This past Tuesday, I gave a keynote to a group of 400 student teachers from around West Michigan. It was only twenty minutes long, so I had to be quick as I went through four things I wish people had told me when I was starting out.
Before I get to the four things, you have to realize that my goal as a student teacher was to become the kind of teacher they make movies about. I wanted to be Rafe Esquith (There Are No Shortcuts), Erin Gruwell (Freedom Writers), Ron Clark (The Ron Clark Story), and Jaime Escalante (Stand and Deliver) — all in one majestic, self-sacrificing package. National teacher of the year? Yeah, that would be me one day, I reasoned — just a matter of when.
Fast forward three years, and I was a burnt-out teacher in Baltimore who needed a year off from teaching. While my wife was finishing her last year of undergrad in NYC, I worked odd jobs and seriously considered master's degree programs that would keep me out of the classroom. Thankfully, I couldn't escape the calling — but seriously, I wish someone had told me these four things early on. It would have saved my students and me a lot of time and pain.
First, teaching is hard. The persnickety thing about teaching is that it's a profession, and professions are hard. In my head early on, I was always just one strategy or technique away from greatness. I wouldn't have verbalized this, but I functionally viewed teaching as a savior-technician's job, not a professional's. When you don't expect teaching to be riddled with challenge, you're like a five-year-old doing a puzzle on the living room floor who doesn't expect her toddler sister to come rampaging through any moment.
Second, teaching is noble. I was prone to believe what society told me about teaching. If my students' parents didn't all respect teaching and education, if my school was more obsessed with state test scores than long-term flourishing, or if my relatives at Thanksgiving were saying that teachers get paid too much, then I would start to reason that “teaching sure isn't what it used to be.” But the thing is, teaching is inherently noble — its nobility can't be touched by policies or culture-shifts or politics or parents. The circumstances of teaching can surely be changed by these factors, but at the end of the day, teachers still seek to give something to their students that they will carry with them for life. Even though we often turn it into self-oriented work, at its core it's service. Our garbage doesn't change that.
Third, teaching is malleable. What I mean is that our external circumstances in teaching don't necessarily predict how we experience it. If we cultivate the key beliefs in ourselves, then even the hardest teaching assignments can work toward our good, toward us getting better at the internal and external work of teaching. Some time ago, when I was just in the early stages of developing the Student Motivation Course, I wrote about the four mindsets all teachers must have. This is the internal work of teaching.
And finally, teaching is worth it. How great would it be if those student teachers were to go on and defy the statistics, sticking to the work for ten, twenty, thirty years? How many lives would they impact if, for each of those years, they became five percent better? It's beyond quantification.
The full and engaged teaching career is one of the most powerful forces on the planet. I'm convinced of that. If only we had eyes to see the gargantuan ripples emanating from the life of the joyfully engaged teacher.
Let's keep after it.