Helping to Make the Little Things Count

On day number one of my Bachelor of Education degree, our class was required answer the question, “Why do you want to teach?” Due to my preference for sitting on the edge of a room, I would answer last.

One woman answered, “My mother taught, and I always loved hearing her stories at supper.”

My mother taught too. Of her ten siblings, seven went into education. My relatives played a role in my choice to become a teacher, but they were not the reason.

A well-dressed guy answered, “I got into trouble lots as a kid. My Grade Ten teacher turned my life around.”

Leo “Lump” MacDonald taught me Grade Nine English. He challenged us to work hard and to think for ourselves, yet he understood we had lives outside of his classroom. Yes, I had influential teachers. But they weren’t why I wanted to teach. I wasn’t sure why; I just knew I wanted to teach.

Now it was my turn to answer.

The professor stared at me, “And you, why do you want to teach?”

“Well… I’m in it for the money.”

Everyone, including the professor, laughed. My joke avoided answering a tough question. Today, my students use that trick on me!

I’ve thought about the question a lot since. Why do I teach?

I always loved helping kids younger than me. I knew how special I felt when my older brother and his friends included me in their games. I enjoyed coaching, refereeing, and tutoring. Teaching was a natural progression. I do not teach for selfless reasons alone.
Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who died in 1986 aboard Space Shuttle Challenger, once said, “I touch the future. I teach.”

Teaching young people keeps me young (okay, less old). I need that, because I’ve always had the spirit of an old man. Also, I love connecting with students. And there are few highs in life as great as seeing a student excited by learning. Those moments when learners forget they are learning, because they are so wrapped up in the adrenaline of learning. Another high I get from teaching is watching people grow and learn. Not so much learning the curriculum or the textbook, but learning about themselves and growing as individuals.

My Education degree taught me a lot, but my students teach me more. My first official teaching job was at a private school in Ontario where I learned flexibility. I remember the day two men entered my classroom and repossessed my whiteboard! Another time, I learned classroom management from a Grade Eight student who ran around “my” classroom riding a fire extinguisher like it was a racehorse. While teaching in Fernie, I learned about perspective from a Grade One student. We were working on counting. I set three bags in front of him: one filled with dinky-cars, one with plastic dinosaurs, and one with plastic animals. I asked him, “What do you want to count today?” After looking at me as though I was a few eggs short of a dozen he replied, “Uhhh, numbers.”

There will always be lots for me to learn about teaching. I have biases, I procrastinate paperwork, and I struggle in school and life. But I get to teach.

Teaching is a noble profession. Yes, there are flaws in our system. In Cowichan, BC, a board of trustees was fired for writing a student-centred budget rather than a financial-centred one. In Edmonton, Lynden Dorval, was suspended for assigning zeros to students who did not hand in work. The Cowichan trustees, Mr. Dorval, and the people I work with, inspire me. People with high standards, who want a high school diploma to be something students can be proud of earning.

I’m grateful to be a teacher. Sometimes I forget how fortunate I am (especially at report-card time). But I get to teach. I experience moments when I learn new things from students. Moments when I connect with students. Moments when I see their eyes wide with excitement as they grasp a new concept. I love teaching.

The other day, I was watching a Taylor Mali poem that reminded me of the question, “Why do you teach?” In the poem, a dinner guest makes fun of teachers, and then asks, “You’re a teacher Taylor… what do you make?”

Taylor’s response concludes with, “I make a goddamn difference.”

Best of luck to everyone for this school year!