Why I Still Do It by Christina Knowles

IMG_3551 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.

IMG_3330  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.IMG_3320

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.

American Lit  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.IMG_3162

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.Prom

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.Rachel and Sierra

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

Choosing Contentment by Christina Knowles

 

Courtesy of Pinterest
Courtesy of Pinterest

I have decided to like my job. It just seems easier and far more pleasant than hating it. I am a high school English teacher, and I absolutely love my subject and really love and enjoy teenagers. But lately, the insane expectations placed upon teachers by the government, the critical blame-laying on teachers, the lack of accountability on students, the absence of respect for the profession, the inability to obtain fair compensation, and the sheer magnitude of the workload all soured me on my vocation. With all that weighing on me, it is all too easy to forget what I love about it. However, having fourteen years invested in this career and a huge student loan debt, I cannot just change careers or quit. Furthermore, I am a person who likes to be happy, and focusing on these negative, albeit real, aspects of my job won’t really get me there. I choose to be content, regardless of my circumstances. The best way to attain contentment is to be grateful for the wonderful things we have. With that in mind, here are the things I love about being an English teacher:

  • Reading: I love literature, just about every genre and time period. I read for enjoyment, and I read to learn new things or to understand things more deeply. I love to analyze it, speculate about it, interpret it, talk about it, and criticize it. I get to do this in my profession almost every day.
  • Writing: I love to write–fiction, non-fiction, poetry, anything. Most of us forget a lot of what we learned in college if we don’t use it, but teaching a writing class allows me to keep up good habits and practice the techniques I teach my students. Teaching keeps what I learned fresh in my mind and ready to use in my personal writing. I also love teaching my students what I know about writing and seeing their talent and creativity flourish. My creative writing students love my encouragement and get so excited about their writing. This enthusiasm is contagious and helps me to want to write every day as well. Right now my creative writing students and I are working on compiling short stories for a class anthology that we intend to publish as a free ebook. I love these kids. I feel like we are kindred spirits when I work with them.1492499_10202398236311367_1034169101_o
  • Grammar and Vocabulary: These are often considered to be the drudgery of English class, but I love them. I enjoy diagramming sentences and figuring out really difficult grammar questions. Learning new words along with the students is a benefit of my job. Having a large vocabulary makes me a better writer. It also just makes me feel intelligent. I like that feeling.
  • Argument and Reasoning: Discussing rhetoric, logical fallacies, and philosophical thought are extremely satisfying activities I am able to include in my lessons. One of my favorite things about my job is the journal topic discussion I have with my science fiction literature class every day. We discuss important and controversial philosophical, political, moral, and social issues daily. The students can voice any opinion they have as long as they can logically defend it. They love it, and so do I. Again, kindred spirits. All of my classes learn to logically support their arguments. Logic is good. I feel like it makes the world a better place. The world could use more logic.1500811_10203176068396683_1291760977947750353_o
  • Academic and Professional Environment: Working with an intelligent group of people who are all educated in the same discipline is a stimulating experience. There is never a lack of informed conversation, and we all are eager to help each other and share our ideas. The people in my department are a lot of fun as well. There is never a lack of clever author quotes, puns, double entendres, or witty aphorisms. We even take our practical jokes to the next level, academically, of course. Over lunch we dissect our favorite shows, such as The Walking Dead, and analyze them for plot and character development, and of course, thematic significance. What else would you expect from a room full of English teachers?

When we have to work evenings, with the exception of parent-teacher conferences, it is usually to supervise a concert, a play, attend a sporting event, or to participate in fun activities with the students, such as our Jeopardy-like competition, Knowledge Bowl. Working late is a regular occurrence for teachers, but I have to say it’s not as bad as other jobs I’ve had.

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  • Students: I left this one until almost the end because it is truly the second most loved aspect of my job. I love my students. Well, most of them. I’d have to say that out of five classes, I have only a handful of students who are really a pain. Every year I think that my students are the best I ever had. Every year I meet such sweet, kind, funny, and engaging kids. They make me laugh and smile every day. I miss them when they graduate, and we often keep in touch, sometimes becoming good friends in their adulthood. I have to admit that they really do bring joy into my life, and I hope I do the same for them.
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  • Breaks, Snow Days, and Holidays: The absolute best thing about my job! I work in a district with a modified year-round schedule, so I get two weeks off for fall break in October, two weeks off for Christmas break, two weeks off for spring break, and about six weeks off for summer (the students get eight, but teachers usually have training, staff development, and start a week early to get ready for the year). We don’t get paid for this time, but it is so worth it and necessary. I honestly could never do my job without this recovery time. But mostly, I need it to write, which is my passion. I don’t know of any other job for which I would be qualified that would allow me this uninterrupted stretch where I can focus totally on my personal writing consistently for several weeks at a time. A lot of teachers travel during the breaks, but I use it to work on my novels and spend more time with my husband.

Snow days are gifts from Heaven throughout the winter in Colorado. The thing I love most about snow days is that they are totally unexpected days off. I don’t have any plans, nothing I was counting on doing at home, so it really is a day off. If I take a day off, it is always to get something done, but a snow day is perfect for watching movies or reading with no guilt–and no sub plans! The worst thing about taking a day off when you are a teacher is planning for a substitute, and then coming back and finding that they didn’t do anything you asked, and now you are behind. I do have to admit, though, I often grade papers on snow days to catch up, but the beauty is that I don’t have to. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be any worse off than if I had to work. In addition to that, we get all the major holidays off with pay. Having worked retail in the past, I can really appreciate this benefit. Without breaks, I don’t think any teacher could endure the rigor and demands of the job. At many low times in my career, the thought of upcoming breaks was the only thing that kept me from quitting.4599_1112432185140_818882_n

So there you have it, or should I say, there I have it? After all, this was really about convincing me that I love my job in order to obtain contentment in my life. I think it worked! I really do. Focusing on the positive is more than a mind trick. The good things in life are always there all the time. They just become obscured when we pile on the negativity so thickly that we can no longer see through the dark haze we created. I don’t mean we actually create the negative things–oh, they’re really there, believe me. But we don’t have to let them obliterate the beauty and joy that is also there. At least I choose not to, not anymore. Life is too valuable and wonderful to live like that, so from now on, I choose contentment.–Christina Knowles

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