Letter to a Future Teacher, or Why I Teach

For anyone thinking of becoming a teacher, or wondering what the work is like. Also for me, to remind myself what’s important after hard days, hard weeks, and hard months.

Learning teaching came slowly to me, and too many of those hours were spent formatting worksheets, learning the ins and outs of Microsoft Word’s equation editor, and sitting at my desk terrified, dreading fourth period. Then, all I wanted was for students to be silent when I wanted, to dazzle with my deep understanding of eighth grade math, and to find a perfect challenge question that prompted students to figure out the Pythagorean Theorem on their own. I thought teaching was about saying clever things, getting students to give lots of right answers, and passing on a love of mathematics mostly through force of will. That all didn’t go so well, and it also didn’t leave me very happy at the end of the day.

Growing to love my content and my time in class has been one part of the work, but it’s easy to oversimplify teaching as the process of moving knowledge from my brain into students’ brains. That’s one part of my job, and a challenging and important part of it. But we have computers now that can do much of that work, and talking heads who think they should do more of it for us. That’s not what teaching is about. For me, it’s much less flashy, without theatrics or instant gratification, and with a great deal more concern for the individuality of every student I teach.

Teaching is about convincing that girl who thinks girls can’t be mathematicians that they can, and she can, bit by bit, day by day. It’s about staying after school to hang out with two kids who love to play chess and can’t find anything else about school to enjoy. It’s about knowing that one kid is anxious and terrified every time they walk into math class, and with every direction or transition keeping an eye on their eyes and their shaking knees under the desk and figuring out just what to say to help them feel a little bit more at home. It’s about having the courage to throw out a lesson plan after Walter Scott was killed to teach students something relevant that day. It’s also about screwing up all of the above, and having the humility to know it and learn from it. It’s about being wrong. Realizing you don’t understand fraction division nearly as well as you thought you did. Realizing that you’ve been making assumptions about who kids are and where they come from that are slowly crippling them. Fundamentally, it’s about being a human who can create space for children to share their ideas and truly, truly listen to them.

It’s often thankless work. Kids aren’t often very good at gratitude. Much of the difference you will make won’t manifest for months or years; for many students you’ll never know. There will be far fewer days than you would like where class goes well, where that discussion reaches the conclusion you’d planned for, where that great problem you’d prepared is just right to pique your students curiosity.

That’s the terrifying, humbling, wonderful work of teaching. It is also the part of teaching that will never be replaced by a computer program, that we need more humans to appreciate and love and work for. If you are considering becoming a teacher, know that teaching is a job with an enormous amount of humanity behind it. It’s exactly that humanity which makes it so challenging and so rewarding, and keeps me coming back.

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