I haven’t blogged in a couple of weeks. I guess I haven’t really decided whether blogging is an integral part of my professional practice and growth or if it’s more of a passion project for me to goof around with in my free time or when I’m procrastinating. The last two weeks I’ve chosen the latter. I have been struggling and scrambling with the day-to-day chaos of teaching, and I’ve told myself, how can you blog when you have lessons to plan, papers to grade, emails to send, meetings to attend, and more? Blogging has to a be a lower priority, right?
But maybe I’ve been missing the point. Blogging is a reflective exercise, and reflection has been a priority at my school as we pilot an advisory curriculum and take a capstone project to scale. But what is reflection and why is it so important?
I’m sure there are plenty of legitimate ways to define reflection, but as a math teacher who believes that mathematics derives some of its value from its heuristic prowess, I prefer to understand reflection as a problem-solving strategy. Reflection is a productive response to intellectual overload, and blogging is my exciting new medium. Blogging satisfies a need for organization and for conviction that idle thinking does not, and I ought to blog/reflect whenever my head starts spinning or wavering.
Now is one of those times.
The first couple of weeks of the school year are always crazy, but this year has brought an unexpected new challenge: three of the math teachers from our department of 20-ish have left already.
One of the teachers who left was our department head, who took a job at the high school I attended. Her new job piques my curiosity. What will she think of the difference between the two student bodies? the parents? the curricula and the department structures? What will it be like to work with my former teachers? But perhaps more immediately interesting is the void created by her departure. Who will lead our meetings? Who should organize and disseminate our supplies and resources? Who should try to connect teachers to encourage the collaboration and alignment that we need to grow as a departmental whole? At this point, I only have questions, but that’s a start.
The other two teachers who left were new to our school, and I missed my chance to get to know either of them. Their departure raises much different questions – questions about why anyone chooses to become a teacher in the first place and about what we get out of it. I’ve had some really thought-provoking conversations with my colleagues about this topic, and the following is my attempt to impose some temporary order to this train of thought.
The motivations and rewards for teaching are complex and difficult to express in a few words. I thought Dan Meyer did an impressive job here, but he needed hundreds of words to do so. In particular, there are two commonplace summaries of the teaching motive that fail to shed light on why I teach or how I benefit from doing so.
I do not teach because I love kids. In fact, I didn’t really have any experience with teenagers before going into teaching … except having been one myself. Sometimes I think that I wanted to teach high school in part because my teenage years were difficult, but that’s not the same as loving kids. That being said, I become more and more fond of teenagers the more I work with them. I find the teenage identity crisis and the emerging existential angst fascinating, and teenagers are constantly changing and unpredictable. Saying “I love kids” fails to address why or how they are interesting to work with.
I do not teach to make a difference. The idea that teaching – and in particular, teaching in a low-income public school – is about “making a difference” or “having an impact” overemphasizes the selfless elements of teaching and ignores the question: why not make a difference through other means? What’s so special about teaching? Emphasizing the self-sacrifice of teaching fails to highlight the intellectual and emotional rewards.
I teach because it provides a constant intellectual challenge. Teaching is the only profession I know of that constantly challenges and stimulates all three threads of my college education: math, philosophy, and social justice. Teaching requires that I hold a much deeper understanding of mathematics than I accomplished as a student, and continuing to build this understanding is a pleasure hidden within the drudgery of lesson planning. The act of teaching also requires a great deal of mathematical thinking, but I already blogged about that. I get to run a philosophy club and ask teenagers to grapple with big, confusing questions, and last year they taught me about the philosophy of science. I get to see what growing up is like in a place wholly different from the cushy suburb of my youth, and reflect upon the appalling inequities. Teaching is constantly interesting.
I teach because it provides a deep emotional satisfaction. There is a twisted pleasure that comes from making someone else think deeply. And I get paid to do it. I’m not sure how to explain it, but this emotional satisfaction requires and creates strong student-teacher bonds and is in part responsible for my growing fondness for teenagers. Thanks to CiCi and Ben for the following quote that really resonated with me:
“Being in another person’s presence while she so honestly labors in an astonishingly intimate activity—the activity of making sense—is somehow very touching.”
– Kegan’s (1982) The Evolving Self