When I was a child I kept my toys in cardboard boxes from the grocery store. I had one that held my dolls along with “furniture” made from an assortment of smaller containers. Another stored a hodgepodge of items like a jump rope and roller skates. Then there was my school box, a collection of books, paper and pencils that I used to pretend that I was a teacher. I kept it at the ready for any occasion in which I was able to entice my friends or relatives to participate in my favorite make believe game of being an educator. I suppose that I was always destined for working inside a classroom. Being a teacher was more than just a job. It was a vocation, something that I dreamed of doing for as long as I am able to remember.
When I was still a student my teachers were highly respected. The women’s liberation movement was in its infancy and few females worked outside of their homes. When they did, they chose traditional professions. Chief among them was teaching. The best and the brightest from the feminine half of the population were often drawn to education where they shared their knowledge and skills. I studied under the tutelage of women who might have run companies in today’s world. They were brilliant and inspiring. I knew early in life that I wanted to accomplish something significant when I worked and I believed that teaching the next generation was mankind’s most noble and important occupation. I did not choose to be a teacher so that I might pay my college bills or because I was not intelligent enough to master other fields of study. I wanted to be a teacher because I desired to do meaningful work. I had been inspired by brilliant women who had made learning exciting and I thought it would be quite wonderful to follow in their footsteps.
Over the course of my career I witnessed the decline of respect for teachers. As women overcame barriers to succeed in traditionally male occupations education became for many a less and less desirable career path. The old joke that “those who can’t, teach” became a standby for questioning the credibility of those who entered schools of education. We began to revere the women who studied business, engineering, medicine and ridicule those who “settled” for learning how to teach. It became more and more popular for schools to hire cadres of candidates from the ranks of Teach for America where individuals came from ivy league universities with impressive resumes. They donated their exceptional talents to some of our worst schools sometimes even staying beyond the two years required to eliminate much of their college debt. They became the public heroes of education while those who had purposely chosen to major in education were often viewed as inferior.
There came a time when even members of my extended family would consider what might have been had I chosen a more exciting and profitable career. They would note that I would have been an outstanding doctor or an incredible lawyer as though in being a teacher I had somehow missed the opportunity to fully express my talents and my destiny. Strangers who inquired about my life upon first meeting me would suddenly and noticeably lose interest when I revealed that I was a teacher. Often they would launch into an indictment of what they saw as a broken system for educating our youth and wonder that I would actually choose to be part of something so hopelessly inferior.
I had to learn to ignore the naysayers and to bear the wounds from the slings and arrows that are invariably aimed at educators. Still, I so loved what I did as a teacher that I could think of nothing more wonderful than meeting a new group of students each August and enhancing their knowledge of mathematics during the course of the following ten months. I understood what really happened inside classrooms. I retained the magic and the joy even in the most challenging situations. I watched the transformation of my pupils and felt the power of learning motivate them to follow their own dreams. There was no amount of money or prestige that would have given me as much satisfaction as I felt watching my charges grow and become more confident because of my efforts.
I feel a sense of pride in watching my former students become accomplished adults. They are part of a new generation that will carry out the work that drives the world forward. I know in my heart that my time with them played a part in their evolution. Seeing them succeed is the grandest form of payback for my efforts.
Whenever I learn that one of my “kids” has chosen to become a teacher or play a supporting role in education I am especially elated. Over the years I have seen many of my most outstanding students opt to become exceptional educators. I celebrate not just for them but for the world because I know just how truly amazing they are. It is as though I have been able to pass the torch of learning that has always burned so brightly in my heart. I know firsthand the joys and the accomplishments that lie ahead for them. I realize how difficult their pathways will be and how the rewards that they receive will most often be intangible. If they truly love their jobs the way I always have they will not require approval to realize the magnitude of the impact that they will have on all of society.
This year I know of several young people who will stand at the front of classrooms for the very first time. Instead of gazing up at me for guidance they will have youngsters looking to them for knowledge. It has become their time to lead. I have little doubt that each of them will be a resounding success. I know them to be of exceptional mind and spirit and they will ultimately become rock stars in their professions.
If I were to give them one bit of advice it would be to hold their heads high no matter what kind of chatter they may hear. Teachers are the foundation of all that mankind accomplishes. We show our children how to read and to think. We help them to reach out to the universe. Without teachers there would be no doctors or lawyers or engineers. Giants stand on our shoulders and we are happy to help them to reach the heights. The naysayers may criticize us and even attempt to demean us but we know better. Our profession forms the bedrock upon which all of society depends. Education is the heart of civilization. “Those who can” are the chosen ones who teach.