A Return to My Purpose

If I’m being completely honest, I feel nothing but an extremely intense and unrelenting sense of dread whenever I think about the start of school next week. This dread gives way to significant guilt, and then a serious anxiety about the path I have chosen and whether it is, in fact, the right one for me. These doubts – of whether I am meant to be a teacher-  have consumed me this past week, in a time when I really ought to be mustering excitement and hope for the coming school year. This is not a good feeling.

Last year was my first as a teacher. Everyone I’ve ever met who is or has been an educator shares with me incredible horror stories about their first year. When I meet another teacher and tell them I have just completed my first year, they invariably give me a look of understanding pity and then try to reassure me that the second year WILL be better.

Despite all of these well-meaning colleagues, who pledge to me that the second year can’t possibly be worse than the first, I still find myself worrying that I simply am not capable of navigating another year with any modicum of success, while also maintaining a sense of balance in my personal life. Though there were small victories last year, overwhelmingly I felt tired, as if what I was doing was not making the impact I had set out to make. In truth, I was often disheartened, having spent hours on a single lesson, only to have a room full of adolescents react to it with boredom (best case) or outright disrespect (the worst.)

In truth, I’m scared to become just another jaded, cynical public school teacher. I see so many examples of this in my current job. There are those who refuse to assign papers in an English class because they don’t believe they should be forced to grade writing outside of school, or those who spend the majority of class time relating to students as peers without addressing the complexities, the wonders, of literature or language. So many of my colleagues approach their students with a preconceived judgment that they are lazy or incapable, that they need to be “kept in line” or given worksheets to keep them quiet. All of this makes my heart hurt, for I know it is not true. This is not the reason I became an educator.

So, in an effort to reconnect with the reason I DID choose to be a teacher, I revisited a paper I wrote in graduate school that attempted to answer a deceptively simple question: What is the purpose of schooling? (As a side note, I think our education system would benefit greatly from a serious reexamination of this question…are we really interested in producing students who can score proficiently on standardized tests, or should we be shooting for something more creative, something more applicable, more individualized?) Here’s a short excerpt from the introduction of the paper:

“The purpose of schooling should be to nurture a child’s inherent curiosity and to foster the development of empathy in each student. In this context, curiosity equates with a sense of wonder about the world and a hunger to learn about how it works. It is a non-judgmental state, characterized by an honest acceptance of one’s position as a perpetual learner. Curiosity, I believe, is innate in children, but often suffocates in school settings that view “learning” as the mere absorption of facts. If students are allowed the space to be genuinely curious about the world and to express and explore what it is that intrigues them, I believe they will develop a love of learning and a capacity to question and problem-solve that is essential to the world.

Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand another’s feelings and struggles. Practicing empathy is a personally held value that I believe should be essential to the work done in schools. If we are to prepare students to become responsible and caring citizens of the world, we must ask them to look beyond their own narrow worldview. We must teach our children to compassionately consider the experiences of those who may be different from them. In considering curiosity and empathy together, it seems the nurturance of one can connect with the development of the other.”

Perhaps if I can cleave to this purpose with ever more clarity and strength this year, this purpose that represents my core beliefs as an educator, I can begin to honor the gravely essential task I’ve been handed – inspiring my students to become more curious and empathic people.

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54 thoughts on “A Return to My Purpose

  1. Don’t dread! It gets better every year! It only takes one good question, one hug, one lightbulb moment, one thank you from a student to erase weeks of stress/imbalance, etc. I’ve only been at it six years, and yes, cynical moments will occur, but it’s all just sooo worth it! Happy September! First week is SO awesome. Second year – have a blast!

  2. Keep strong! There are those students out there that will be affected by you, it just takes the time to get them interested. Best of luck to you! If you keep that kind of attitude you really could make significant change in some kids life.

  3. Those are noble words from your paper. I hope you find your feet this year and are able to start even the briefest spark to realising them. Children are sensitive to an adult’s view of them and what they might be capable of. If they see you have faith in them they will surely respond. Perhaps not all, but most. 🙂

    Btw, if you’ve never read Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love may I suggest you do? It’s about a teacher and his struggles with a misfit class and his final winning over of the students’ hearts. It’s a true story. You might find it inspirational when you’re feeling like you’re heading nowhere.

