I just thought you should know.
I’m going to be saying a lot of critical things on this blog. About everything, really: about people who don’t vaccinate their children, about people who think that money is speech and corporations are people, about animals that are mistreated and abandoned, farmed and eaten.
And I’m going to say a special lot of critical things about my profession. You see, I’m a teacher, and there’s something rotten in the state of education. A lot of things, in truth: because rot spreads. My job — my calling, if I may be high-falutin’ — as a teacher, as a writer, as a blogger, is to point out the problems and try to advocate for solutions. You’ve seen the blogs and articles and open letters, I’m sure, from my fellow teachers, stating why they are retiring, why they have been driven out of the profession, and listing everything wrong with schools? Right. I’m going to write things like that, too.
But before I do, and because my brilliant wife’s only recommendation for this blog was to make sure it isn’t too harsh, too angry, too negative, I want to make it clear: I love my job. Not everything about it, and there are some things that I hate so hard that it makes my bones crack, but it’s true: I love teaching.
Teaching is discovery. I have no idea, going into a new school year, what my students will be like. I know that some of them will be hilariously funny, and some of them will be inspiringly and awesomely talented, sometimes in surprising ways — there’s nothing like that moment when you hear the quiet kid sing. I know that the majority of them will want to learn (Even in the school district where I taught for ten years, in a rural blue-collar town where education was not the priority, it’s still true: most of my students want to learn). I know that almost all of them will be decent people, though sometimes they forget it. I know that all of them will have something to say. But what they will say, how they will make me laugh, when they will show their gifts — that I can never say before it happens.
The discovery isn’t only of students, either: I have learned more about my subject as a teacher than I ever did as a student. (Sure, some of that is because I was a crappy student: but more of it is because I’m a good teacher.) When I have to explain a book or a poem to my students, it makes me understand it better. When I have to make it interesting to them, it makes it more interesting to me. And then sometimes — often — they notice things I never would have thought of. One of my favorite things in the world is that Ray Bradbury named the hero in Fahrenheit 451 — one of my favorite books (partly because I have taught it more than any other) — after Guy Fawkes, one of my favorite historical figures, and the inspiration, too, for the hero in one of my favorite movies, V for Vendetta. It was a student that pointed that out to me.
I’m teaching Wuthering Heights right now, for the very first time; in preparation, I read the book a couple of months ago, for the very first time (Never been big on Victorian novels.). I didn’t like it. But yesterday, in reading it with my class, I realized: it’s actually funny. That Lockwood guy’s an idiot. If I wasn’t a teacher, I never would have read the book or enjoyed it — and the same goes for The Kite Runner, and The God of Small Things, and Things Fall Apart, and The Secret Life of Bees, and A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and Shane, and Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, and The Crucible, and every play I’ve taught by William Shakespeare (I never really liked Shakespeare very much as a youth, and I never read the plays in college. Only in grad school. While I was studying to be a teacher.). Oh: and then there are the books and series (and movies and TV shows and restaurants and candy and amusement parks — but we’re talking about literature here) that have been recommended to me by students, notably including The Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin and The Kingkiller Chronicles of Patrick Rothfuss.
I love that my job is to create. Every year, I make new things: I change units when I discover new poems or books or strategies for teaching; I change assignments constantly; I change test and quiz questions as I realize the old ones are inaccurate or too tricky. I write essays and short stories to use as examples, and sometimes just so my students can see me doing the same things I ask them to do. I love doing this: I love coming up with test questions, especially true/false statements and answers for multiple choice questions — one of my vocabulary tests this year, for instance, had these four options for “poignant:” A) Fearful B)Tearful C) Cheerful D) Beer full. That’s fun. Another test had seven “D” answers in a row. I love that I have been able to use some of my favorite songs as poem examples, to analyze with my students, and especially that I have used an industrial death metal song (“Die Eier von Satan” by Tool) to teach tone. And one of my favorite things I’ve ever written is my essay on corporal punishment in schools, “Mom, Apple Pie, and the Paddle.” I would never have written that if I hadn’t assigned a persuasive essay based on the Bill of Rights, and then, because I made the assignment up, found myself without a model essay to show my students — which is when I said to myself, “Hey — why don’t I just write one?”
Teaching is, not to put too fine a point on it, important. I don’t think that every job needs to be “important;” I was a janitor for five years in college, and while it certainly mattered to my employer whether the rugs were vacuumed or not, it didn’t shift the Earth off its axis or reduce man’s inhumanity to man. And I loved being a janitor. But though it isn’t a requirement for a good job or a good life, nonetheless, teaching is important, and the fact that I do it makes me feel good. I don’t really connect with most of my students; almost all of them like me, and almost all of them learn something from me, even if it’s just the longest non-technical term in the English language (floccinaucinihilipilification — one letter more than antidisestablishmentarianism) or the fact that “a lot” is two words; but I don’t have a whole lot in common with the majority of them, so while we get along, I don’t inspire them. But there are some students that I do inspire. There are some, thanks to luck and compassion both, that I save. And while I am teaching them, I teach them things they need to learn: I teach critical thinking. I teach compassion and empathy. I teach the importance of respecting others’ opinions, and the importance of presenting your own opinions respectfully. I teach them to love reading, to love poetry, to love mysteries and problem solving. I give them an opportunity to become better people, and by so doing, I help to make this a better world. And I am unabashedly proud of that. I have known for years, now, that even if I do nothing else of importance with my life — I did this. I taught. I did good. That is a wonderful feeling, and the more I teach, the more good I do, and the better it feels. How many jobs make you feel that way?
I also have to say, though I don’t think it is due to my particular profession, that I have met some of the kindest, loveliest, and best people on the planet, in this job. It is certainly possible that the people in teaching are so fantastic because of the responsibilities and the significance of the job; it may be that I am so well-suited to this work that I have much in common with other people in it – though I don’t think that’s it, because honestly, I don’t know how much I have in common with my fellow teachers. I mean, most of them have kids, most of them play video games only minimally; many of them are extroverts. But even though we may not mesh particularly well in terms of hobbies and interests and values (You should watch some of their eyes get wider when I curse. It’s pretty funny. And that right there shows the difference between us.) and such like, still: these are absolutely wonderful folk. Absolutely wonderful folk. I am utterly grateful that they welcomed me among them, and allowed me to be me, and be a teacher, too.
So thank you, to all of my fellow teachers, counselors, aides, and the administrators, everyone who wants to make school better. Thank you to my students, who listen to me even when I’m boring, even when I ramble, and who get quiet when they think I’m upset — partly because they don’t want to get in trouble, sure; but mainly because they feel bad for upsetting me. Thank you to Rocco MacDougall and Nick Roberts, the two best teachers I had and my inspirations; it means the world to me that I can think you gentlemen would be proud of me. And thank you, particularly (as always) to my wife, who, when I met her in college at the tender age of 20, asked me this question: “You want to be a writer, okay — but have you thought about what job you might want to have while you are building up your career, before you get on the bestseller list?” And then, when I sat there slack-jawed and mind-blanked, she said, “Have you ever thought about being a teacher?”
No. I hadn’t. But I am so glad that I did.