Why do I teach?
Perhaps a better question is “Why did I wait so long to start teaching?”
The simplest answer was that my mother never wanted me to teach because she was a teacher and knew what a hard life it was.
I knew what a hard life it was, too. I watched her do it throughout my childhood, watched as we scraped by on what little she made — always scrimping, saving, worrying, just getting by.
Form the age of 22, when I graduated university, to the age of 30 when I “hit the big time,” I probably averaged about $30K a year. Never bought clothes. Never owned a car. Never took trips. Ran up huge credit card debts to buy computer equipment and borrowed money from friends and family to keep various small ventures afloat.
I did sell my last company and I did go to work for a brief period as the Director of Product Development for the acquiring company as a result of their IPO, but about all I ended up with out of the deal was a life time case of repetitive strain injury, my college loans and other debts paid off, a new set of clothes, my first car, and about $35K left over which I used to pay for a ton of uncovered healthcare I needed to recover from the injuries I sustained working so long at a computer for so many years.
When it was all over, I was broke, living with my mom, spending most of my time feeling sorry for myself and reading in the same bedroom I grew up in as a kid.
Eventually, that just got too depressing.
I needed work. But my upper body was shot. What could I do? Well, my mom pointed out that I could help many of our wonderful family friends in their classrooms.
So, yes, I really did work for free in many classrooms. And, yes, I mean that literally. Prior to NCLB, it was very easy to volunteer in a school. And for someone who knew so many teachers in a big city, it was easy for me to find rooms to volunteer in.
I had been raised all my life more or less by teachers: my mom and our many family friends around the district. So when I got to that point in my life when I knew it was time to take a different path, many wonderful educators who had known me since I was a kid welcomed me into their rooms. And I welcomed the opportunity they gave me to learn how to teach for free.
I asked my mom if I should go and get an MA in education. She said, “You don’t learn to teach in college. You learn to teach in classrooms.” By that time, I was hooked. I wanted more than anything to learn how to teach. Actually, to master teaching — every subject, every grade, every kind of kid, every kind of school. There really was no way to do that in a year or two except to teach everywhere that would let me.
Most of the people who invited me into their rooms knew what I had studied in college, and what I’d done in tech, so they often asked me to teach lessons and units for them, especially writing, literature, some math, and a fair amount of US History. Essentially, I got a couple of years of student teaching experience from some of the best people in Seattle and even one of the best teachers in the nation, Mrs. Aki Kurose.
For about a year, I made $8 an hour as a Title I Aid. As I said above, for much of this time, I lived with my mother in the same old room I inhabited as a kid. When I got a small tutoring business started in the evenings, I had just enough to move out and into a modest apartment. From there, I was just fortunate enough to know which conferences to attend, which books to read, which summer professional development institutes to spend a week at, all because my mother was an experienced teacher who knew a lot about the profession and who was very clear, after 20+ years of experience, about which learning opportunities were valuable and which weren’t.
Still, she tried very hard to discourage me from making a career in education — and, to some extent, even though I have never been more satisfied with my career, I think she still wishes I’d never gotten into it.
Eventually, reform hit Washington state and I was one of the few people who knew a lot about literacy who was available during school hours to do professional development work. I had taken a few summer professional development institutes (my favorite learning environments because they were so intense) and had, unknowingly, received a few “training certifications” in various popular teaching methods.
In the late 90s, Washington state began doling out per pupil funding for professional development. But there were almost no consultants available in the state because almost everyone who was any good was in the classroom or being a principal or a curriculum director.
Out of nowhere it seemed, I started getting calls to give certain kinds of workshops. I was successful enough that I made $12,000 my first year as a consultant. But a few years later, I was working all over the country, had a small group of consulting associates, and thus my fourth company, Teaching That Makes Sense, was born.
The hallmark of my work was that I would offer to come and teach a full day at any school for free before anyone paid me for training. I said that if I couldn’t get immediate results from five or six classes of kids, no one should have to pay me to train them.
This meant that every one of my clients got something that, apparently, few other consultants offered: model teaching of real methods in their own classrooms with their own kids. I didn’t know I was one of the only people who did this. I just thought it was the right thing to do. And I loved the pressure of knowing I might not make my rent if I didn’t knock it out of the park every time I got up to the chalk board.
I was obsessed then, as I still am today, with understanding the best ways to help children learn. So it just seemed logical to track down the best people in the world and ask them the questions I was wrestling with. I would usually read some famous book and write to the author. To my surprise and delight, nearly all of them wrote back. Some even invited for coffee when I saw them at conferences. A few even mentored me formally for short periods of time.
How did I afford all this? Credit cards. Got hooked on them after college. Seemed like a good way to fund anything I wanted to do in my life. It wasn’t. But what did I know? Even after 10 years of very successful national consulting work, I faced near-bankruptcy with over $60K in debt during the beginning of 2003 when many states went broke, most of my contracts got cancelled, and the Iraq War tanked the economy.
So why do I teach now?
For all the corny reasons: because it helps people, because it makes a difference, because it makes communities better places to live in, because it allows me to contribute to the country I feel so fortunate to be a part of.
And even though I do other things professionally, nothing matters more to me than teaching and helping other teachers teach more effectively. When I think of the highest and best use to which I can apply myself in this life, nothing comes close to teaching.
Many people have criticized me, questioned my integrity, and attempted to marginalize my contributions because I do not hold a teaching certificate or teaching degree and have never held an official position as a public school teacher. But if being criticized and marginalized kept people out of teaching, I don’t think many people would be doing it.
Teaching well requires a deep commitment to service, a lasting sense of purpose that is larger than one’s ego, and something — I’m not sure what — that insulates a person from avarice and the ever-present enticements of an increasingly materialistic society. Any great teacher can bring that greatness to almost any other profession and receive more respect and remuneration for her effort.
As I have crested into middle age, I have come to believe that I have a moral obligation: if I can teach well, I must.
While I am excited to be a part of the greatest education reform movement in our nation’s history, I am saddened at times to admit that the direction of that movement makes it harder and harder for me to teach with each year that passes. Like many educators I know these days, I am torn between what I think is right and that which I can rightly do. But still I have to teach. And I don’t think I’m unique or in any way special, because I feel this way.
I don’t care that teachers aren’t paid like doctors. I don’t care that they aren’t revered like rock stars. I don’t care about anything as much as I care about children getting the incredible education to which each is entitled and which I know we can provide. As long as I know it can be done, as long as I see it being done and am a part of getting it done, I know that I have to keep doing it in one form or another. Even when it makes no sense for me to continue, it makes even less sense for me to stop.
So while I think every kid should listen to his mother — especially if she’s a teacher — I’m happy that in this one case I didn’t. Working in education, and working for education as so many people do during this difficult period of divisive reform, is a commitment I can’t get rid of, even when it seems that education would like to get rid of me.