If you kind of want to be a teacher, don’t do it. “Kind of” will never be good enough. I realized this the ‘kind of’ hard way, when I was interviewing for Teach for America. At the time, I wasn’t really sure how I was going to pay for my life after I graduated. I was stressed out, interning in editorial for nothing, and wondering what else was out there besides my sad dreams of being a writer. I’ve always been good with kids. “Why not?” I thought.
I learned that the question of “why not?” should never be involved in being a teacher. For a few months, I interned at a national non-profit where I taught an after school class in filmmaking once a week. I never planned my lessons enough. Sure, the kids had fun. I gave them cameras and let them free write and watch their favorite cartoons. But I will never forget the difference between those loose plans and the day where I came in with a calculated attack that took me three hours to plot out. Not only did they stay engaged, but they also played with the new concepts I taught them like new toys. I could see the skill blossom; it was like a kind of magic that I would never have the patience to recreate on a regular basis. Real teachers are magicians, they plan. Real teachers are veteran army generals who know how to plan the insurgence of any topic into your bored ass distracted kid brain. If you’re not ready to be exhausted from going to battle with your wits every week, then you aren’t ready to be a teacher.
My best friend never wanted to be anything other than an English teacher. She loved kids, she loved teaching, and she was hungry to do the job. Her formal degree would be in education while mine would be in English writing and Urban Planning. Another woman in my internship seminar wanted desperately to be a part of the Teach for America program. It was all she believed in and she planned to follow it to any city in which it could place her. I’ll never know why I made it further in the interview process than they did. But when I saw the disappointment on their faces, I knew that I had to drop out of the running. I would never feel that kind of fall out, not unless someone told me I couldn’t be a writer. I would never truly want to be a teacher.
We all know how shitty it feels to sit in a classroom with a teacher who wants to be somewhere else. My high school was painfully underfunded. It seemed to attract the kind of faculty who either taught with a passion so fiery that it made up for the lack of central heating or those who simply occupied a space in front of the room as if someone had pulled them from our local mall and said, “just chill and make sure no one pulls a knife.” It was polarizing. The good teachers liberally shit talked the bad ones. In fact, when my principal was accused of plagiarizing in our school newsletter, my English and History teachers came together to deliver a powerful lecture on the value of authenticity. It was almost as if the presence of the apathetic increased the power and value of the passionate.
My most passionate teacher went by “Bobby J.” You could call him whatever you wanted. No matter what, he would probably call you an idiot. It was his term of affection for young people who couldn’t listen during his lectures on manipulating acrylic paint on the canvas or softening sterling silver enough to mold it into a clean form. He was an art teacher, but he treated the discipline like a science. First and foremost, his students would sit and listen to a lecture that detailed instructions on the process that they would be expected to imitate. Imitation was the first step on the road to originality, he said. You had to learn to imitate in order to manipulate and create. I know how corny it sounds. But Bobby J. cared about us more than any other teacher ever had. Even though he addressed our teenage angst with punchy anecdotes and name calling, he also kept his door open to listen to our problems whenever they got in the way of our work. I cried in his closet when my little brother wasn’t getting along with the other kids in school. He let me, and then he told me to get my ass back out there and make something. He sounds like a real cliché, Robin Williams circa Dead Poet’s Society type, but he was real. He was never half-assed. He recommended other teachers, praised his co-workers to the point where I nearly stalked an English teacher into teaching a creative writing class just because Bobby J. had told me it might be a reality. He never steered me wrong. He cared too much, and maybe that was the downfall of his personal life. He was best at being a teacher, and no one could understand how and why it came before everything else.
Maybe you want to be a teacher. Perhaps you aren’t sure as to whether or not it’s a good idea. I challenge you to truly test those maybe’s before you commit your time and money and education to the title. Volunteer, work, get out there and see what it means to be instrumental to another young human being’s life. Sure, watch movies about being a teacher. Take classes about being a teacher. But first, teach something. Try your very best to wake up every day and be a teacher. If you can, then I can only salute you. You have something beautiful that the rest of us can only see reflected in ourselves, in the slightest glimmer, when we’re proud in that beautiful moment for having meant something—something truly world-altering and new— to another person on this earth.