding teaching career. Randall began: “Deciding to become a teacher to educate school children is like deciding to become a doctor to cure sick people. You would have to be utterly insane to endure the pain and heartache that come parceled with both professions.”

I felt even more hopelessly defeated, completely let down by Randall’s response. How could he say such a thing? Was it really true that teachers’ lives always suck? Were teachers really destined to forever endure the punishing stress of their career? I felt a wave of anger surge across my face. My head trembled with frustration. I wanted to cry out, “Then why am I here?! I want to go home! I’m tired of this! I’m a failure! I can’t do this anymore! I made a mistake! It was all just a big mistake!”

But Randall just smiled at me with sterling affection. “You would be crazy to be a teacher,” he repeated. “Unless…” He paused again to let it sink in. “Unless what?” I wanted to whine, but I kept my mouth shut. “Unless you truly do it out of love, compassion, and care for the children.” His empathic smile turned into a victorious grin, as if he was already convinced that that was all he needed to say to change my mind.

He was right. Five years later, I am still a teacher. I love my job. And I already know that I will love it more and more as I continue to innovate my craft. Since the episode with Randall, I’ve done a lot of personal reflection, tackling all kinds of self-inflicted inquiries such as: Why did I react to the students in that way? What did or didn’t I do well today, and why? How did students respond to the lesson today? What evidence do I have that my students are learning?

The point I am making here is simple: reflect on your actions and…oh the places you’ll go! I’ll let Dr. Suess finish it for me: “You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!”