Friday, October 16, 2009

"If you're a lawyer, why would you want to stay in teaching?"

As I was reading this article in the Washington Post, I literally welled up with tears. The author, Sarah Fine, is probably about two years younger than me, but she has faced similarly insensitive questions. You don't have to read the whole article. This excerpt says it all:

"Why teach?" they ask.

Do my lawyer and consultant friends find themselves having to explain why they chose their professions? I doubt it. Everyone seems to know why they do what they do. When people ask me about teaching, however, what they really seem to mean is that it's unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long. Teaching is an admirable and, well, necessary profession, they say, but it's not for the ambitious. "It's just so nice," was the most recent version I heard, from a businesswoman sitting next to me on a plane.

I used to think I was being oversensitive. Not so. One of my former colleagues, now a program director for Teach for America, has to defend her goal of becoming a principal: "When I tell people I want to do it, they're like, 'Really? You really still want to do that?' " Another friend describes her struggle to make peace with the fact that a portion of the American public sees teaching as a second-rate profession. "I want to be able to do big things and be recognized for them," she says. "In the world we live in, teaching doesn't cut it."

I often feel the same way. Teaching is a grueling job, and without the kind of social recognition that accompanies professions such as medicine and law, it is even harder for ambitious young people like me to stick with it.


Since I graduated from law school in the top ten in my class and passed the Massachusetts Bar Exam, I have faced a lot of people with this attitude.

"Why teach?" Here is my answer.

I teach because I love history and the lessons it provides for all of us. If I can be a part of those lessons, I'm honored to do so.

I teach because I get to spend my time with teenagers. They are an amazing mix of serious and hilarious, complicated and simple, egocentric and global-minded.

I teach because I get to laugh (and I mean really hard) every single day at my job.

I teach because I'm pretty OK at it. I work hard on my lessons, units, and projects. The products my students come up with as a result are sometimes less than impressive, but sometimes they knock my socks off. For me, that is an amazing reward.

Over and over I have heard friends and family members say, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." It stings when people say this.

But I've also seen professionals try to quit their career to become teachers. They want a job with the summers off. They want to be able to get out of work at 3pm every day. A teacher with this attitude burns out quickly and soon someone else's name is posted on the wall outside his former classroom. It doesn't take long for these people to discover that it is hard work with no glamorous recognition. We teachers do a full 12 months worth of work in 9 and half, plus we often take graduate level classes at night and throughout the summer months.

I teach because I can.

3 comments:

  1. Wow---I have officially become a blog stalker. Sigh. Oh well. It's your blog, Kerry and I know I will learn something from you :)It's funny about the different people we meet. I have never heard that expression ...those who can't, teach. ..until just last month actually. When I worked as an occupational therapist in the school setting, I loved my job. I laughed every day and there was such a vibrancy within the school setting which is difficult to describe and difficult to find in any other location of work. There is a strong energy when working with children. Each child is unique. Teaching, to me, is the utmost giving profession for those who enjoy it. My older son graduated high school last year and he remembers every teacher who was enthusiastic about his/her job and every teacher who was not. The subjects he excelled in were taught by the teachers who enjoyed the art of teaching. My younger boy is a 5th grader. He adores his teacher this year. At dinner one night, I asked him why he liked his teacher so much. He bent down his head and thought for a few seconds, then he looked up at me and said, "Because of his enthusiasm." I told his teacher that at open house, and he said it gave him the chills. LOL. Kevin is now doing well in Math with this teacher, when he struggled last year.

    Good for you sticking with teaching, Kerry. Having a teacher with your background, your knowledge, your energy, and your ability to engage will open the eyes of many kids who may not have been able to see their own potential :)

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  2. Kerry, Thank you for this thoughtful response to Ms. Fine's essay. After more than 15 years in education, I've seen too many young teachers choose to leave the profession. And heard too many comments about how "easy" our job is. I experience frustrations every day, but come back the next day because I love my students, I love helping them see the world in a different way, and I love watching them come to understand something new for the first time. They make me laugh and keep me optimistic about the future. I, too, teach because I can.

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  3. Because of my abilities I could be out there "in the real world" earning twice if not more. As a result, I'm also asked this question all the time.

    I have to defend my choice to be a teacher. I do a pretty good job getting most to at least accept my choice, but the concept is so alien - it's not about the money; it's the impact. I love to learn; where better to be than with others just like me? Teaching is completely different than it was just twenty years ago - it's a two-way street now - it's never the same; it's always exciting! Yes, seeing their light bulbs going off and seeing their reactions when they turn on my light bulb - now that's teaching! I am grateful to be part of the learning.

    I, too, teach because I can.

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