In 10 years of teaching, not one high school student has ever told me he or she wanted to teach English.
Some students have mentioned that they would like to be teachers. “But not English,” they’ve always been quick to add. Serious eyes, emphatic headshake. Not English, the horror.
I’ve seen lots of emphatic headshaking in the past 10 years. Most of my students can’t seem to understand why anyone would be a teacher. “I don’t have the patience,” they’ve told me, usually following with the certainty that they would end up smacking somebody. I just smile, because they think that’s where I spend all my patience. They don’t know what I really need all this zen for.
So the other day, when W asked me if he could talk to me after class for a few minutes, I wasn’t expecting we would be discussing career aspirations. I suppressed a flicker of annoyance, mostly because I knew it was anxiety-driven – the period following W’s class is our professional period and our conduct during that time has been under scrutiny lately. But I like talking with W, who presents as generally too cool, strolling on the edge of wayward, but is clever and funny and kind of a sweet dork. So I smiled and said, “Of course,” desperately hoping he wouldn’t ask about his grade. My stack of waiting-to-be-marked assignments, growing by the day, sighed wearily from my desk.
Instead, W told me that he’s thinking of becoming an English teacher. I couldn’t measure my smile, but it was wide enough to have W bowing his head in embarrassment, giving us both a moment to get our cool back. He actually managed to do so; I was just giddy.
He told me that he had been thinking about his future lately, but also his past. He came to the US a few years ago, knowing no English, but he worked hard to learn. His accent is enough Bronx that I had assumed, when I first met him, that he had lived in New York since his childhood. English isn’t easy, he told me. Now, he likes helping people learn, but he especially likes helping them with English. When he thinks about his future, he told me, he feels like helping other people in a similar situation to his would be a good thing to do with his life.
“I think I’d be happy,” he said.
I told you, kind of a sweet dork, right?
My face was still cracked open, so my initial reaction to all this was a firm YAY!!! But I gave myself a pause. Because this was not just a notice. W wanted advice. He wanted to know, apart from the “economic issues,” as he put it, if teaching is a good job. He wanted to know if it makes me happy. And I wanted to be honest.
I told him that teaching engages my whole brain, my heart and my breath, everything. I told him that I see the world as a teacher, that every article or vine or movie or meme I come across makes me think, if only for a second, about how I could bring this to my students. I told him that this job does not stay where you leave it, that even with the boundaries I have set around how late I will stay after school and what physically comes home with me, I can never just clock out or shut down. There is no off switch for the teaching part of my brain, I said, because it’s pretty much all of my brain. Every year, I told him, I meet these fascinating people, and I get to know them, I share with them, and we become something of a family.
All of that, I assured him, is as demanding as it is rewarding. Sometimes – some months – some years – the giving outweighs the getting. This job makes me happy, I said, because learning is amazing. It is amazing to learn and it is amazing to witness the learning of others, and as a teacher I get both. I don’t know how many other jobs can give you that, because when I found this one, I knew that I was home. So, yes, this job makes me happy. But it also makes me angry, and sad, and tired. I told him that this job is hard; that even though – depending on the state he lives in and the lifestyle he wants – he can do ok, he can live, those well-deserved holiday breaks and that hard-earned summer vacation will not lessen the demands this job will make. “That’s just life, though, isn’t it?” I asked him. “Nothing is just one way all the time.”
When W told me he wanted to be an English teacher, Nancie Atwell’s warning to prospective teachers flashed in my mind. I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that teaching grants you this pure, noble career, that the rewards of student achievement can counterbalance, let alone compensate for, the demands, demoralization, and abuse of education reform. It is easy to miss out on the joy of teaching in this current climate; it is hard to grow. For a moment, I imagine my life as a New York City dog-walker and I consider telling W, “Run.” Or at least advising him to do something in finance.
But I wanted to be honest. And honestly, even with the anxiety, the daily madness of working with 100 teenagers (and their 1,000 hormones each, and their completely normal adolescent ridiculousness multiplied by the trauma and anger and abandonment issues that frequent this population), the insult of being told by official after official, none of whom know anything about teaching this subject or this population, that I cannot be trusted with my own professional growth, even with the knowledge that I could be a very happy dog-walker, this job makes me happy. That might not be enough, I know, but it’s what I’ve got for now.
W thanked me for staying to talk to him. I smiled again, and told him, “Anytime.” The stack of unmarked marking cleared its throat, but I ignored it (I’m really good at that). As he left, I asked him how long he had been thinking about this, being an English teacher. He paused at the door, considering his answer over the muffled shrieks of exuberant 9th graders. “Since this year, I guess,” he said. “You’re a good teacher, Miss.” He left and I laid my head down on the desk, pillowed on my arm, thinking that in this job, when it rains, it absolutely pours.