With all the changes in the public education system, with all the increased time demand and responsibilities, with all the blame and disrespect aimed at educators today, some people ask me why I still teach, especially because I actively speak out about problems in the educational system. The truth is I continue to teach for a lot of reasons, but the simple answer is that it’s who I am. When I am in the classroom, I love it. I think I even need to do it. Even if I won the lottery, I would continue to teach at least one class. I don’t speak out because I hate teaching, I speak out because I love it, and I hate what people outside the classroom are trying to turn it in to. I speak out because somebody has to stop the damage before it is too late, too late for current students, and too late to stop good teachers who love teaching from leaving the profession. But this article isn’t about that. It’s about why I do it anyway. What is it about teaching that keeps me coming back for more, no matter what unreasonable working demands are placed on me by the state? I can’t speak for other teachers, but I suspect we have some of these things in common.
Surprisingly, I never intended to be a teacher. I went to college and majored in English Literature because I loved to critically read—everything, the classics, contemporary fiction, non-fiction, poetry, drama, political commentary, philosophy, everything . . . and I wanted to be a writer. I didn’t feel confident in my skills, so I thought I needed an education. In addition, I believe a well-rounded liberal arts education is good in general. A liberal arts education helps a person look at the world with new eyes, not only critical and informed eyes, but with appreciative eyes. I went on to earn my Master’s degree in Creative Writing with the intention of being a novelist and screenwriter.
However, along the way, I sort of fell into teaching, looking for more “time” to write while still earning a living. That’s quite funny to me now. I’ve never worked so many hours in any other career. But anyway, I entered the classroom at a private school that did not require a state teaching license with zero experience teaching and not even one class in education under my belt. Nervously, I faced my students that first day with an idea in mind of what I wanted them to learn, and then I just started talking, talking about my favorite subject, English. I loved it! All of it—the literature, the grammar, the writing, the reading, the speeches, the debates, and the critical discussion. And I adored my students. I loved getting to know them, listening to their ideas, hearing their dreams, their problems, and inspiring them to learn. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to share what I was most passionate about all day, every day. I even enjoyed grading papers. I loved reading, encouraging, and advising students about how to make their work creative, interesting, organized, and purposeful. To this day, I have to force myself to limit my comments on work to realistically grade it all because, left to my own devices, I would write an essay on each essay.
Teaching seemed to come naturally to me. I think I am good at it. Like many good teachers I know, I frequently get comments from students that they understood something for the first time in in my class, or saw something in a completely new way. I keep in touch with a lot of former students, and I am always touched by comments from those who say I was a major influence in their lives, students who are now doctors, lawyers, grad students, writers and aspiring writers, and future politicians. This is the most rewarding thing about teaching.
So after a couple of years, I went back to school and majored in Education: Curriculum and Instruction, obtained my state licensure, and began teaching public school, which has been even more rewarding from the standpoint of reaching a more diverse population of students. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and don’t realistically see myself ever completely leaving the classroom, although I do wish I had more time to write—that will always be my first love. But this love of writing, I believe, makes me a better teacher as well.
One thing that motivates me to continue to teach is that I am a serious academic at heart. I think about everything in excruciating detail. I analyze, deconstruct, reassemble, interpret, compare, contrast, and relate to my life and the world everything I read, hear, or see. I just can’t stop. I frequently get the question, “Can’t you just enjoy it [movies, books, art] without thinking about it so much?” The answer is that I do enjoy that; it’s why I enjoy watching movies, reading, and art, and because I’m married to a musician, I’m starting to do this with music as well. I hope that my enthusiasm for my subject helps my students to connect to literature on a deeper, more critical level, which in turn, will make them more critically thinking individuals in every aspect of their lives.
Teaching English is good me for another reason as well. I am somewhat introverted with people out in the “real” world, but teaching gives me the much needed intellectual conversation that I am often unable to attain in social situations. I know it sounds like a contradiction that someone who talks all day is actually an introvert, but it is quite common. Introverts spend a lot of time thinking and have trouble engaging with what they see as unimportant or trivial “small talk.” It takes a lot of energy to talk about nothing. However, talking about something deep and intellectual is energizing. The problem is that people don’t typically jump into these types of conversations, and by the time I’ve awkwardly engaged in several minutes of small talk, either I’m exhausted from the effort, or they are. Although I know they are just trying to be polite, I actually dread attending events where I know I will be asked the usual teacher questions: “How’s school going? Are you ready for break? How are the kids this year?” I don’t think they really want to know, and I certainly don’t want to talk about it. I don’t think they realize how many times a day I have to answer these same questions.
Conversely, intellectual conversation fuels my thought-life. Discussing literature and writing organizes and clarifies my own thoughts as well as sparking new ideas. I learn things and get new ideas from my students all the time. I get to have important conversations that many people don’t seem to want to engage in outside of the classroom. I get to have interesting conversations with people from all kinds of backgrounds and interests, from different races, cultures, and life-experiences. This excites me.
It’s true, I have numerous friends and family, including my husband and my book club friends, who are always up for some meaningful and intellectual conversation, but as a teacher, I get to engage in this all day long! I love this so much that teaching alone is not enough. I am involved in several discussion groups with adults from book clubs to philosophical discussion groups, the Diversity Forum to cultured interest groups. My new favorite thing is teaching at the community college, where we take diversity of experience and worldview to a new level. After teaching high school all day long, I teach night classes at the community college—two in a row, and it actually gives me more energy. If my entire job consisted of nothing but time in the classroom, no one would ever hear me complain.
So when you hear a teacher complaining once again about how difficult his job is, or how he must deal with increasing pressures from every direction when all he really wants to focus on are his students and their needs, don’t assume he hates teaching or think he’s a bad teacher.
And if you run into me, please, don’t ask me how school is going, or you may get one of two responses: the stock “fine,” or a tirade on the evils of Common Core testing twice in two months. Instead, ask me what I’m reading, what I think of Nietzschian philosophy, or my thoughts on whether or not The Patriot Act should be renewed, but only if you really want to hear the answer. But most of all, please don’t tell me that “dealing with all those teenagers must be horrible” because that is the best part of teaching. And if I deteriorate into complaints about the Department of Education, lack of funding, or having 500 papers to grade by Monday, don’t assume I take it out on my students. I wouldn’t dream of it. They make all the bad stuff go away, one fabulous paper, one sincere thank you, one inspired dream, and one great discussion at a time.—Christina Knowles