Friday, September 5, 2014

Why I Am Considering the Teaching Profession

Photo credit: Todd Petrie

Speak with words that you gathered from the ground,
Hold a light up to the sky,
Give the dove just one more chance to sing,
And replace the morning light.
"Built for This," Ben Sollee

The following is a short essay I wrote this week for my elementary education class; since it answers a basic question I get asked a lot—why do you want to teach?—I thought it'd be appropriate to share here. Enjoy!

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“Okay, so, what are we playing tonight—Settlers of Catan? Cool. Have you played Settlers before? No? Great, well let’s get James over here to teach it to you—he’s good at that.” Settlers of Catan is a popular board game among young people,1 and whenever my friends get together to play a new board game like Settlers, someone will say something like the quote above: James should teach it to you; he taught me to play, and I understood right away. I am the resident teacher of new board games in my friendship circle, because I am, and always have been, just that: a teacher.

I have always, always loved learning, and passing along what I learn has just come naturally as part of that love. As an elementary school student, I learned math with relative ease. My peers often struggled with math, though; once other kids realized that I knew my math pretty well, they would come to me for help. I learned to like helping them: it strengthened my grasp of the material and made me feel kind and intelligent all at once. Teaching, in other words, improved my sense of self-worth, enriched my own education, and gave me a chance to serve others. I held it close from then on, nurturing my skills as a teacher of one kind or another through camp counseling,2 Sunday school teaching,3 and running tutoring and mentoring programs.4

My teaching method: wear hats; point at things.

Thus, teaching has always been something I have considered doing professionally. As an undergraduate, I studied linguistics in the hopes of someday becoming a college linguistics professor. Unfortunately, I graduated in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession, when legions of other young adults were delaying entry into the decidedly unfriendly job market by applying to grad school. Prospects for secure, long-term employment as a professor looked grim, and have continued to do so ever since, as university budgets shrink and higher education in the U.S. leans more and more heavily on adjuncts to prop itself up. Fortunately, though, I learned through a variety of post-college experiences that I was adept at teaching children, and that I enjoyed it a great deal. I also knew that male elementary teachers were few and far between, and I relished the thought of bringing something unique to children’s lives with something as simple as my gender. So it is that I have turned my sights on elementary education.

I do this knowing that there are risks: education in this country is a fraught business everywhere, not just at the college level. While poverty and other external social factors are at the root of many problems with education in America, the education reform movement has placed most of the burden of solving these problems on teachers, most notably through tying school funding and even teacher pay to standardized testing. Charter schools and turnarounds place additional pressures on teachers, often minimizing their job security and compensation in the vain hope that this will somehow empower them to improve their students’ educational outcomes. I have seen these issues and others in person, in addition to reading about them extensively in the news.

To put it bluntly, the culture of education in this country is a mess. I fully expect to be frustrated and hampered in my attempts to work with my kids. But in a way I look forward to the challenge. After all, if not me, who will serve? If no one steps forward to improve kids’ lives, how will they improve? If people do not set out to change the world, why should it change? I hope to be the change that I want to see, in the lives of my students and, just maybe, in the system that serves them. That is why I am considering the teaching profession.

1. Well, some young people. My friends, anyway. Yes, we are nerds. Well, some young people. My friends, anyway. Yes, we are nerds.
2. I was a summer camp counselor for both younger kids and teenagers, starting at age 17 and continuing through college. I had the privilege of working at a camp that I attended throughout my childhood, so I felt very at home there, which was great for my ability to jump right in and lead each year.
3. Before moving to Muncie, I was a Sunday school teacher for 1st-4th graders for three years. I have also signed up to be a Sunday school teacher at my new church in town, the Lutheran Church of the Cross, though the Sunday school year has not begun yet.
4. I was a team leader for City Year teams in Chicago public schools on the south side of Chicago for two years. City Year is an AmeriCorps program that provides young adults with service opportunities in underserved schools. My teams did reading tutoring, after school programs, and mentorship for elementary and middle school students, and I oversaw their work, as well as participating in much of it myself.

1 comment:

  1. James is a teacher man. He puts the thought into explaining clearly, he is a story teller, and he gesticulates, which makes his stories and explanations that much better. Two book recommendations for teachers: 1) A Mathematician's Lament by Paul Lockhart. And 2) Mindset by Carol S. Dweck. Anything you'd recommend as reading or as preparation for teaching?