This is a gift of writing from an exemplary educator, Kristin Storey, who allowed me to share this letter to new and veteran teachers alike.
Thank you, Kristin.
[The backstory: My 25 year old nephew is going through what his mom refers to as a “quarter-life crises” and has been hiking the Appalachian Trail since April considering what he wants to be when he grows up. Earlier this year his mom and dad asked me if I would talk with him about teaching (considering I currently teach high school Language Arts). As you will see from the letter, I had done so before and backed off, and yet I figured one more shot couldn’t hurt. However, once I tried writing it last spring I found myself surprisingly challenged to encourage anyone to become a teacher. I simply couldn’t write a convincing letter in the midst of teaching fulltime. Thanks to eight days at Writing Camp (the amazing Puget Sound Writing Project’s “Just Write” class) I progressed from meta-blathering about why I teach and rambling-musings on what I like and dislike about my chosen profession to this streamlined, hopefully compelling and sincerely honest letter to my nephew.]
As you probably remember, for many years I played the role of the seemingly single-minded, teacher-recruitment aunt. At some point, your demeanor indicated that my persistent cajoling had become tiresome needling and I promised that I would not talk with you about becoming a teacher again. Since then, I’ve held my tongue. However, circumstances have changed and considering yours right now (somewhere on the Appalachian Trail) and the fact that some loving adults in your life recently approached me about this subject, I feel compelled to bend my promise and write this letter about teaching and your future.
I framed this as an answer to the question “Why teach?” and struggled as I sought to answer this seemingly simple question. Truth be told, I could as easily talk you out of this profession as I could talk you into it. And so, what follows is my attempt at a fair and balanced assessment of this profession as you consider your future options.
As I approached this task in earnest I first faced the cliché answers that automatically sprang forth. Why teach?…because teachers make a difference. Why teach?… because teachers help young people grow into their best selves. Why teach?… because teachers touch the future. While there is truth in all of these, how compelling are such broad generalizations? The hard reality: teaching is hard work. Most teachers I know work 20+ hours beyond the standard 40 hour work week in a system that fails to recognize and compensate the breadth of work expected. The current system imposes heavy-handed, data-driven outcomes that often miss the true nature of authentic teaching and learning and teachers often feel overwhelmed, exhausted and sometimes discouraged. Stress disrupts my sleep, my patience wears thin and tears have been shed. My work as a teacher impacts my social life and my family; my search for a healthy work-life balance never ends. And yet, I happily signed my contract and look forward to new classes in the fall. What tips the balance for me? Why do I teach?
I teach because I love learning. I love sharing ideas. Thinking new thoughts. Wondering. Questioning. Whether through reading, writing, or discussing I like exploring the world and how my ideas and the ideas of others make it meaningful. And above all, I love the opportunity to help young adults grow in their quest for understanding, meaning and purpose in the world.
Starting fresh each fall is another reason. A veteran of 50 years told me that she loved teaching because every year she was given the chance to do it better. Teaching constantly changes – no two years are the same, no two classes are the same, no two students are the same. It is constantly in motion and constantly challenges me to improve and grow and learn – an exciting and rewarding way to live.
And what exactly do I try to do better each year? As a teacher I help teenagers learn how to express themselves and learn how to think for themselves while considering the views of others. I share my excitement about reading with a teenage boy who when given The Things They Carried comes back excited and proud that this was the first book he’d read, and liked, since elementary school. I model my curiosity about language and share in a student’s pleasure when they report that “President Obama used the word painstaking in his speech last night!” I experience joy as a student recognizes how efficiently and precisely she is able to identify a writer’s strategies and apply these traits as a writer herself. I guide students to believe in themselves as intelligent, unique and important individuals in community. And constantly I learn with and from my amazing students who strive to succeed and care deeply about their world. I feel privileged and honored to try and do a better job for them year after year.
In reality, teaching happens in many different ways and in many different settings, school being just one method and setting, but you should be mindful that the classic school-teacher model has advantages. The standard school year schedule includes summer break which allows for time to rest, rejuvenate and reconnect. My summers are spent reading and writing, hiking and traveling, taking classes, being with family, being alone, etc. Not a perk to be dismissed lightly and something that definitely makes the 60+ hour September-June work week more bearable.
You demonstrate many traits that would serve you well as a teacher. Creative, clever and curious, you connect with others in an open, authentic and joyful way. You have a positive outlook and a caring heart. Traits such as these will lead to success in any number of future career paths. This letter is intended to give you something to think about as your walk the remainder your current path. Feel free to write me back, to talk to me when we meet again or to use this as fire-starter. The choice is yours. Whatever path you choose, know that I love you and will support you wholeheartedly.
Your Loving Aunt