400. Why People Become Teachers

A friend recently asked me why people become teachers, and I answered too quickly. I said that some people do it because they want power, some because they feel that it’s their sacred mission, and I did it because it’s fun. That answer was way too simple.
So that night I thought about my own reason for becoming a teacher. In 1969, I needed an income. My wife was going to have a baby, and getting a job seemed like a wise thing to do. I’d majored in Russian Studies and Comparative Literature, but there weren’t any Russian Studies stores or Comparative Literature factories nearby. But there were schools nearby, and, in fact, there was a teacher shortage (I don’t think there’s been one since then in the United States; the baby boom solved that problem – in fact, turned it into a teaching job shortage).
Teaching high school – teaching people who were three or four years younger than I was – I suddenly had power, and I didn’t want it. I didn’t want to be in a position to tell adolescents what they had to do, and to give them bad grades if they didn’t do it. But a few years later, I started teaching elementary school, and I realized that I had power that could help change the world. I really believe that elementary school teachers have awesome power.
And I did have a sense of mission, though I didn’t use the word “sacred” to describe it. I felt as if I was part of a mission to put an end to injustice, prejudice, cruelty, pollution, sexism, militarism, and a host of other problems, and that teaching children was the best way I could do my part. I may not have used the word “sacred,” but to me, it felt a lot more important than any other job.
And yet, when I gave my friend a quick answer, I didn’t say I taught because of the desire for power, or because of a sense of mission. And I certainly didn’t say I did it to make money; that reason embarrasses me, though over the years, I did earn over half a million dollars by teaching. I had been my friend’s elementary school teacher, and I wanted to make sure she knew it had been fun for me. And it had.
My favorite teachers have always been the ones who have seemed to enjoy children. As a child, I liked to feel enjoyed, and as a volunteer now, I like to work with teachers who enjoy children. I don’t mean that teachers should think children are cute, although they can be. I mean I like teachers who seem to take pleasure in their work. I’ve heard that there are people who are good at jobs they don’t like, and I can believe it, but I’m very skeptical about the potential of teachers who don’t like teaching.
So even though I answered my friend quickly, and even though power, mission, and money were factors in my decision to become a teacher and remain one, I’ll stick with my first answer, too – that I taught and teach because it’s fun.

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