Why are you here?
A lot of things that are happening this week have kept this question in the forefront of my mind. It is a deep question, why I do what I do. For many teachers, in times of crisis, worry, or just plain frustration, it can be hard to stay motivated and to remember why we chose this profession. Teaching is both the most fulfilling and rewarding thing I have done, at the same time is frustrates and challenges me to no end.
It seems I fall into this reflection once every three to four years, wondering whether this is really what I want to be doing with my life, and it is in these times that I remember what brought me here in the first place.
I was lucky enough to attend Catholic school from K-12: elementary school at St. Pius X in Norwalk, CA, and St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower CA. I had some great teachers but there were two teachers that I try to emulate in my classroom on a regular basis. The first is David Kristoff. The Jr. high kids at Pius did a rotation throughout the day, and that meant I had Mr. Kristoff three years in a row for Math and Science. I remember a lot from those classes, we learned about viruses and bacteria, and we did a whole unit on AIDS, which in the late eighties was still spreading like wildfire. He had a way of teaching, lecturing and popcorn reading, giving us notes, having us diagram things in our notebooks, using different colors for different parts of our notes. It was new to me and it was transformational in my learning. I still take notes with colors and diagrams, doodles in the margins, and highlights and underlines. He made learning accessible and organized. I loved learning, even as a kid, but this was new, it was a way to document and chart my learning that has stayed with me. When I lecture and give notes, I try to get my students to fell that excitement I felt in those science classes long ago.
Elizabeth Stevens in the next teacher I think about when I reflect on why I teach. She was my Language Arts teacher in 7th and 8th grade. From Ms. Stevens, my insatiable love of reading turned into a genuine disorder. Today, I devour books, like a shark with blood in the water. I am always reading two or three novels at a time, and one to two professional books as well. It was Ms. Stevens that taught us to journal, and not just jot things on paper or tell a story, but be reflective about what we are doing, reading or learning. She encouraged me to slow down and read not just to end the story close the book, but to see the craft of writing, the machinations of the author in spinning their yarn. It was then that my love for books went past the story to the craft of writing itself. The ins and outs, the plot twists and foils, the story under the story, the tiny dots that made up the story of the wordy Seurat. It is this revelation and joy of the craft I try and pass to my students today.
Lastly, my High School English teacher, Patrick Lee. I remember two things about his perfectly: he was a soccer freak, and the best English teacher I have ever had. His ability to make even the most tedious stories come alive and unfold its mysteries for all to see was amazing to experience. He would place the Odyssey in the vernacular and the class would light up in understanding. Anything was accessible in his room. The best part was the notes. It wouldn’t happen but 5 times a semester, but I remember walking into his room and the chalkboards would be full of his goofy drawings from one end to another. It was his lecture for the period, hinted at by the pictures on the board. The pictures weren’t art, but we all understood them. And he never followed a regular pattern either, switching from one place on the board to another and back again, all to make sure we just didn’t come in and copy the board. It didn’t matter. The drawings plus the lecture was the gold, and it made it all make sense, the pictures and the story. I have tried to duplicate it, and even now with sketch-notes, I cannot come close to what I experienced then. But it makes me want to get better and strive to improve my craft.
I hope that when this job becomes too much and you start to feel frustrated and defeated, you can think back to the teacher and the inspiration that brought you here in the first place. It can be hard to be a teacher, harder than I ever thought it could be when I first started teaching. But on those days, I have some great inspiration to look back on and get me through the tough days.