I thought about it for a while and then wrote a way-too-long response. But since I don't want to lose that thinking I thought I'd put it here too.
So I’ve been thinking on this for the past week and I think I have come to a good answer; which is I don’t know.
When I was first starting out, like 18 years ago, I was young and idealistic. If given this question then I would have been able to provide any number of platitudes about “teaching as a calling” or wanting to “make a difference in kids’ lives”.
However, over time the reality of teaching as a job has set in and I’ve lost a good deal of my idealism. Not because I am less idealistic or because I have become jaded by the difficulties of the job. But because I am more realistic about the job. Teaching is the rare profession where it can be very challenging on a daily basis but also can be very rewarding on a daily basis. This makes it difficult on an emotional level as well as a practical level.
One problem that we have as a profession is over inflating our own importance. Teachers say that they are “doing God’s work” or “doing the most important job”. In reality the stakes in teaching are actually kind of small. Let’s compare teaching to doctoring. No one is going to die if I am ineffective in my job. No lives are at stake. Kids might not learn as much as we would like but that is actually the reality of the job anyway.
Young and idealistic teachers have limited views of the world of teaching and of education in general. When you’re new at a job it is often difficult to know what you don’t know. This is actually a good thing because it keeps new teachers excited and motivated, hopefully long enough that they don't leave the profession before they get good.
So why teach? It is hard to say. There isn’t big money in it. You can make a good living but you’ll never get rich. The pension system is gone, which is tough for new teachers. There is lots of time off, which is necessary to do the job effectively. And every good teacher I know spends most of it working on teaching anyway. You get to work with kids – which can be good and bad. Politically teaching is not currently a dream job. We are under fire from all sides about lack of accountability and legislatures are continually trying to tell us what to do. They’ve dissolved our unions and are attacking our pensions. Society asks us to raise their kids, to teach them, help them become productive individuals and them chastises us for not doing it effectively enough or cheaply enough.
None of this matters to me, however. It kind of comes with the job. Too many of the jobs that are most important are kind of thankless. But it is kind of a deterrent to anyone idealistic enough to think about going into teaching.
So why teach? I guess for me it comes down to this:
Good teaching is needed.
This sentiment is true on both the individual student level and on the societal level.
On the personal side, we can all remember the teachers that inspired us to be our best selves. Could you imagine life without those influences? Think about the elementary school teachers who practically raised you. Think about that high school teacher who inspired you toward science or (insert subject are here). Every individual needs good teachers in his life both to get them through the day and to push them toward greatness. Without this, where would the kids be?
The concept of the “self-made man” is one that drives me crazy! There are plenty of people (actually many very much like you) who have become successful based mainly on their own hard work, effort and vision. But to call them self-made? What about the countless teachers that they had in their lives? What about the schools they went to that provided them a place to learn and grow?
Is this enough of a reason to teach? Maybe.
On the societal level, there is an expectation of good teaching. Not so the kids can know more, but so that society can grow. Look at the current political climate. It seems, from an outside perspective, to be a debacle of monumental proportion. But I feel that this is an amazing time. We have arguments and debates about big ideas. We don’t agree and have a sense that our ideas matter. Where did all of this come from? It came from the commitment we have to teaching. There are lots of political concepts that make no sense, like climate change deniers. And I feel that highlights the importance of good teaching. We talk about these ideas because they matter. Even if we go back to the 60s. The political changes that took place in the 60s were a direct result of the overhauling concepts of teaching and learning put in place post world war 2.
Is this enough of a reason to teach? Maybe.
In my opinion teaching is not about disseminating facts or information. Teaching is about helping students/people to learn how to learn.
That idea – that knowing how to learn is what is important, for both the development of individuals and for the development of society – is what keeps me teaching; is in my opinion a reason to teach.
Now that I write it, it does sound kind of idealistic. It sounds like a reason that is part of a bigger idea. Maybe that is good.