Why I Teach
Peter G. Beidler
Why do you teach? My friend asked the question when I told him that I didn't want to be considered for an administrative position. He was puzzled that I did not want what was obviously a "step up" toward what all Americans are taught to want when they grow up: money and power.
Certainly I don't teach because teaching is easy for me. Teaching is the most difficult of the various ways I have attempted to earn my living: mechanic, carpenter, writer. For me, teaching is a red-eye, sweaty-palm, sinking-stomach profession. Red-eye, because I never feel ready to teach no matter how late I stay up preparing. Sweaty-palm, because I'm always nervous before I enter the classroom, sure that I will be found out for the fool that I am. Sinking-stomach, because I leave the classroom an hour later convinced that I was even more boring than usual.
Nor do I teach because I think I know answers, or because I have knowledge I feel compelled to share. Sometimes I am amazed that my students actually take notes on what I say in class!
Why, then, do I teach?
I teach because I like the pace of the academic calendar. June, July, and August offer an opportunity for reflection, research and writing.
I teach because teaching is a profession built on change. When the material is the same, I change —— and, more important, my students change.
I teach because I like the freedom to make my own mistakes, to learn my own lessons, to stimulate myself and my students. As a teacher, I'm my own boss. If I want my freshmen to learn to write by creating their own textbook, who is to say I can't? Such courses may be huge failures, but we can all learn from failures.
I teach because I like to ask questions that students must struggle to answer. The world is full of right answers to bad questions. While teaching, I sometimes find good questions.
I teach because I enjoy finding ways of getting myself and my students out of the ivory tower and into the real world. I once taught a course called "Self-Reliance in a Technological Society." My 15 students read Emerson, Thoreau, and Huxley. They kept diaries. They wrote term papers.
But we also set up a corporation, borrowed money, purchased a run-down house and practiced self-reliance by renovating it. At the end of the semester, we would the house, repaid our loan, paid or taxes, and distributed the profits among the group.
So teaching gives me pace, and variety, and challenge, and the opportunity to keep on learning.
I have left out, however, the most important reasons why I teach.
One is Vicky. My first doctoral student, Vicky was an energetic student who labored at her dissertation on a little-known 14th century poet. She wrote articles and sent them off to learned journals. She did it all herself, with an occasional nudge from me. But I was there when she finished her dissertation, learned that her articles were accepted, got a job and won a fellowship to Harvard working on a book developing ideas she'd first had as my student.
Another reason is George, who started as an engineering student, then switched to English because he decided he liked people better than things.
There is Jeanne, who left college, but was brought back by her classmates because they wanted her to see the end of the self-reliance house project. I was here when she came back. I was there when she told me that she later became interested in the urban poor and went on to become a civil rights lawyer.
There is Jacqui, a cleaning woman who knows more by intuition than most of us learn by analysis. Jacqui has decided to finish high school and go to college.
These are the real reasons I teach, these people who grow and change in front of me. Being a teacher is being present at the creation, when the clay begins to breathe.
A "promotion" out of teaching would give me money and power. But I have money. I get paid to do what I enjoy: reading, talking with people, and asking question like, "What is the point of being rich?"
And I have power. I have the power to nudge, to fan sparks, to suggest books, to point out a pathway. What other power matters?
But teaching offers something besides money and power: it offers love. Not only the love of learning and of books and ideas, but also the love that a teacher feels for that rare student who walks into a teacher's life and begins to breathe. Perhaps love is the wrong word: magic might be better.
I teach because, being around people who are beginning to breathe, I occasionally find myself catching my breath with them.