  4. Over the years, I too have questioned the choice of being an educator. While my year as an intern was in a suburban school, my first actual year teaching was in a very urban setting. That was a horrible year which ended with 1 of my students drowning on a field trip. Then NCLB came along and I found myself without a job. It 2 years in the business world for I was hired to teach again, and that was only because I got cross-certified in another subject. For 3 years I taught that subject and it was agony. Teachers should never teach a subject they have no passion for. Then I got laid off due to budget cuts because of the economy. it’s been 10 years since I was intern, and I question my career choice almost everyday. But I think that’s what separates us from a lot of other people to choose to sit in a cubicle and become a zombie, they obviously do not question; they accept where they are, and see no point for aiming higher, or pushing farther.

  5. Another point that’s so difficult to approach is the difference between students. They may have difference grasps of the language, may have different points of view on the topic, may come from different backgrounds. These differences enrich writing and literature classes but also make it challenging for a teacher. Curiosity spans a wide spectrum of interests and empathy differs based on individual disposition, ability and background. As a teacher, one can only try hard. Am glad you’re not taking the jaded and cynical path yet. This was a pleasure to read.

  6. I just want to send you all the best for the coming year. I loved teaching! I taught English language and literature for 25 years and it was really hard to retire. I loved inspiring my students to love both literature and language in all forms. I’m still in touch with several pupils whom I did manage to inspire!

    Every year at this time, I felt nervous and sick about the start of the term and every year, after being back for a week, meeting all my pupils for the year, off I went again, full of beans and enthusiasm!

    I spent the last ten years of my career teaching English as before but also teaching the new teachers and hoping to inspire them too. Be positive, be fair, be kind – to yourself and the children! Always say what you mean and mean what you say and enjoy your teaching.

    All the very best to you and to your pupils for a happy and productive year. 🙂

  7. by the sounds of things you will be a great teacher if you think like this. Keep going it will turn around and even if you change one child’s life each year what an amazing thing…to be the teacher that believed in a child and made a difference to their self worth.

  8. I am not a teacher, but I can only imagine the obstacles you face. Please know that if you are putting your heart into your classroom, which it certainly sounds like you are, you are making a difference. I have always loved school and many of my teachers are still my heroes. You’re a person out there making a difference, exploring children’s passions and curiosities to help them further discover their own thought processes, and helping them to understand the answers to their questions.

  9. I can connect completely to your dismay. In fact, reading your post almost made me feel as if I were speaking the words myself. I started teaching reading in an urban public school two years ago. I was extremely excited to start motivating my students to achieve and being a positive role model for them. Sadly, my enthusiasm was thwarted by the inability to create my own creative lesson plans because I worked on a team with a colleague who had been teaching for years and would not stray away from her ‘just give them a worksheet’ mentality, the enormous amount of behavioral disruptions, and the systems’ unwillingness to focus on anything besides test scores as a basis for student and teacher achievement. The second year was a little better as my team was transformed and we started inserting more hands-on, engaging activities, but that was overshadowed quickly because many of the students (like you stated) seemed either bored or they just rebelled against any attempt to teach then anything.

    I didn’t return to teaching this school year. I decided that my passion for education had been extinguished and it was time for me to move towards a new goal in life. It saddens me because my intention was rooted with nothing but positivity and passion. Now, I dread even thinking about being back in a classroom.

    I hope that you will have a better school year this time around. We need great teachers, but sadly a lot of the policies in education have been turning wonderful, well-intentioned educators away from the profession more and more each year.

    • Thanks so much for your comment!

      You are, unfortunately, so correct in what you said about bright, positive, and hopeful teachers being burnt out very quickly by the current state of education. In a class I took once, we discussed whether to keep our national educational system as is, try to reform it, or “blow it up” and completely restart. In many ways, I think the third option, though improbable, might just be the best option.

      Best of luck to you in following your new goal!

  10. As a Mother to 5 young adults, let me say I tip my hat to teachers. You not only educated my children, but showed care, attention, etc for more hours during the days than me as a parent spent with them.. I have a feeling you are an amazing teacher and will leave your mark on students in a kind, positive way. All the best for the new school year!!

