The Students Who Become Teachers

12/31/2010 04:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

College orientation was depressing. At one of the events, I ended up at a table with a lot of other young women, eating a sandwich that I hadn't realized was vegetarian when I picked it up. We were talking about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Which we were planning on doing as soon as we graduated.

Everyone except for me wanted to be a teacher. Wait -- I think someone wanted to be a psychologist, actually. But everyone else wanted to be a teacher. I wanted to be a famous author who also played fierce rock music on a bright red Steinway concert grand for packed stadiums. So it's not like I had my stuff together. The other girls were definitely practical. Except they didn't seem that smart.

That's a mean, judgmental thing to say.

But I said it, and I'm going to stand by it. They weren't that smart. Maybe they were brilliant, secretly. Maybe they were kinesthetically intelligent. I don't know.

One girl was saying, "Yeah, like, I just really, like, like kids, y'know?"

"Totally," said another girl. "Kids are so cute."

"That's why I want to be a teacher. So I can just, like, hang out with kids."

"When did you know you wanted to be a teacher?" I asked the first girl.

She thought for a moment and then said, "I helped out at this summer camp once. And it was really fun."

The other girls all nodded. Apparently they had also helped out at summer camps. I hadn't given any thought in the past to the kind of people who want to be teachers. I hadn't had school teachers, since I was home schooled. But at 18, sitting at that table at orientation, I was positive I would never want to be a teacher, for the simple reason that I wanted to be around people who were smart.

It was ignorant, prejudiced, and wrong in many ways. But it wasn't wrong in every way. Because it quickly became clear that most of the people on an education track at my college were not the smartest students around. Sometimes they were the students who failed at a lot of other things first. Sometimes they were the students who weren't good enough in a particular field. In music, they were often the students who weren't impressive enough as performers to get performance tracked. Some of the least interesting, motivated, and intellectually proficient people I met in college went on to teach.

This is not to say that I didn't also meet some incredibly motivated, skilled, and brilliant people who also went on to teach, but those students were not the norm.

So what's the deal?

There are probably several dissertations in this. They've probably already been written and published. I'm not going to pretend to come within a mile of comprehensiveness here. Here's my armchair summary:

  • Teaching isn't that respected, as professions go. This is ridiculous. Teaching is incredibly important. I think it's one of the most important things anyone can do with their lives. But for some reason, working with children sounds to a lot of people like, "Not doing much important."
  • Teaching is really, really stressful. The college grads who manage somehow to get into Teach for America often crawl back, whimpering and defeated. They went in bright and idealistic and fabulous. But it's just so astoundingly hard.
  • Teaching isn't the best-paid thing you can be doing if you're very, very smart. Someone I'm close with had considered going the professorial route (albeit a different thing from teaching high school) before he realized that Wall Street was an option.
  • Teaching means dealing with a ton of bureaucracy. Even if you have great ideas, there's no guarantee that you'll be allowed to implement them.

Recently, a couple years after graduating college, I started teaching a class. I sort of love teaching. It's fast-paced and active and forces you to learn constantly yourself, and think about information creatively, and work on your interpersonal skills. It makes you care about the kids, and you realize how much you are constantly failing them because you aren't quite there yet. I couldn't believe how hard teaching was. How was it possible that those girls I met at orientation were doing this? After all of my academic success, I felt completely inadequate.

A few months ago, I had lunch with a brilliant young woman who is teaching high school English. She's doing it because she understands the positive impact she can have, because she loves the subject, because she's passionate about helping students learn to interact creatively with texts, and because she thinks that teaching any subject well means teaching students to think well. She is inspirational. But sitting with her, eating a much, much better sandwich than the ones on the buffet platters at college orientation, was a bittersweet experience. I want every teacher to be like her, and I know that they aren't. I think of the people I met in college, who are teaching now. The ones who were foolish and drunk most of the time and uninspired. The ones who shrugged and said, "Well, it's a steady job, and I'm not really good at anything." The ones my friends remember from middle school, even now, because they were so terrible. There are simply too many like that.

And I wish. I wish so much that it was different.

Originally published on Un-schooled.