Why Teach?

Right now I’m a stay-at-home mom. But I’m also a teacher, or was before we moved from Alaska to Oregon and saved so much money on housing that we only slightly miss the absence of my paycheck, and I plan to be again sometime in the next few years. I guess it’s safe to say that I’ll always be a teacher. That’s just who I am. Just ask my 4-year-old. He still wonders where Mommy’s school is, a year and a half after moving away from our home in Anchorage.

 Here is a piece I wrote back in 2010, before Niko was born. It’s an honest look at how it feels to be in the classroom each day with what often feels like very little return – until That Moment. This is why I teach.

Not long ago, a young friend who thinks she wants to teach asked me what it’s really like to be in the classroom. I was honest — maybe too honest. I told her about the long hours of work (50 to 80 per week, in my case), taking only a few short, begrudged, guilt-laden breaks on weekends between bouts of grading and planning. I told her of the frustrations of feeling that the required curriculums and government-mandated tests and paperwork and bureaucracy all combine to make it less likely, rather than more likely, that students will achieve. I added that while I love the teaching part of the day, I spend easily half my time filing paperwork and performing meaningless tasks that have nothing to do with helping my students learn.

“Is it actually worth it?” she wondered. I had just finished my first week back after a wonderful summer, and I hadn’t met my students yet, so my response reflected my own doubt as I assured her that yes, indeed, it is. Really. Truly. Pinkie swear.

And it is. Sure. There are wonderful, delightful, fulfilling moments in every day. There are the spontaneous hugs for no apparent reason – even in fifth grade, where I spent two years, but especially in second grade. There are priceless comments, questions, and observations from these young minds for which I can take no credit, but still gain enjoyment from. That look of wonder — “You really think that about me?” when I pleaded with a boy to take the test for our gifted program: a boy who suffered from ADHD, post-traumatic stress disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, and genius. The look of amazed joy on his face when he qualified, as I knew he would, and the change in his attitude afterward. The dawning light on a little face when for the first time they glimpse the myriad shifting patterns in a simple addition/subtraction grid. A class of students which, when I gave them half an hour of free art time at the end of the day because I Needed Some Time (I’m not ashamed to admit it) to finish entering some data before the deadline clubbed me over the head, spent their own gift of time making me adorable, crumpled, painstakingly scrawled cards and gifts. Yes, it is worth it. Sometimes it’s hard to remember, but it is.

More recently, another friend who is in the first stages of UAA’s education program appealed to me for a little help finishing a paper with a specific page requirement. The topic, naturally, was “Why Do I Want to Be a Teacher?” I gave her some worthwhile advice: Try adjusting the margins and the font just a teeny, itty-bitty bit – just not enough to attract notice and inspire your professor to check the paper’s settings. That could buy you a little space. Try plugging in a couple of stories in the intro and referring to them in the conclusion. That’ll give you at least another half-page, maybe a whole page… And as I gave her this highly valuable advice (and I hope she remembers it, because it’s gotten me A’s on many a paper), I wondered what on earth was wrong with me. Of course, I couldn’t tell her why she wanted to be a teacher — only she could do that. But couldn’t I at least have shared with her some of my own triumphs and joys? Maybe given her a little glimpse of the inspiration that keeps me going? Because I do love teaching. And it is worth it. Really. Come on, it is.

By the way, I hope she keeps that essay. I hope she saves it on every computer she encounters, on flash drives, external hard drives, discs, the Cloud, and whatever method of saving data the future brings. I hope she prints it and frames it and hangs it where she has to see it every day. For two reasons. First, she will be submitting that same essay so many times she will feel like she is vomiting her words onto a screen repeatedly. I guarantee she will need that essay at least five times over the course of her college education and even more times throughout her career. Secondly, and more seriously, there are moments when you wonder: Why am I doing this? And the reminder that there was once a younger, more energetic, more eager you, whose ideals had not yet begun to tarnish, is invaluable. There will be days that she will absolutely need that reminder. Days at the end of an 80-hour work week when the weekend looms ahead of you menacingly, beckoning you to try to Do Everything I Didn’t Get Done This Week: go ahead, try it, I dare you…Mwahahaha. Moments when you read articles labeling teachers as lazy and greedy and you want to cry, knowing how much time and energy and love you give these children and how unlikely it is that these authors will ever have any comprehension of what you do. Meetings with parents who think you aren’t doing enough to keep their underachieving child challenged, who can’t understand that you can’t excuse a child from regular classroom work because it’s “too easy” when you have seen no actual evidence of his ease at completing the work, meetings that conclude with the assurance that you are indeed lazy and greedy. Yes, she should keep that essay. She’ll need it.

I’ve been thinking about these two friends and wishing I had expressed more sincerity in my promises that “it’s worth it.” Wondering if I’m getting burned out without realizing it. Longing for that old feeling of apprehensive self-assuredness I once had: “I’m going to change the face of teaching. I don’t know how, but I will. I’ll be different.”

And then, yesterday, I gave a spelling test to my second-graders. I reminded them of the importance of Being Silent During Tests. I assured them that if anyone was unable to remember this, I would help them by Taking Away Their Test. And then I gave the first word: fox. Papers rustled, pencils scratched, desks squeaked as the little fingers busily and proudly wrote the word. In the midst of this busy silence, a voice erupted: “Mrs. Malapanis! Mrs. Malapanis! I wrote the spelling word! I wrote fox!”

Heads turned, eyes looked accusingly at this child whose face was a beacon of hope, joy, and pride. Her smile glowed like a lighthouse’s flame. Faces turned back to me as they waited expectantly for me to Take Away Her Test. But all I could do was smile mistily back at her and say, “Oh, sweetie, I am so proud of you. Let me see.” And she had indeed written fox — a word that any second grader, most first graders, many kindergarteners, and I dare say a few preschoolers could have written. I hugged her as I once again assured her how happy I was at her accomplishment.  And I did not Take Her Test Away. Because this child had come to me six weeks previously unable to identify the letters in her own name. She had had no idea that groups of letters separated by spaces were words. She hadn’t known that we read and write words moving across the page from left to right. This little girl had barely been able to hold a book correctly. But today, she wrote fox. All on her own. She heard the word, recalled the letters that made the sounds, wrote them, and read the word she’d written. She had an epiphany. When you’re having an epiphany, the threat of Having Your Test Taken Away is as nothing. She wrote a word and she wanted the world to know.

And her teacher was having an epiphany at the same time.

Yes, it is worth it. Nothing will ever take away the joy of that moment.  It’s worth it. Thanks to that little girl, I finally remembered why I’m doing this.  She is the reason that I Want To Be a Teacher.