Teaching is one of the most challenging careers that one might choose to follow. Studies have shown that by the five year mark only the most dedicated educators have decided to stay in the profession. The hours are much longer than the nine to three mark that so many assume is the work day for teachers. In most cases the job continues until well into the night, and the summer vacation time is filled with inservice programs, weeks long courses, and pre-planning for the coming school year. The myths about short days and three month vacations for teachers still persist even though they are far from the truth about the extended efforts that all teachers provide for their students and their schools.
One would think that members of such an important profession would be some of the most highly paid and honored in the nation, but the reality is that teachers work for abysmally low salaries given their level of education and the number of hours that they labor each year. Those who stay past that five year mark are the ones who continue regardless of the lack of benefits and praise. They are the ones who altruistically simply want to lay the educational foundations for each generation. They are literally devoted to the idea that their work is the bulwark on which the future is born.
So why would anyone with any special abilities be willing to sacrifice time and salary for a job that is all too often the subject of sneers and misunderstanding? I suppose that it is because teaching offers immeasurable rewards to those who are truly dedicated. It is not in salary or benefits or perks that educators find joy, but in the knowledge that what they have done keeps the engines of innovation and industry moving. There are no engineers without a fleet of teachers beginning when a child is small. There are no business magnates or doctors or scientists without the step by step processes that teachers provide in hopes of unlocking the brilliance and gifts of each child who sits in their classrooms. Teaching is one of the most purpose driven careers that anyone might follow.
Many times a teacher receives the gift of gratitude from a former student who has achieved great things. Those tokens of appreciation have more value than gold. They convince teachers that their own sacrifices of money and prestige are more than worth it. There is no greater feeling for teachers than realizing that someone is a bit better because of their influence. Teachers literally save the cards, letters and texts that they receive, sometimes reading them over and over again.
I suppose that I understood why someone becomes an educator when I thought of my own teachers and the enormous impact that some of them had on my life. I can still transport my mind back to their classrooms and realize what I learned from each of them. My first grade teacher opened the world to me by showing me how to read and write and she did so with such patience and love. My sixth grade teacher demonstrated how to be fair and just. My seventh grade teacher widened my vistas by making science fun and interesting. My high school English teacher made me a citizen of the world. One of my college professors showed me how to teach others. Even today I continue to unearth truths about history from a professor who teaches those of us who want to learn just for fun.
Step by small step I learned about the world around me. Most of my teachers were honest and fair. None of them became rich from their work, but I suspect that, like me, they reveled in the knowledge that what they gave to me and my fellow students was so important. My fellow classmates and I took their lessons to heart and have led successful and fulfilling lives because of them. So it has been for generations of students who enjoyed the tutelage of countless teachers whose names will never be known, but whose impact was huge.
Most students do not know that teachers never forget them. We remember the sad little girl who struggled to learn and always seemed so isolated from her peers. We pray that she is okay. We think of the class troublemaker and smile in knowing that he turned out just fine. We marvel at the accomplishments of our students who outdistance us in their learning and their achievements. We smile when we learn that our students are happy, and cry when we find that they are somehow broken. We wish that there were some way for them to know that we will never stop caring for them.
If only everyone knew what I know about teachers there would be a rush to honor them and shower them with the prestige they so deserve. For now, I suspect that like me they will simply be content to know that what they have done is truly important. That knowledge seems to have been enough for generations of educators to quietly do their work.