  11. You sound like some of my favorite teachers! The academic stuff has always been easy for me, but boredom was a problem. The teachers who encouraged my curiosity outside the regular material remain treasures in my mind.

  12. Wow! Such an honest piece that really echoes the sentiments of many educators who find themselves at a crossroads. I love how you use the old paper to get back to the core of how you originally fell in love with your work. Its similar to methods I use to re-align employees to work! Wonderful!

  13. Some interesting points you’ve made. I think that educators should tap into different learning and teaching methods to keep all students interested. Say; visual, hands on approaches, games. If the students are shown that their views and ideas are cherished they might just stay interested. And remember: ” the greatest measure of a man is not where he stands at times of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

  14. Keep at it…great educators are the reason we have some pretty cool and important people in the world, today. Go into your classroom remembering that you may be educating the next brilliant innovator, novelist, or curer of Cancer.

    Cheers to you!
    Courtney Hosny

  15. It is the fact that you are asking yourselves these kinds of questions that tells me you are and will stay a good teacher. It would be a bad sign if you weren’t concerned with the influence you have on the kids in your classes and, in turn, the effect that this has on you as an educator. Great post! Good luck for the coming year.

  16. I really enjoyed reading your post, and I look forward to more. I am a high school student with a passion for language and literature, and having a teacher who has purpose behind her teaching is so encouraging. Good luck to you as you start your second year! I hope you have some students who look at English with a new light and develop a sense of both curiosity and empathy. I’ll be back to read more of your writing!

  17. I’ve been working as an after-school tutor for about half a year now. I feel pretty good about teaching so far, but I know I’m really lucky – my students are generally the cream of the crop, trying to achieve really high scores on the SAT or their AP courses. I haven’t seen any outright disrespect, though I have seen plenty of boredom – I try my hardest to get my students interested, even if it’s something that I also find boring, like English grammar.

    So I don’t consider myself a “real” teacher. I have a friend who teaches math at a nearby public school, and I don’t know how she handles it. It takes a certain kind of dedication to make a good teacher, and unfortunately that’s a quality that is not highly rewarded these days. I’m not planning on working as a teacher, because I don’t think I’m made for that kind of work. I hope it all goes well for you, though. We need great teachers.

  18. As a mother of 6 grown children & step-mom to 2 others I think that teaching
    is a lot like parenting. Long hours, excitement that is dashed because the kids
    aren’t as “into it” as you are or as you had hoped. Often acting up or as you
    said, complete boredom. Often you wonder if anything you’re teaching them is
    getting through. It often breaks your heart.

    Now that the children are grown, the baby just turned 25, I have so often been
    surprised (astonished?) by the things they did learn & the values they carry with
    them. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it may not be apparent right away
    that they are absorbing anything. But a teacher such as yourself, caring &
    devoted, can rest assured that something is getting through at least to many of
    your students.

    There are many teachers that I remember fondly. One in particular was my
    college prep literature teacher who made literature come alive for me. I
    remember I had dreaded this class as I really had no interest in it. But seeing
    literature & the world through her eyes made all the difference. I also had a 6th
    grade teacher who was amazing. She did & showed us so many things to make
    learning come alive! After I graduated high school she & I kept in touch &
    wrote back & forth for nearly 6 yrs. Unfortunately we lost track of each other
    after that.

    So hang in there! It IS worth it. If you maintain the attitude & love of teaching
    that you have now, you will surely make a lasting impression on your students
    too.

    • Hi, Debbie.
      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I am told by many of my colleagues who have been teaching for eight, ten, fifteen years, that they sometimes get letters from students several years past graduation. These students will thank them, referring to a lesson, insight, or nugget of truth that they have carried with them for all that time. So, I know what you say to be true, but as such a new teacher, I have not yet experienced it, and it’s difficult to remember during the day-to-day practice of teaching. Still, I can hold onto the hope that I’ll experience these moments in the future.

  19. Every teacher I have ever worked with has expressed the same beginning year jitters and butterflies in the stomach as the new year approaches, like a tsunami. Ah, the first year. I did mine in an inner city environment as well and every day I walked into my boss’s office and said I wasn’t coming back tomorrow. She hardly lifted her eyes off her task and said, “Yes you will.” I would say (every day), “How do you know?” She replied, “Because what these kids need is someone who cares. And you do. You’ll be back.” I did not return this year and it’s hard for me, but I am soul searching and don’t think I will return. Best wishes!

