Why I Teach: For Bigger Things

When I moved to North Carolina, I thought I was taking my first teaching job.  I’d gone to school for this.  I thought I knew how to write a lesson plan, and usually I knew how to execute it too.

But today made me realize that seeing my life as that–as a teaching job–eliminates the reason I teach.  When I saw my life as that, all of the hassles of teaching blurred my vision: the hours of sleep lost because I get up at 5-something every day; the annoyance of putting my plan into a template that no one really looks at; the paycheck; the times I see kids making unwise choices; the minutes spent in what seem like pointless meetings; the countless tests; and of course, the innumerable reforms and pressures put on teachers by the state.  It’s easy to get bogged down in the glitches of the little things that don’t run well about the education system.

And then days like today show up out of the blue.  From an educational standpoint, it might have been a wasted day.  But in my eyes, it was one of the most valuable days I’ve had in my AP class.  When I walked back into my classroom from the hallway, I was super stoked to find that one of my students had bought breakfast from Bojangles for the class.  We got started on our work for about 20 minutes.  Then suddenly my students were telling me stories.  They weren’t stories about the Mexican War that we were learning about.  They were stories of their lives.

I learned about one of my students who had siblings in jail and a parent who was absent from his/her life, and how the students works about 15 hours a week at a part time job, and had a rough middle school gap and turned it around in high school and is taking AP classes and honors classes, and wants to be a nurse because he/she wants to help people and at the same time speak to groups about how important it is to take life seriously, and about how he/she wants to move to a city for the opportunity, but at the same time wants to see change in the town that our school is in and wouldn’t want to leave.

I learned about my student who wants to be a social worker and so come back to town and help people, how the decisions that other people make around this student can aggravate him/her because the decisions are not the best, and what a heart this student has for helping the kids in the community.

I can’t do justice to the beauty that came through in their honesty and their hope for their community and their families.  But even as I saw the minutes tick by, I didn’t care that we had lost about an hour of “instructional time.”  So what that our lesson plan got moved back to the next day.  I suddenly found myself humbled before these sixteen year olds who had gone through more than I could ever imagine and who wanted so much for their families and towns, but at the same time saw the things preventing that.   That doesn’t keep them from wanting to pursue their dreams.  I was humbled that they told me.  And I was humbled by the fact that in my listening, they knew I cared.  They have more to teach me about life than I could ever teach them.

And when they told those stories, they gave me the chance to step back and look at the bigger picture of my so-called “teaching job.”  And I realized what a privilege it is to be able to see my second block class of students carry on a discussion completely on their own and at the same time include everyone who wants to share.  And how much responsibility I have when I ask to talk to a student after class and he immediately hangs his head because he knows he’s done something that took away from our lesson.  And just how much more powerful it is to watch a kid refocus when you’re able to say “I’m disappointed because I know you can do better,” than have to demand why he wasn’t ready with his homework.

More importantly I realized, it’s not about me.  Even my decisions on a daily basis are not about me.  They’re about my students, and they’re about hopefully working to bring a little piece of God’s redemptive plan of salvation to this Earth.


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