Why Do I Teach?

Dear Student, I owe it to you to answer this question. We teachers ask this question of you frequently enough. It’s often in a moment of frustration, “Why are you here?” (I’m sure you can hear the tone.) This question should not come out of frustration, but inquiry. You should know why you are sitting in this class; and we should too. And it’s only fair for me, the teacher, to answer the question, why do I teach, for you. You deserve to know why I’m here too.

There are more answers than I probably realize. In general my reasons for teaching fall into two categories: 1.) I teach for me, and 2.) I teach for you. This may disappoint you, but most of the reasons that I teach are really about me. We are selfish creatures, every one of us. It’s no wonder that God had to dispatch his son to this planet to save us from our own selfishness. We needed it. But not to worry. There are, indeed some reasons for teaching that have something to do with you, and I will get to them. But first, let me tell you about the reasons I teach for me.

For the Buzz

I teach for the buzz that it gives me. It’s my version of a runner’s high, I suppose. Teaching is the activity in which I most often find myself in a state of flow. I am in the zone when I am teaching well. I could also describe this as one of the purest forms of joy when I work.

When I am teaching and I have hit a state of flow, I feel more deeply connected to people — to students (my favorite kind of people). It is the same kind of buzz one has after nailing a speech for an audience. I can almost hear applause after a lesson that has gone well. On the other hand, when things are going badly I am never more frustrated. My student audience doesn’t even bother to boo; they just grumble and shuffle out of the room to do something more interesting.

Because I Had Great Mentors

I teach because some of my greatest mentors are teachers. Mike Blake from the University of North Dakota, was my earliest (and largely only) percussion instructor. Beginning when I was twelve, I rode my bike every week across town to take lessons from Blake. He was recognized in my area of the country as the region’s foremost percussionist. If you told people in the music world that you were taking private lessons from Mike Blake, they often raised their eyebrows and regarded you with a greater level of esteem. Blake was the first person outside of my parents that I wanted to please.

Roger Hanson taught me pre-calculus and calculus during cold winters in a small-town Minnesota high school. But more importantly, he taught me that you could enjoy being at work. You could hear Mr. Hanson teaching from the other side of the high school. He’s a screamer, you see. But not in anger. He teaches like a football coach (he is also a football coach), and he just gets excited about formulas and functions and starts yelling and jumping around. His class was never dull. He had a blast in the classroom and his students typically did too, because fun is contagious. When one person at the party is having a great time, it’s hard for others to avoid it.

Dr. James Popejoy was the last mentor I had in a school. He conducted the university wind ensemble in which I spent over 500 hours of rehearsal during the course of earning a bachelor’s degree at the University of North Dakota.

Dr. Popejoy was the first teacher to treat me as an adult — a peer even. He invited me to play jazz duets with him downtown during community events. This was not only flattering, but work inducing since I was forced to practice much harder in order to avoid disappointing him.

There was something magical about the way Dr. Popejoy designed our relationship. Most of the time, when a teacher chooses to break down the wall between themselves and their students, things go badly. Teachers and students are not naturally peers. The roles are different. The teacher has to establish a position of authority in the classroom. This authority transfers to individual relationships with students.

Without some sort of separation teachers get all buddy-buddy with students. I’ve seen it happen with teachers who are more concerned about being liked than they are about being effective. Students lose respect for these people (even if they like them), and they forget that the teacher actually has something to teach. A friend relationship is naturally, and rightly, different than a teacher/student relationship.

Dr. Popejoy managed to do both. He invited me to his house for dinner. I felt valued and seen. I felt that he genuinely cared about me and my future. He spoke to me like I was a friend without destroying the admiration that I had for him as an authority figure. And because of that, I think I learned more from him about being a whole person than I did from any other teacher in my life. It’s a tricky balance that I do not achieve as well with my students as he did with his.

I Love to Learn

There is no activity that I enjoy more than learning. I wish I had the capacity to be actively learning something 24/7/365. Learning is an adventure to me. There is a satisfaction that comes from learning something new that is hard to describe. But I will try.

