The pimply-faced boy’s voice rose above the paper and book shuffling in the room. The light reflected off his braces.
“But if you’re so smart, Mrs. Owens, then why are you teaching?”
The late May heat in the classroom was stifling. His remark had rendered me speechless, a rare circumstance in my classroom.
I know it is never appropriate to ask teachers late in the school year why they have chosen their careers. By then, the vagaries of the occupation have worn them down to the point of self-doubt. But the particular wording of this young man’s question caught me: What was it that caused people to insist that only second and third-rate college grads become teachers? “Those who can’t, teach” echoed in my thoughts. My ire increased.
A high school valedictorian, I had entered college to become a teacher. My major was never exploratory; my goals were never tentative. To me, teachers possessed the unique ability to communicate with a variety of people and to motivate them to learn. I saw teaching as an admirable goal, one full of blind hope for the world around me. As a teacher, perhaps I could make a difference in the world.
The noble ideals had drawn me, but I now know that I also teach for the addictive nod, the smile, the glimmer of understanding in a student’s eyes, some sign that means a connection has been made. Like applause to the performer, it makes my job worthwhile.
All the eyes in the classroom were fixed on me. Perhaps they sensed the sting of insult in his words. The room had quieted in that brief moment in anticipation of my response. I contained my anger. I sought a distanced perspective befitting a professional and spoke slowly and deliberately: “What would become of students like you if people like me had not chosen to teach?”
--Lorie B. Owens
The writer teaches English at Meadowbrook High School in Ohio.
A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as If You’re So Smart...