It’s that time of year: teachers are prepping their classrooms, writing preliminary lesson plans, and attending mandatory in-service training. More than three million Americans have chosen to return to the classroom and resume the noble profession of education. At the same time, according to the Learning Policy Institute, each year “more than 200,000 teachers leave the profession, with nearly two out of three leaving for reasons other than retirement.”
In both the United States and the United Kingdom, veteran teachers are considering leaving the classroom due to burnout, lack of job satisfaction, and concerns about ineffective administration. In the face of such concerns, why would one become a teacher?
The hours are never ending. A 40-hour week is a pipe dream, replaced instead by 55 hours as the norm, with occasional weekend events. The seriousness of the task is paralleled by those great satire websites like Bored Teachers, which put forth a plentiful stream of content that accurately satirizes the life of a teacher.
The pay is steady, but never as high as teachers would like, and those who love teaching are often torn between following their vocation and making ends meet as families grow. Parent emails, difficult administration, limited pay raise potential, the looming threat of strikes — why would one choose to enter such a field?
Clearly no one plays this game for the money. Instead, teaching is a labor of love which, when done well, receives compensation in a variety of forms (that hopefully includes enough dollars to make ends meet). Veteran teachers of 20 or 30 years have a wealth of relationships and changed lives that return intangible yet priceless rewards over a lifetime. Teaching is ultimately about the people and, done right, a teacher does all of his work out of love for the students.
Love for People and for Ideas
Paralleling the love for students is a love of learning. Spending time in worthwhile subjects nourishes the soul, and teachers begin with a certain content area, and spend years marinating in it. They absorb vast amounts of reading, ideas, and activities related to a specific area so they can pass their love of learning on to their students.
Assessments, administrative reports, parent communication — all of these become the necessary price teachers pay to spend time in their chosen field. While one might reasonably assume teachers stay in singular, fixed content areas, in many cases, this is a false assumption. I began teaching in history, but then my administrator needed me to cover logic. Over the last three years, I have gained significant knowledge about a subject I avoided in my college days.
Equipped with a love and practice of continual learning, teachers have the capacity to regularly renew their minds through increased learning related (in some way) to their fields of teaching.
So teaching is ultimately a labor of love. Love of students and of learning propel teachers through changes in classroom management policy, late-night emails, and near-death experiences in carpool lines.
Teachers practice at least one more love: the ability to return to a purely impractical “first love.” Some of Jesus’ most terrifying words are found in Revelation 3:“Yet I hold this against you — you have lost your first love.” Teaching permits adults to return to their “first love” activities from a new perspective.
I experienced this firsthand during my second year teaching. While in college, I discovered a passion for competitive speaking, and spent four years on my college forensics (competitive speaking) team. I tried to incorporate some speech elements in my formal classes, but they never worked out as I imagined. Eventually, I began a speech and debate club as a teacher, and it took off!
Halfway through the year, I realized that while I was still doing my actual job as a teacher (and not shortchanging my students, for sure), I was spending Tuesdays and Thursdays eagerly awaiting speech and debate to start. I was paid to teach high school literature and logic, but my soul was feeding on my after-school club.
This year, my wife is experiencing the same phenomenon as an assistant volleyball coach. She played volleyball in high school, and is now getting to help middle school girls learn the sport. As teachers become proficient in their craft, they discover margin in which they can create new opportunities for joyful community. Such opportunities serve little practical purpose, but they make a school a better place.
Remember: Amateur Means Lover
As a growing school, the academy I teach at has a variety of new clubs each year: Harry Potter Club, Needlework Club, Art and Cookies Club, Model UN, the Thales Times (school newspaper), and so on. Each exists at a nexus of student interest and a teacher’s willingness to sponsor it. None of these clubs have immense practical value.
Of course, students who participate do gain skills in some area, but that is really not the point. These clubs exist because people enjoy doing whatever the club is centered upon, and they recall Russell Kirk’s phrase “the unbought grace of life.” In his “Sword of the Imagination,” Kirk uses this phrase to describe the friendships he formed in various Scottish castles during his years at St. Andrews University. The hospitality of Scottish nobility allowed Kirk to experience a kind of life he otherwise would never have seen.
Such experiences, he thought, were “unbought” because they were freely given, and “grace” because they were superfluous things which made life worthwhile. Much of the teacher’s vocation is shaped by utilitarian demands: the quizzes must be graded, the discipline system must be enforced, the classroom must be managed, or the teacher’s work life will become terrible. Clubs, sports, and afterschool activities remind the teacher and students that there is so much more to the good life, and such a life involves enjoying human activities together.
In adulthood, very few people actually get to follow their passions in their work. Teaching is one of the few places where the opposite is true. For the kind of person who falls in love with learning and has been shaped by the liberal arts, teaching is a sort of ideal.
I end many days simultaneously frustrated with certain students who missed the point of the day’s lesson, yet in awe that I actually get paid to read Plato, discuss his writings with high schoolers, then teach students to play the game I love. Teaching is the ultimate liberal arts profession, and for those who put the time and effort into it, it pays off in a career filled with human relationships, higher things, and unnecessary graces that endure beyond the career.