Here’s a confession that will shock and surprise no one: I love school. With two post high school degrees in hand, I’ve obviously spent a lot of time, i.e. most of my life, in school. I love the book reading, marginalia making, paper brainstorming, lively in class forums, small group discussions, and refining theses to near perfection. I do not love true/false questions, memorizing vast sums of information only to be regurgitated the next day, busy work, and in class movies. The difference between these two lists might be obvious. Good teachers (I mean, the best) brought joy to the process of discovery. These men and women labored to help me really engage with the subject matter. Through their efforts, I have an appetite for erudition. I crave books because they are vessels for new perspectives, stories, and wisdom. While I’ve always been a reader, teachers helped refine my palate so that I didn’t graduate from reading Sweet Valley High to the glossy paperbacks sold at CVS. I am indebted to these teachers.
While I love school and comprehend the value that certain teachers brought to my life, for a long period of time I was repelled by the idea of becoming a teacher. The giants of my high school career, Mr. Demek, Ms. Wildman, Ms. Slagle (to name a few), looming in my mind, I began my studies at my undergrad institution, the University of Mary Washington, and easily declared myself an English major the first semester. I had no ambitions for a career then because that was a whole four years away, I naïvely thought. Still, people asked. They supplied my response for me when I told them my major, “Oh, so you’re going to be a teacher?” I bristled and hastily dismissed the possibility. I was certain that the prospects for someone with critical thinking and writing abilities were unfathomable. “Teaching?” I scoffed “How passé.”
Thankfully, the Lord is not restrained by my petty prejudices. I became an EFL Teacher (English as a Foreign Language) for a year in Bangkok, Thailand and confronted everything that I felt about teaching—the grudge I felt against it, and the fear that I was disappointing everyone and myself through my choice to settle into such a pedestrian profession. However, that position was my platform to be in a country in which an infinitesimal percentage of the population claims Christ as their Savior. Everything I felt was secondary in light of this reality. I discovered that there is much about teaching that is rewarding. Public speaking is scary but I didn’t die or throw up ever while I was doing it. I treasured the connections I made with students both inside and outside the classroom setting. Teaching in Thailand did a lot to strip off the varnished disdain I felt for the profession.
What I realized neither at age eighteen nor at age twenty-three was that teaching is an art. Teaching is a platform for excellence (and can also be a platform for mediocrity). The difference is in the person who steps into the title. Reading Seth Godin’s Linchpin (a book that lingered far too long on my bookshelf) has transformed how I think about work, vocation, labor, and art. I’m still digesting the principles he sets forth. He writes, “Art is the ability to change people with your work, to see things as they are and then create stories, images, and interactions that change the marketplace.” In my experience, good teachers are artists on par with Harper Lee, Mozart, and Van Gogh. They invest the whole of themselves in the teaching endeavor and reap change in their students. Most are probably oblivious to the extent of their impact.
The resentment I felt towards the teaching profession is gone. It has been replaced by an aspiration to join their ranks, to invest in future leaders and Christ-followers, to introduce into the classroom setting everything I love and enjoy and forbid everything else. I endeavor to be an artist and my medium is the student.