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The Rarest of Teachers

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As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

I have always felt that stories are an intricate part of how people live and interpret their lives. Having good stories to tell is part of why I became a preschool teacher. Being a guy with National Certification in early childhood education just adds some extra spice.

It is not uncommon to hear young teachers say they grew up wanting to teach—perhaps influenced by a great teacher they had early in their life. All too often this story ends with young teachers deciding to leave the profession in their first five years. My story is different. I really backed into teaching, and perhaps that's why I've stayed. I do know that teaching has become my passion.

I never planned to be a teacher at all. I went through college thinking that I was going to be an artist. Ever the optimist, I sheltered myself from the reality that being an artist and paying the bills is not easily done at the same time. So when my future wife said, “You can do anything you want as long as you can pay your half of the rent,” I was faced with two choices: a) I could continue working for a painting contractor painting houses and come home from work with stories about watching paint dry; Or b), I could try teaching. At least with teaching, I told myself, I would come home with better yarns. And although I am now embarrassed to say it, in those pre-career days I also thought: "I'll get the summers off to make art."

I began by substitute teaching, to get my feet wet and make sure I was headed in the right direction. And I did it all. I substituted in every possible situation, from preschool special education classes to high school P.E. I worked in urban and suburban school districts. I spent class time with kids who came to school without warm clothes to wear in the winter—and with kids who came in the latest designer fashions.

Even though I had never wanted to be a teacher I found that I was good at it. I relied on my spontaneity, my creativity, my empathy, and my willpower to get me through each day. The kids taught me about the real heart of teaching by letting me know very quickly what they needed in terms of respect, guidance, humor, and love.

Then I went to school to learn how to be effective.

It would have been simplest for me to become an art teacher. When I graduated from art school I was about 20 credits away from teacher certification. But, thanks to my artist's knack for grasping the big picture, I could see that if I taught high school art, I would help a lot of future artists only a little bit. Plus, I had just learned that going to school to be an artist and actually being an artist were two different things. Why take others down that road?

After an amazing experience as a long-term substitute in a Head Start classroom, I chose to teach preschool. Though I use the word "chose" to describe the decision, the feeling was really, “This is it. This is my calling. This is what I am meant to do.”

Spending every day with the same little kids in that long-term sub position helped me see that I could make a huge difference in 17 lives each year. As a man, I was often the first male authority figure my students had ever encountered on a daily basis. This responsibility helped me see how my ability to communicate what a man actually is could affect my students for years to come.

As a preschool teacher, I am primarily responsible for teaching social skills, thinking skills, beginning reading, and math. I am the students' first teacher, and I can select content that will be important (perhaps life-changing) for them, no matter what path they choose to take later in life. Most importantly, I teach my students how to learn.

I still love to paint. Canvas, not houses. But as a male Head Start preschool educator, I know I contribute to society in a profound way. And I have much better stories to tell my wife after work.

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