Identity Crisis

By Steven Vanderstaay — May 01, 1993 6 min read

An editor recently called to say he needed a description of my professional background for a catalog in which a book I had written was to be advertised. Not having considered what sort of professional background I should have, I told him the truth.

“Hmm...,” he said, thinking. Then, “Well, it’s up to the marketing department anyway. I’ll give them the information and see what they do with it.”

That was how we left it. And, if simply because of the great body of editing and fact checking that filled the next few months, we never again discussed what the marketing department would do with my professional background.

Eventually, however, I received a tear sheet from the catalog describing the book and myself. The book looked promising and, as I had always hoped, useful.

Then I read the author’s description. It was brief and clear—in all ways the description of a person one might expect to have written a book about homelessness. I was, it said, a writer—now teaching in a college—who had worked and traveled with homeless people for three summers.

And there it stopped, which was the hard part. For what the description didn’t say was that I am a teacher—that my professional history is that of a public-school teacher—and that the book had literally been born, raised, and written in my high school classroom. Dazed and curious, I reread the description and considered this new me, this me who was not a teacher.

It was an odd, unsettling experience. For seven years, I have identified, introduced, and described myself as a teacher. It is as a teacher that I know my colleagues, my friends, and myself. Was that now to be taken from me and hidden? Swept from my past as a liability to my authority? And, more insidiously, was I an accomplice to this act?

After all, I did not insist on being portrayed as a schoolteacher. Nor did I object to letting marketing do what they would with me. Yet I couldn’t say the author’s description was misleading, since I am not, at this moment, working in a school. Hence my dilemma or, rather, my confusion. Wrapped up in this confusion is my own history as a teacher and my strong feelings about the profession and the dignity of those who serve it.

Like most teachers, my career in the classroom was peopled with the children we now hear so much about—the boy who threatens me with a gun, the girl who wants to kill herself. And my career followed the rather common path from euphoria to disillusionment. But like all teachers who push past the five-year mark (the point at which most of those who are going to quit do), I worked through that disillusionment to the hard-nosed tenacity characteristic of teachers who stay teachers. I knew that I could give neither the boy nor the girl all that they needed, but I tried anyway. And for those students who wanted nothing to do with me, I acquired a distant love that protected us both. Students who spit tobacco juice on my radiators did not ruin my day, and such incidents did little to interrupt the business of my classroom.

For all of these reasons—for my success, my commitment to my students, my years of experience, and my ability to bear the good times with the bad—I believed I had earned the right to call myself a teacher.

Furthermore, I’ve always believed that the teaching profession would be better off if teachers were less modest about their accomplishments. A principal with a reasonable idea will make the evening news, but a teacher with a brilliant one rarely does. And I’ve never met a staff that didn’t have at least one educator who knew his or her subject matter better than most college professors do. Drawing attention to these accomplishments could do much to raise the esteem in which teachers are held.

But teachers maintain a certain esprit de corps that works against this kind of self-promotion. While largely intangible, this attitude is evident in lounge talk, teacher chat, and other more formal forms of interaction among teachers. It implies an honor code that might be reduced to the following three rules: One, do not break ranks; two, do not draw unnecessary attention to yourself; and three, break one and two only to better serve the good of students and the teaching profession.

As with all groups bound by a difficult initiation and strict honor code, the effect of this esprit de corps is most evident when applied in its exclusionary forms. Hence the rather interesting phenomenon that occurs when university professors come to a school to lecture or direct an inservice training session.

“Like you, I’m a teacher,” the professor will begin, inevitably tripping over his misuse of the term. Then—if it happens to be true—the good doctor will proceed to mention the stint he or she spent as a schoolteacher years ago. Ever respectful, the real teachers sit and listen while, in the more assertive worlds of their imaginations, they raise hands and ask, “And where were you yesterday, say, around fifth period? You remember, that’s right after lunch duty.”

Such thoughts are widely shared among teachers, though rarely spoken. They form a bond that holds teachers together, a shared experience they have in common.

But now the desks had been turned, and, in the moment of my greatest opportunity to reflect favorably on teaching, I found myself excluded by the code that had once bound me to it. Worse yet, I faced an unsolvable quandary: to omit mention of my profession was to abandon my colleagues, to reject my people, while to call myself a teacher was to risk censure by the tribe I had left. After all, the world is full of ex-teachers—people who, by definition, do everything except teach. And those who teach and keep on teaching are an elite few indeed; one would do well to respect them by honoring the specificity of their title.

Unfortunately, as is often the case in such matters, the issue was settled by my indecision. The deadline for revisions to the catalog came and passed; “teacher” was not appended to my description. Alternately jubilant and anxious in my expectations for the book, I could never quite free myself from the guilt that accompanied my sense that, in respecting my true profession, I had also betrayed it.

Then I received another phone call, this one from the editor of English Journal, a publication for junior and senior high school teachers of English. An essay I had submitted there had been accepted, I was told, but there was some confusion about my authorial citation. Was I a teacher or a professor?

“Well,” I began, the mud thickening as I sank once more into the quagmire. “I identify myself as a teacher, and I’m not yet a professor. But I’m not at this moment working in the schools.”

“Hmm...” And then, “You see, most of our readers are teachers, and they tend to look for articles written by teachers.”

“Yes, I know,” I replied. “That was always true for me, too.”

And then the idea hit me. “You know,” I explained. “I was teaching when I wrote it. The students I refer to are real students I had at the time.”

“And when was that?”

“Last year.”

“Then you’re a teacher as far as the essay is concerned. I’ll use the high school citation, if you don’t mind?”

“No,” I answered, “I don’t mind at all.” And overtly, over the telephone, I thanked him respect- fully while my soul sang at its redemption.

“Boldface it!” I wanted to say. If simply because it may never be true again, call me a teacher. A teacher was here! I want people to know. A teacher wrote this.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 1984 edition of Education Week as Identity Crisis