First Person

‘Why Are You a Teacher?’ Your Answer Should Change Over Time

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It’s not uncommon for teachers to find themselves in professional-development sessions being asked: ”What is your philosophy of education?” or ”Why are you a teacher?” We often shrug off this question and give generic run-of-the-mill answers like "I want students to learn" or “To inspire the youth.”

But reflecting on your philosophy of education is an essential piece of becoming an effective educator. You have to know the why to keep your fire from burning out. A personal philosophy of education is the difference between being “a” teacher and being “that” teacher for a student.

My philosophy of education started off simple: Challenge students, and help them to learn and grow. With every year that I have taught, my philosophy of education has evolved. As it should.

My philosophical journey all started with Perla when I was a student-teacher.

Perla was a kind and thoughtful young girl who had dreams of being a veterinarian. Perla, however, struggled academically in both reading and math. As a bright-eyed student-teacher, I made it my mission to work with Perla everyday to help her improve.

The day came for my first data meeting. I had the opportunity to watch the school district’s academic coordinator meet with my mentor teacher and I was excited.

The data for my classroom were placed on the table and highlighters were drawn, at the ready. The students’ names were ordered by performance level. The academic coordinator began to talk about which students to focus on as she highlighted and which ones not to worry about. I will never forget her words: “We need 65 percent of your class to pass, so focus on these students,” she said as she pointed to the mid- and high-performing students. When asked what to do with the low-performing students she said, “We don’t have time to focus on them.”

I was dismayed with the results of that meeting. New philosophy of education: Reach every student and teach every student in order to achieve significant academic growth.

Tough Love?

After I graduated from college, I moved to New York City to obtain my masters in politics and education and start my teaching career. I was in the Big Apple where charters were proliferating and the motto seemed to be ”assessments over everything.” I was zealous! I was ready! I was going to be a part of a charter network that taught every student and where nine out of 10 students passed the end-of-year assessment with top scores. Everything we did was data-driven and we prepared students well through rigorous curriculum design and execution. The idea seemed perfect until I saw how teachers communicated and managed students.

No-nonsense nurturing. In itself it sounded like some uptight, bunned, wrinkly woman with a ruler in hand. No-nonsense nurturing meant tough love and using minimal language to direct students. In action, it sounded like teachers were barking at the students, and quickly I realized that this way of communication was not for me. It felt degrading and I would not want my own child taught in that type of environment. Things came to a head when, during a test, a student became ill and vomited on her assessment and was sent to the bathroom to clean up herself. She was told to come back and finish before they would call her parents. I quit that week.

New philosophy of education: Focus on the development of the whole child while facilitating learning that will lead to success in the short and long term.

My next journey started in Washington, D.C., where I was able, for a short term, to work in a well-to-do private school. One particular day, while working with a group of kindergartners, there was a conflict between two students. Following protocol, I held both back from recess and stated that they needed to discuss their conflict.

“I didn’t like when you pointed at me,” stated the offended kindergartner.

“I was just counting all the students as they came to the rug,” the other retorted.

“Well it’s not the Christian way.”

“What do you mean? Christian is outside,” he questioned.

“I mean Christian like Jesus.”

“Oh, I am sorry.”

“It’s okay.”

I was flabbergasted by this conversation with such young students. This wasn’t a Christian school, which could explain why this kindergartener was confused at first by his classmate’s statement. But still, they shared their feelings and listened carefully to one another. Teachers in this classroom had fostered a culture of conflict resolution that included one-on-one discussions using “I” language.

These were kindergartners that were solving their conflicts amicably. I knew 5th graders, middle school students, and adults who could not handle their conflict in this way. I realized that our mission as teachers was not about teaching a subject or making a student feel good in the moment, it was about influencing tomorrow’s decision makers. By teaching students to be reflective, empathetic, and great communicators, we provide them with the tools and skills that are necessary to thrive in an ever-changing society.

New philosophy of education: Motivate students to become critical thinkers, problem solvers, and effective communicators in order to make effective positive change in the world.

Fast-forward to this year in my classroom. My students were watching a video on Malcolm Mitchell, the author of The Magician’s Hat and a New England Patriots football player. Mitchell in this video discussed how he struggled as a reader but through hard work and perseverance learned to read and wanted to inspire others. When the video was over, one of my students who is struggling in reading raised his hand and said, “I am like him. I am struggling with reading but I am going to persevere and be able to read this year.” Holding back tears, I responded, “Yes, you are.”

In the following days I began to see him try more and work harder. He sounded out every single word that he did not recognize and he was resilient when he was not successful on the first try. Now when we have small groups for reading he is excited and actively participating. He realized that in life there would be many instances in which he would not understand something immediately, and instead of giving up or throwing a tantrum, he could work toward his goal.

When this student grows up he wants to be a doctor. It will take perseverance and resilience to achieve this goal. By learning these traits early, he will be able to push through to possibly become what he wants to be. I realize now that my job, my mission, my philosophy of education is to catalyze a lifelong love of learning. If students have a lifelong love of learning, they will continue to strive to do better and be better, which will in turn make them and the world a better place.

This philosophy of education continues to drive and motivate me to find innovative ways to reach my students on a daily basis. All teachers need this. In a world that is constantly devaluing and taking for granted the worth of teachers, we have to know that everyday we are making a difference in so many people’s lives with every word and every action we commit. There is no room for complacency when the future is on the line.

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