Why choose teaching?

Earlier this week, I got an e-mail from Maddy, a 2015 graduate.

“I was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about how you got interested in teaching?” she asked. “I’m starting to realize teaching is something I think I would truly be interested in.”

I responded with a short e-mail recounting my story, but I found myself thinking about her question all week. Why did I become a teacher, and would I recommend it to a bright, hard-working young person today?

Many teachers I know try to steer young people away from a career in public education. Teaching is hard work, and it’s not rewarding in traditional ways. Teachers won’t make lots of money, gain status in society or accrue power.

We are expected to solve many of society’s problems, like drug abuse, parental neglect and racism, and we are blamed when those problems impede students’ ability to learn.

To make matters worse, politicians and the media portray us as lazy and uninspired — people who couldn’t achieve anything better. If you are bright and have other opportunities, people wonder: Why are you just a teacher? Even my own son called me an underachiever.

So why did I end up in this job? Should I encourage Maddy?

Unlike many of my older colleagues, high-achieving women who became teachers in the ’60s and ’70s because other doors were closed to them, I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, at a time when all options seemed open to me.

My junior high teachers noticed my math ability, and I was immediately steered into advanced math and science. Everyone encouraged me to aim high. My brother wanted me to go to Harvard and become a scientist — he threatened to stop talking to me if I didn’t. My dad wanted me to get a CPA and go to law school.

My mom just told me: Don’t be a teacher. You have so many more opportunities.

So I went to college in 1985 planning to follow one of those paths — math, science, or law — but quickly discovered that I was too idealistic for that. Math and science seemed too disconnected from people, and a few summers working at a corporate firm  turned me off to law.

But I still wanted to meet everyone’s high expectations of me, so I didn’t consider teaching. It seemed too boring, too staid, not much of an adventure, and not very impressive.

Instead, journalism seemed like the perfect fit. I felt like I could make a difference, but it also seemed exciting. I could meet lots of people, challenge those with political power, and maybe eventually work someplace awesome, like the Chicago Tribune.

After a few years in journalism, at the Wichita Eagle, I knew I had made a mistake. I didn’t actually like sifting through complex government documents, questioning politicians or showing up at crime scenes. I hated interviewing people who had lost their homes to a tornado.

Luckily, the education beat opened up, and I started reporting on the Wichita Public Schools, which were in the midst of a tumultuous reform effort. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. I spent more and more time in classrooms, and less and less time interviewing school board members and administrators.

I took my licensure classes and did my student teaching as a project for the newspaper – still with no intention of actually becoming a teacher.

And then I got sucked in; that’s what happened. During my student teaching, I discovered that teaching – the very job I was cautioned against – was exactly what I enjoyed. I finally set aside my bias,  quit my journalism job, and applied to teach middle school English in northwest Wichita.

Nearly 22 years later, I still love teaching, and it’s hard to explain why without sounding cliched. There’s something energizing about being in the classroom. Some days, you get to be a performer with a captive audience. Some days, you are moderating an intense debate. Some days, you are trying to manage 35 people moving in 35 different directions. It’s so much more intellectually challenging and complicated than most people realize, and teenagers’ quirkiness makes it fun.

The bureaucracy, the constant roller coaster of changing standards, the testing culture, the parental pressures, the irritating student behavior — all of the things that frustrate other teachers frustrate me too. But I still like getting up every day and going to school.

This is a long-winded answer to Maddy’s question, but the truth is that it’s hard to know what you should do with your life when you’re 19. How do you know what kind of job will put you in the zone and make you forget about everything else? How do you know what kind of job will make the weeks and years fly by? I sure didn’t know.

The current political climate around education makes it harder than ever for bright, hard-working young people like Maddy to consider teaching as a viable career. It seems like so much work, and for what?

But I hope they won’t let negative views of teaching stop them, the way they stopped me. They might just discover they love it, and we need them in our classrooms.