This is my second school year (and 16th month) without a permanent teaching position. Like thousands of other out-of-work teachers, I spend many hours a week looking and applying for jobs. The world of unemployment is filled with extremely relentless efforts that produce very regular rejections. Sometimes you hit a job opening at just the right time, and you have just the right qualifications, and this gets you to Step 2, or maybe even Step 3 of what ends up being a 40-step process. It’s an employer’s market, as they say, and so even the most highly qualified teachers face hoops that didn’t exist in the industry even five years ago.
Every so often, I happen upon an application wherein I get the opportunity to respond in depth to questions about my pedagogy and teaching style. My favorite question is: “Why did you become a teacher?” It is such a simple question, but it can be very difficult to answer. When we start teaching and get so caught up in the non-stop nature of planning, grading, instructing, caring, learning, (and of course, endless meetings), we often never actually stop to consider a cogent answer to this question.
Why did you become a teacher? Off the top of their heads, some teachers might respond with an enthusiastic “because I love kids!” or, “my subject is awesome!” or “I grew up in a family of teachers and just always wanted to be one!” But what really drives us into this profession? We don’t know when we first enter teaching how relentless the days will be, how endless the meetings are, and how much we will have to always work. But we also don’t know how incredibly invigorating it will be to participate in the stimulation of young minds, to introduce students to the challenge of critical thinking, and to constantly learn more every day in the process of planning. But it is a lot of work. Statistics tell us that most teachers leave within 3-5 years of their first year. So why do I keep trying to get back into the profession?
When I first lost my position, all of the emotions connected with such a tremendous loss collided in me as I tried to figure out my next steps. I thought I might be one of the “lucky” ones because I had a previous career field to fall back on. “Reapplying skills” was all the rage when we were invited to attend a meeting about how the state employment office could help us transition. At that meeting, the advisor told a room full of just laid off professional teachers, most whom had masters degrees and years of experience, that there were tons of jobs in the truck driving industry, and that we simply had to “reapply” our skills. Now, I am not saying that driving a truck is not a noble profession. What I am saying is that the skills it takes to earn a graduate degree, teach for years and continue to be a passionate, dedicated educator may translate to other career fields, but there really is nothing like teaching.
For the first few months, I looked for both teaching positions and positions back in the corporate and legal world where I’d worked before teaching. I’d been a paralegal for 15 years (which taught me that I didn’t want to be a lawyer). For the four years before I started teaching, I worked for a civil rights attorney in Northern Ireland, and eventually as a human rights activist and community organizer there at the end of The Troubles. It was that experience, in the midst of a terrible conflict, that I discovered how deeply connected I was to the effort of social justice. It’s also where I discovered how much I liked hanging out with teenagers! Taking my experiences and what I’d learned back to my own community as a teacher became a natural progression once I’d grounded myself in what was truly important to me. So when I was suddenly faced with the option returning to the corporate world last year, it felt as though I’d turned backwards on my path in life.
I became a teacher because I found the Perfect Storm of Life- I discovered I could combine my passion for social justice with my keen enjoyment of teenagers, all while pursuing my love of learning. That combination not only led me to teaching, but also guaranteed my love for the profession. I am a teacher because I love my students and the possibilities they present. When I’m teaching, I love that I get to spend all day wrapped up in the very topics I geek out about anyway. I love that I teach subjects that connect to the very events that are happening in the world, and that I can show my students the importance of their own lives and choices within the context of those events. I love that I get to learn new things every day. I became a teacher because it’s who I am.
I have now refocused my job-hunting efforts back to education only. When I think about why I became a teacher, especially on the days when I’m just so tired of filling out applications, or not finding any job postings, I remember that my passion and my craft are not lost. I keep learning. I take the opportunity to have conversations and share knowledge every chance I get- and I keep looking. Everyone becomes a teacher for his or her own reasons. But once you discover that’s who you are, there is next to nothing that can replace it in your heart. I have learned through these many months of fears and questions that I had many reasons for becoming a teacher, and now there is no longer a doubt in my mind: I still am one.
To buy Cari’s book that details her sudden unemployment, “How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks” please click here.