Math = Love: Why I Teach

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why I Teach

Today, one of my students asked me if I planned to continue teaching for the rest of my life or if I was planning to change occupations in lieu of more money.  Teaching is all I have ever wanted to do.  I was the kid who started keeping a list in middle school of all of the favorite activities I had done in school in every grade since the first grade so I could one day implement them in my own classroom.  I know you are insanely curious about what activities made the list!  My second grade teacher had a great method of practicing spelling words.  My third grade teacher's memorable lesson about the first assembly line involved us assembling our own cars out of candy.  In the fourth grade, I got to dye carnations using food coloring and make my own fossil of a sea shell using plaster of paris in an empty milk carton.  My fifth grade experience was characterized by the amazing book report projects that we had the opportunity to complete.  Plus, we got to do a lot of history projects and make teepees out of tortillas!  I'll never forget my sixth grade homeroom teacher and the amazing classroom culture she created.  I still have a piece of paper with a heart on it that is covered in affirmations from my fellow classmates.  My sixth grade math teacher taught me that math could be taught effectively through fun and games.  And, my sixth grade science teacher led us through the only dissection I ever enjoyed--a flower!  There were more, but I think you get the picture.  :)  Looking back, I'm not sure exactly what type of teaching job I expected to have.  I certainly can't think of a job that would allow me to do ALL of those things.

During my senior year of high school, I was incredibly blessed to be able to work with my AP English Literature teacher, Mrs. Elliott, to perfect a number of scholarship essays and my valedictorian speech.  When most people found out that I planned on entering the education field, they would often do their best to discourage me.  Many of my teachers told me that I should pursue something worthwhile like law school or medical school, not an education degree.  I was told I was wasting my talent.  My own high school principal advised me to go into "anything but education."  Mrs. Elliott was different.  She encouraged me to pursue my dream of becoming a teacher.  We talked about the difference I would be able to make in the world.  (Of course, I think she is still disappointed I am making a difference in the world by teaching mathematics instead of English!)

Just over six years ago, my senior English teacher helped me to take my feelings, my dreams, my desires and put them in more eloquent words than I could have ever imagined possible:  "My goals keep me focused, eternally striving, and determined to overcome life's obstacles.  Life is too transitory to waste in search of riches or celebrity status.  I accept that teaching is not going to make me rich.  Nor will it bring me fame.  The self-fulfillment resulting from the knowledge that I have touched the lives of this country's future engineers, congressmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, and astronauts will provide an intrinsic joy that cannot be found elsewhere.  A teacher's profound influence may never be fully known, but unlike fleeting fame and wealth, it is immortal." And, those words still ring true today.  Teaching has definitely not made me rich.  And, I only have to deal with the fame of teaching when I go to Wal-Mart or the only grocery store in town.
But, my every action touches the lives of the 85 or so students who sit in my classroom on a daily basis.  Add to that the 65 students that I was blessed to teach last year.  I realize that doesn't sound like a lot.  There are 7.125 billion people in the world, and I have impacted the lives of approximately 150 teenagers.  I don't see the numbers, though.  (What a shocking thing for a math teacher to say, right?)  I see the faces.  I see the face of the girl who won her first ever award for her performance in my Algebra 1 class.  She was so shocked to hear her name called during the awards assembly that she didn't come up to the front to be recognized.  I see the face of the student who passed her Algebra 1 EOI last year after failing Algebra 1 the previous year, Algebra Fundamentals the year before that, and 8th grade math the year before that.  I see the faces of the parents who tell me that they had never heard their child say that they liked anything about school, or (gasp!) math, until they took my class.  I remember the face of the boy who interrupted my lesson one day to say, "You make math fun!"

Sadly, these aren't the faces of this country's future engineers, congressmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers, or astronauts.  These faces belong to students who have lived harder lives than I could ever imagine.  These are students who I will never see walk across the stage, donning their cap and gown.  They have dropped out, moved away, made irreversible decisions.  But, I have still made a difference, an unquantifiable difference.

I get to spend my days surrounded by students.  I teach them math, and in return, they teach me about life.  They teach me about what it looks like to overcome unimaginable obstacles.  They teach me about the power that a single word can carry.  They teach me things without even realizing it.  Joy punctuates my day.  I laugh.  I cry.  I get way too excited about polynomials.  I tell jokes to my students.  They try their hardest not to laugh.  Okay, not laughing usually doesn't require that much effort.  We celebrate the good things that are happening in their lives.  They are my students, my kids, my life.

So, to the student who asked but will likely never read this blog, no.  No, I would not trade this job for a job I hated, even if the other job offered $2 million dollars.  I can't imagine another job that could make me feel so fulfilled.  Yes, there are the days that are characterized by stress and not so good parts of being a teacher.  But, even those days are made better by my students.    

Veterans Day was one of those days.  I was stressed to the max, trying to get the PowerPoint presentation ready for that afternoon's assembly.  After running upstairs to check and see if the Veterans Luncheon was going smoothly, I returned to my classroom to grab my lunch.  I got the surprise of my life when I walked in the door.  Two of my students had brought their lunches to eat in my classroom.  This was not surprising.  I often have students hang out in my classroom for all or part of their lunch period.  No, I was surprised by the fact that they had pushed two desks together, covered them with a red table cloth, placed a glass vase on the table, set a "Reserved" sign on the table, and lit a tea candle.  An origami flower ornament had been commandeered from my cabinet to set in their vase.  And, there they sat with their lunchables, sweet tea, and dill pickle potato chips.  I couldn't do anything but stop in the door way and laugh.  Without realizing it, these two sweet girls had made my day.  And, I can only hope that I do the same to someone else at least once a day.          
A Lunchtime Surprise 


  1. i loved reading this. cheers to you.

  2. This is so well written and helped me, I really needed a reminder of why I do this everyday!

    THANK YOU!!!
    Hodges Herald

  3. I loved this. It is very inspiring.

  4. Oooh, please tell about your 2nd grade teacher's great way of practicing spelling words. I'm a math/physics/German teacher, currently teaching German part time, and I'm always looking for good way to get my students actively practicing their vocabulary rather than just passively looking at their word list to study.

    1. Maybe isn't as AMAZING of an idea as I made it out to be. But, my second grade self LOVED it. We would have to take the spelling words and write them on graph paper in a sort-of scrabble layout. Words that shared a letter could intersect. You had to connect all of the words in a single puzzle.

      In retrospect, it was a really good practice activity because it usually meant a lot of erasing and rewriting to make a puzzle that used every single word. Maybe this is one of the reasons I love word games so much...

  5. Great blog - keep up the great work .

  6. I made the same list you did when I was in middle school, and kept it until my first year teaching!! How funny. I thought I was the only dork that did that!!!

  7. I also graduated at the top of my class and had many teachers and family members discourage me from being a teacher. But it's also what I have wanted to do since I was very young. The age that I wanted to teach changed as I grew older, but I have always been fascinated by how people learn things. Thanks for sharing!

  8. That is so sweet! I hope there will be more teachers like you, who have a sincere love of imparting academic and practical lessons to children. Your students are really fortunate to have you as their teacher.

    Sarah Haskins