Adolescents are curious creatures. One minute, they avoid you, the leper adult that you are. The next, they overwhelm you with sincerity or genuine interest in your humanity.
There’s at least one student every year who asks me,”Why do you teach?” Usually, I give some sort of snarky response, saying something like, “Because I want to be rich,” but I always follow it up with some more detailed, legitimate answer.
This year, a young lady in my third period caught me off guard. While doing research on how artificial intelligence will impact education, raised her hand. I walk over to her desk, lean in and indicate I am listening. Then, the bomb explodes. “Mr. Ferro, does it bother you that people are trying to replace teachers with AI?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it,” I reply, honestly.
“Well, if it does, what would you do? I mean, why did you even pick teaching in the first place?”
“Well,” I begin, “I think teaching chose me.” She looks at me, dissatisfied with my vague answer. I do admit, this answer seems like a cop out, but it is true since I didn’t come to the profession by a traditional route.
Maybe a better question, then, is why do I stay in teaching?
When I think about the time I spend with my students, it is considerable: 55 minutes times 130 days (approximately). That’s 7150 minutes, 120 hours, or five, full days. Some of them have been in my classroom for multiple periods a day and lunch (because it’s a safe space), so the minutes add up.
In this time, I sincerely hope that my students learn something that they consider valuable. To be honest, however, I would be disingenuous if I said that I cared only about their academic progress or achievements. It would be far more truthful to say that their growth and development as humans, citizens of this world, and as critical thinkers, outweighs any ambition I had (or have) for their knowledge of things like parallel structure, identifying theme, analyzing symbolism, or evaluating an author’s word choice. Yes, this content represents some concrete academic construct a consortium has determined they should know, but here’s a secret: there are far more important lessons I want them to learn.
These humans-in-training are future voters, leaders, and decision-makers, and my responsibility in the role in preparing them for whatever path they choose is something I take seriously. I teach because I can be the person I needed at their age.
There may come a day that the dust of their school career will settle and a sense of understanding will come upon them. They will be a bit travel-worn, likely exhausted from the journey that is compulsory education, but then: clarity.
The best lessons of life are those that are not academic in nature, yet often take place within the fences of our schools. The best teachers don’t just teach content, but are also those that we know and understand as people – flesh and blood humans – not just the Mr or Mrs so-and-sos who peer viciously over shoulders as students perform some perfunctory task, wielding officious red pens and distributing complicated rubrics.
Maybe my students see me in a flattering light, but maybe not. If nothing else, I want them to know I cared and that I always will. They may not ever re-enter the doors of my classroom as a student of mine, but they will always be one of my students. Within the four walls that support my room, I hope they learn, but also laugh, grow, change, and feel safe, welcome, and secure.
Some of them may think this makes me a good teacher, but It would be impossible for me to be so without wonderful young people to inspire me.
Just as I said they will always be my student, I will always have been their teacher, and I’m being so, there’s the potential to affect infinity. As a moderately-experienced adult, there will be times in their lives when some failure occurs – they don’t pass a test, someone breaks their heart, they don’t gain admittance into the college of choice, are turned down for a job, et cetera. This world may not always accept their offers, leaving stars unaligned, but as a teacher, as their teacher, I know that they all have the potential to learn and develop into the people who will lead our world in a direction that values progress, individual spirit, intellectual endeavors, and beauty. This gives me purpose. This makes me happy.
So, the next time a student asks me asked me why I became a teacher, I have this to reference, a straight answer (if not a short one). My students, ultimately, are the reason. They are why I became a teacher.
Now try to get some robot to do that.