In honor of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthday February 7, 1867, a personal essay on why I teach.
As early as kindergarten, I identified teacher as a potential
occupation in my “School Years” book, a collection of elementary school memories. My kindergarten-self chose nurse, teacher, model, and mother as possible career and life choices, although the options were limited to traditional girl-jobs only. (I’ve wondered why I didn’t dare to select baseball player or astronaut. Was it because those jobs did not interest me or did I not consider the boy-jobs? Or why were airline hostess and secretary NOT of interest to me?) Female stereotypes aside, by fourth grade, I had wisely eliminated model and nurse (yuk and yuk!!), leaving teacher and mother.
I was interested in learning and teaching as soon as I was old enough to work my way through phonics, spelling and math workbooks, just for fun. And then creating worksheets and math problems, grading spelling quizzes and making lesson plans became my childhood joys. My brother was my first student and I worked him pretty hard. I remember taking the graded assignments I’d assigned to him to my fourth-grade teacher, proudly showing her what I was helping him accomplish outside of school hours. Rather than receiving the anticipated (and sought-after) praise, she promptly told me I should back off and not force him to be my student anymore or he might hate school—my first humbling opportunity at professional self-reflection.
Laura Ingalls Wilder was my childhood heroine. Pioneer girl turned teacher; wide-open prairie sky and her own classroom, from Little House on the Prairie to These Happy Golden Years —I wanted to BE Laura. I admired her sense of self-confidence and independence, how she encouraged students to overcome learning challenges, many not much younger than her. (I am such a huge fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder that when my daughter could barely read I bought the entire book series, picture books and television movies for her and also road-tripped to Mansfield, Missouri to see the house where Laura penned all of the Little House books. Quite a thrill!)
All the evidence indicates that, if I wasn’t born with the desire to teach, the passion was stirring when I was very young.
With visions of Little House and Laura dancing in my head, I was hired at the high school I graduated from as the Marketing teacher and DECA sponsor. My 23-year teaching career (so far) has been a childhood and adult dream come true. It’s been more fulfilling and rewarding than I could have ever imagined. It has been a journey of surprises and disappointments; joys and challenges. A career that requires total commitment and re-commitment, it has stretched me beyond what I thought I could give. It has been better, and harder than I could have imagined.
The Teaching Dance
Aware that education itself has evolved through the years, I was inspired to capture my view of teaching by creating a SoulCollage® card. My vision of what teaching would be like, in my idealistic naiveté, is represented by the black and white, old-fashioned image—students with smiles on their faces, eagerly waiting to learn; happy, compliant, and respectful, mesmerized by every word I said.
The reality is that teaching is a more “colorful” role than I had expected. Everything is more colorful—the students, the responsibilities, the language in the hallway :), what and how we learn. I gratefully embrace the wisdom gained from years of experience, insight and reflection, but I welcome with open arms new ways of teaching, learning, thinking, creating and reflecting.
Every day is an opportunity to embrace “newness”—new technology, new family and social dynamics, new attitudes, new behaviors, new teaching strategies, new curriculum. I am a teacher with experience, and yet I still have so much to learn. I dance between both realms.
Teaching has been a school of my own learning. I appreciate the routines in teaching—starting anew each year, learning from the past, setting new goals to continually try to improve. I don’t always (improve). But I like having the opportunity for growth. Perfection is not possible, but growth is. Parker Palmer, in A Courage to Teach, states,
“Teaching holds a mirror to the soul.”
Teaching allows for authentic expression and reflection of self.
Perhaps the most exciting part of teaching is surrendering to the sweet surprises that can occur during a school day. The lesson plan gives the day structure and order, but being flexible and willing to let go of plans to respond to unique situations, questions or spontaneous discussions, is sometimes messier, and much more colorful, but always well worth it. The joy that comes when a student sees something in a new way or makes a connection to the world around them, when a goal is reached, or when a student finds a place in themselves they didn’t know existed—this is the reward for having a plan, yet remaining flexible.
Teaching as Vocation
I have never looked at teaching as just a job; it is a calling. I agree wholeheartedly with Palmer,
“I believe that knowing, teaching, and learning are grounded in sacred soil and that renewing my vocation as a teacher requires cultivating a sense of the sacred.”
My commitment to teaching is a little like my marriage. It takes work. I give. I get. It is hard. I want to quit. I recommit. There are days, weeks, months, sometimes years, that do not seem very rewarding. But there are moments that are so affirming, and it is then that the reward is revealed. It is only over time that the fruits of labor can be truly appreciated.
This is why I teach.
More on why I am grateful to be a teacher at Gratitude for Teaching: A Mirror to the Soul.