  20. I am also going into my 2nd year with dread, fear, bitterness at how the hours are easily double that of my friends, my social life ebbs away, my exercise regime is whittled down to nearly nothing and my diet is reduced to the quick shove of a cereal bar in my face. But while we are strong enough to do our jobs with integrity, let’s keep going. 🙂 Thank you for you post! I totally identify with this!

    • Thanks, Jennifer!
      It is really comforting to hear from someone in my same position. You’re describing my reality completely! Though I have the best intentions to find a way to balance my personal life this year, I know as soon as there is a stack of papers that needs attention, parent emails to respond to, and the next day’s lesson to refine, my gym plans will be the first thing to go.

      But maybe it really will be easier the second time around? We can only hope for a little more time to take care of ourselves. After all, if we don’t find a way to “refill our tanks,” we’ll ultimately have nothing left for the kids.

      I’m wishing you the best, best, best.

  21. I owe so much to all the teachers that gave of themselves. Its embarrasing what we pay teachers at all grade levels.
    I learned the concept of empathy by the example of a teacher in elementary school. We used to have to journal daily in third grade. Many times I expessed my insecurities and fears in these journals. My teacher responded to them with such kindness and wisdom by comments made in red ink which I always looked forward to reading when I got my journal back after review. I wonder if this is still allowed in todays politically saturated school system. I hope so because I am so greatful to Mrs. Williams and others that demonstrate such positivity. Hidden stories like these should probably be focused on more than all the bull you hear about on the news. THank you for serving our future generations.

  22. Keep at it. I have a feeling you will be able to foster that sense of curiosity and creativeness even in the midst of this rigid, narrow-view plan meant to produce high-scoring standardized test results at the expense of all else. Have a great school year!

  23. Please don’t give up. Your words on empathy are incredibly profound, and true. I’m not an educator, but I was once a student just beginning to learn the importance of empathy in all aspects of life, from education to new experiences.

    I was the indifferent and, at times, disrespectful one.

    It was the educators like you, the ones who persevered and put their own signature on their work, that galvanized my empathy and allowed me to grow both as a student and as a member of the global community.

    The idea of regarding empathy as the locus of education is an important one. It’s superb. It will be the thing that, if you find a way to do it right, will turn indifference and apathy into humility and growth.

  24. What a heart warming and sincere post, thank you. Your students are very lucky to have a teacher who has a true understanding of the purpose of education and I have no doubt that your second year will bring much success and many rewarding moments. I notice some of my own most valued life experiences were preceded by great dread and fear for the need to dig deep and find courage and purpose often bring out the best in us. Hang in there, it will be worth it.

  25. All the best! I’m starting my first year as a teacher tomorrow and I’ve never been so terrified in my life. I’m mainly scared of turning into the worksheet and strict dry lesson plan teacher because how ever wonderful my plans may seem today, I’m afraid they might be shattered by reality tomorrow.
    Kind regards,
    E.

    • Thanks for your comment!
      If I have any advice, it would be to remember that you cannot possibly do everything you’d like to do in your classroom the first year. It is utterly impossible. You’re developing curriculum, building relationships with students, not to mention adjusting to the landscape of your new school.

      I tell my students there are “lima bean” days and then there are “dessert” days – some days, you’ll just need to get through material that seems inherently boring, but is totally good for them (ahem, grammar instruction.) And other days, you’ll be able to infuse your lessons with so much more interaction and excitement, especially by connecting the material to something that matters to them. Give yourself permission to be ok with these lima bean days, and strive for some dessert days, too. Ultimately, if you are genuinely excited about the material and being there, they’ll forgive you a worksheet or two when you just can’t manage to do any better.

      Wishing you luck!

  26. I adore the spirit of your message. Most likely you have no choice but to believe in yourself (and for good reason)…it is inherent in your nature to make a positive difference in this world and so I bet that you will do just that. ~S

  27. I teach in an urban setting, and it is incredibly challenging work. I feel that I am gifted at forging relationships with at-risk kids. The atmosphere of public education has become oppressive for teachers, and it breaks my heart that my students are measured by high stakes test scores, and so am I. I am blessed with colleagues who are amazing, and we hold each other up and remind each other that we are, indeed, amazing and that we are making a difference.

