A couple years ago, I reconnected with four former students, now adults, who had been sophomores in my high school English class. Two of those students, Donna and Mai, invited my husband and me for dinner. To my surprise, Heather and Kristi also showed up.
“Mrs. Barnoski, we are having a reunion tonight,” Heather announced. “We wanted to celebrate what you did for us 25 years ago.”
One by one, each student talked about the class and the lessons they learned. Two had become English teachers. I had a catch in my throat as I listened. I told them what they had meant to me and continue to mean to me. And I held it together until we drove away.
There is no way to quantify an experience like this as a teacher. To have students validate your life’s work is priceless. By taking time to say thank you, my students were telling me that my 32 years in the classroom meant something; my goal to have a positive impact on my students was complete. They gave me the greatest gift human beings can give one another: They told me that I mattered.
Now that I have been retired for more than a decade, I am disturbed by the reports of the severe shortage of people choosing K-12 teaching as a career. Enrollment in university teacher-preparation programs has fallen significantly in the last decade. In some states, such as California, enrollment dropped by more than one-third between 2010-11 and 2014-15.
It is true that teaching is a difficult job. It can be frustrating, exhausting, intimidating, and even frightening. Students know that if they choose a teaching career, they are going into a profession that does not pay well and is not highly respected by many people. Our current fixation on testing is a threat to teachers’ job security and takes away some of their autonomy and creativity in the classroom. In addition, expectations of what teachers are supposed to accomplish can be overwhelming. Why would anyone choose to teach?
Take it from someone with experience: The positive aspects far outweigh the negatives. Here are eight reasons why I think teaching matters.
1. Teaching is a worthy goal: Teaching is a profession where you devote your life to helping young people develop into thoughtful, intelligent, positive human beings and citizens. You might not make a lot of money, but you will be given love, appreciation, and respect from your students. How many people get to say they have the same role in shaping the next generation and in shaping society?
2. Teaching is a skilled profession: Though a large segment of the public thinks teaching is easy, those in the classroom know better. It tests your knowledge in many subject areas and your capacity to work with students of all abilities, backgrounds, and cultures. Your job is to develop each student’s potential, and that takes skills and hard work.
3. Teaching is interesting: Each day will be different. You will be working with many individual students and colleagues with distinct personalities and needs. Every year brings a new crop of young people to get to know. In addition, you can be creative as you plan your lessons and methods of instruction.
4. Teaching brings vitality: Being around young people on a daily basis reminds you to not take life too seriously. They are inventive and funny. One night while I was sleeping, I heard a noise on the deck but thought it was a raccoon. The next day when I opened my front door, the front of the house was covered in paper hearts. “Mrs. Barnoski,” a note read, “you have been ‘heart attacked’!”
5. Teaching provides autonomy: Though you will have to follow mandates on state testing and other rules that you may not agree with, you can be autonomous on a daily basis. You are still the authority on how each student learns. When your classroom door closes, you’re the one directing the interplay.
6. Teaching creates a legacy: In my 30-plus years of teaching, I taught over 8,000 students. It feels great to bump into them unexpectedly and discover the impact I had on their lives. When my 103-year-old aunt, who was also an English teacher, passed away, several of her former students—some of whom were in their 70s—attended her funeral. Because of what your students have learned from you, small pieces of yourself will live on.
7. Teaching gives you time off: Though teachers have to grade assignments and plan lessons most school nights and take extra classes to keep their certifications current, teachers do get blocks of time off that people in other professions don’t, including holidays, spring break, and a chunk of the summer.
8. Teaching fosters meaningful relationships: You will have the opportunity to develop lifelong relationships with many of your colleagues and students. Research has shown that to succeed in life, all children need at least one adult who cares about them. You can be that person. It is a privilege.
Teaching is an amazing profession, but it’s not for everyone. It is only for those who can tackle challenges, work hard, and put in the time and effort it takes to help young people succeed. When entering the profession, you must believe deep down that what you are doing is important, as it is not a profession where you can expect bonuses or public recognition.
When the difficulties get to you, you must picture your students in your mind’s eye and remember why you went into teaching. On certain days, in spite of your best efforts to inspire students to treat others with respect or teach a lesson that took ages to prepare, you will arrive home bone-tired and will want to come up with excuses not to head to school the following day. But the next day is another opportunity to make miraculous things happen for the students you care about. You never know—one day, they may just thank you.