educator, writer, speaker, devoted family man, amateur philosopher, chess enthusiast, basketball junkie, connoisseur of fine hip hop, and purveyor of wit and wisdom
Too many young adults claim to have “fallen into teaching” as if accidentally tripping over a raised piece of cracked sidewalk and landing in a classroom. Others say they began teaching to pay for the bills of young adulthood (rent, car payments, the newly-arrived student loan bills, etc.) And many others simply consider teaching a temporary rest stop on the road to figuring out what they “really” want to do with their lives.
I have never heard anyone say “I just fell into law,” or “I went into politics to pay the bills,” or “I’m just doing this brain surgeon thing until I figure out what I really want to do.” Yet, somehow, it has become okay (and sometimes expected) to say these things about teaching. Our society’s collective view on teaching has demoted the field to something a bit lower than a profession (but perhaps a bit higher than a job.)
Like so many of these young adults, my foray into teaching was influenced by the need for cash, coupled with a relatively unmarketable undergraduate degree (English major, mathematics minor). And so in 1995, I “fell” into teaching.
When someone asks a young instructor what he/she does for a living, there are two types of answers:
(1) I teach
(2) I am a teacher
There’s a subtle difference between these responses. The first implies an action that may or may not continue. The response I teach has just as much temporal ambiguity as I eat or I play guitar or I fart or I love dolphins. However, the response I am a teacher implies identity. The two small words I am shall etch my place in the world, like carving my name into a giant tree filled with the carved names of other teachers who have gone before me.
This is why I feel so enamored with young people who pass the five-year mark in their teaching careers (the same way I feel about young people who pass the five-year mark in their marriages…at least in California.) With all of the flippant reasons a person may have for becoming a teacher, there is a certain degree of dedication in choosing to remain a teacher. At some point, any young person who has been teaching for more than five years has had to discover a rewarding answer to the question “Why am I still doing this?” (I use the words “young people” to exclude those teachers who enter the profession at a much older age. These older adults are less likely to “stumble accidentally” into teaching because they are more likely to have years of other income-generating options behind them. Older adults are also more likely to have asked and answered the larger question of choosing a satisfying career – even if their careers have changed.)
So, in the mid-90’s, I fell into teaching. And I fell hard. In June of 2000, after being completely fed up with the educational system and the non-sensical hoops I had to jump through, I tried to quit teaching. I spent one year outside of the classroom (working as a university learning center coordinator) before realizing that I was meant to be in the classroom.
Picture a Venn diagram in which three circles intersect (like the one pictured below.)
One circle represents all the things I love to do. The second circle represents all the things that I do very well. The third circle represents all the things that the world needs me to do. My vocation, my true calling, is represented in the diagram as the sweet spot: that intersection of the three circles. This sweet spot is the intersection of my desires (passions), my talents (strengths), and my responsibilities to the world (service). This love triangle of passion, strengths, and service that God has led me toward is the reason why I’ve fallen in love with teaching, and I can’t (or won’t) get up.