Learning is like hiking. I feel a certain sense of achievement when I am on a long, winding trail up a mountain, and I look back to see the distance I’ve covered. “I used to be there, and now I’m here,” I think to myself. The difference with learning is that there is no summit, no end point, and no turning back down the path.

There is only forward motion with learning. I love that. With learning, it’s just a matter of choosing which mountain to climb, which path to take, and how fast you are going to go. My lust for learning is probably the reason I am a generalist rather than a specialist in my field. I’m like a dog in a squirrel hotel. I will gladly chase after anything that interests me. And for better or worse, just about anything has the capacity to interest me.

Teaching is a vehicle for learning. The commitment to teach forces you down a rabbit hole. It concentrates your efforts to become an expert. Sometimes I teach because I am the expert. Sometimes I teach because I want to become one.

Now that I have used up a lot of space talking about my selfish reasons for teaching, let me talk about some of the reasons that I teach which happen to be more about you, my student.

Some Things Are Important

I believe there are important things and trivial things, and I want you to figure out for yourself which is which. Some examples: I think it’s important for you to explore right vs. wrong. I want you to learn and practice how to write and communicate ideas. I think you should know something about history, art, theology (your own and others’). These are just a few of the things that I believe are important for all of us to explore while living life on this earth. They are important enough to teach.

A citizenry educated in history, art, and philosophy is good for society. I want to live in that collective society. But there are also a few things that I want for you as an individual. I want you to have a place to ask certain questions. (Please do not expect me to have all of the answers.) Your time in school should be a place for you to explore ideas that are different than your own. Allow yourself to be challenged. Asking questions and exploring new perspectives are important ways to learn about yourself. And you must learn about yourself. One of God’s gifts to you, is you.

This is an important time to figure out what you believe about God, about who you are, and about the world around you. This is a great time to dig in. Teaching gives me an invitation, maybe even a mandate, to help you dig. And I love that.

Believing in Yourself

I teach because there are certain things that I want you to believe about yourself. I am out to convince you of these things.

Perpetual Growth

You are always in a state of growth. Similar to learning, it’s just a matter of speed and direction. The motion is perpetual. If you are alive you are moving, you don’t control that. What you control is your direction and velocity.

You can solve hard problems

You are capable of solving problems. As a student of Design Thinking, I want you to see a process, or a path in front of you on which you can step to begin getting closer to a solution. There is no guarantee that the Design Thinking process will lead to a successful solution every time. But it’s a great place to start.

You can work independently and with others

There are times for independent work, when it needs to be all on your shoulders. There are times that you will take on a project and succeed or fail based on your own efforts. You can do that kind of work. Sometimes it’s easier that way. Traditional schoolwork is often easier just to do on your own. Nobody likes having to coordinate with other people’s schedules, or rely on their competence and work ethic. I get it. But I want you to know that you can work with others too. And more often than not, a group of dedicated people will come to a more effective, more innovative solution than any one individual.

Learning how to understand and motivate others is an important skill. You need to learn how to be accountable to others and how to help others stay accountable to the team’s goals. This is how things really get done.

Seek to Work More Not Less

Work that gives you purpose and value is not something to avoid, it’s something to pursue. Find the work that is worth doing, because it makes you happy, honors God, and the world needs it to be done. Please, never stop finding ways to do more of that kind of work.

Own Your Learning

Take ownership of your learning. Stop depending on me, or any other teacher for your education. We really are not responsible for it. You are. View your teachers as guides, sherpas that will show you a few paths up the mountain. But make no mistake, you need to hike that mountain yourself. I am not here to carry you from point A to point B. You should rely on me only to show you that there is a point B somewhere out there. I’ll give you a handful of tools that might be useful along the way. That’s it. Everything else is on you.

I’ll leave you with this final directive. I say this to each of my daughters when they leave the house for school: Work hard, have fun, and be kind.

Originally published at http://ictusmarketing.com on August 4, 2020.