  28. Well-said! I especially like your dedication to broadening the worldview of the next generation. I liked this part best: “If we are to prepare students to become responsible and caring citizens of the world, we must ask them to look beyond their own narrow worldview. We must teach our children to compassionately consider the experiences of those who may be different from them. . . inspiring my students to become more curious and empathic people.”
    Delana

  29. Hang in there! I’m in my 19th year of teaching high school. (And I didn’t begin teaching until I was 40 years old.) Some years have been very difficult and challenging, and some have been as if sent from heaven itself. As a teacher, you are positively impacting lives, and what greater calling could there be? Last week I received a message out-of-the-blue from someone I taught 19 years ago, thanking me for the impact I had on her life. It was a great surprise, and I know someday you’ll receive messages like that, too.

  30. You never know whose life you will touch in a big way because of the position you’re in. For some, one special teacher makes all the difference. I know from experience. Hang in there.

  31. You’re doing great and it is only natural to feel dread on the opening of school. It’s how you feel every other day after that that matters 🙂 People don’t stick with it if they truly don’t like it no matter how much they complain. It’s a noble profession and you will and do make a difference! Please visit my blog if you get a chance and let me know what you think about my thoughts and ideas after 33 years in teaching. Thanks!

  32. I am not an educator, thus unable to speak about the triumphs and tribulations you may experience, but did wish to leave this thought. A few teachers/professors/mentors will always remain as individuals I wish to emulate. Often, I think if I was to cross paths with them and they asked what I have and am currently doing, would they be proud, would they consider themselves to have been successful?

    Seventeen years ago, my 8th grade history teacher provided an answer that I am still attempting to wrap my mind around. Teach with confidence and passion and lives will be shaped for the better.

  33. I am entering my senior year of college, and these are some of the exact fears that I, well, fear I will have, if I choose to go into teaching. I think that is one of the reasons pushing me for grad school. I want to teach college, not have to deal with adolescents.

    Good Luck!

  34. Remind yourself how important your job is to the world. You aren’t one of those people who is working for a paycheque. You actually care about what you’re doing.

    To grow as an individual, you have to overcome challenges, so be easy on yourself…it’s your road to personal growth, on top of the critical role your job as an educator plays! Good luck to you.

  35. Many people say that teaching is a noble calling – but I say that it is hard, thankless work in the gutters of society. Your post brought me back to a time, about 15 years ago, when I felt the same. My first 4 years were terribly difficult, as I tried to figure out how to fit into the institutional setting and carve out a space of my own.
    But now, teaching is my one true love. It is still hard but the work has become satisfying as I have seen the impact I have made on the families I have taught.
    Having just moved to a new city, I have not yet landed a teaching job and I honestly feel like I have no purpose. Being a teacher has become my identity and without it, I am lost.
    Best wishes – and congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  36. Congratulations on FP and starting your second year. Your students are lucky to have a dedicated teacher willing to “educate” rather than lecture and cram the exam. Good luck this year, following your passion will always lead to success. One step at a time. 🙂

  37. I’ve been teaching for over 20 years. Last week, as I prepared to return for the fall term, I felt my feet dragging. I wrote about my reluctance here:

    http://siobhancurious.com/2012/08/27/readysetugh/

    However, despite moments when I feel less than enthusiastic about my job, I have found that time, experience and self-examination have made it more rewarding every year. Your post suggests that you’re ready to work hard to be the best teacher you can be.

    My blog is one long reflection on the purpose of school, of teaching, and of learning. I’d be delighted if you browsed around it and gave me your thoughts on some of mine.

    • Hi Siobhan,

      Thank you for your note. It’s funny, my best friend (also a teacher) had sent me a link to your blog, and I was reading around your site just as I noticed the email notification of your comment pop into my inbox. What a small blogosphere…

      I’ve enjoyed reading what you have there, and appreciate knowing that I am not alone in my trepidation about the beginning of classes.

      Looking forward to more conversations in the future!

      Laura

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