A math teacher friend has been questioning his value in his classroom. In his honesty, he asks “why do we teach what we teach?” His plaint comes as children ask him “why do we need this stuff, why prove something you have told us to be true, when will we ever use this?”
His desire is to answer honestly, but brilliantly; to give an answer that will make the child stop, gaze at him in awe, and return to his/her studies with renewed vigor and purpose. I suspect he is not alone in his thinking. For him, and for all teachers who go to this place of doubt and fatigue and, perhaps, even frustration, I offer these words:
Children need the discipline of effort, of struggle. They need to try something new, to push themselves beyond their comfort zone. As all of us know, that comfort zone is, well, it’s comfortable!
Teachers push, encourage, cheer, exhort, challenge, and free students to step into the unknown and the new. It’s like the first taste of vegetables for a baby. Oh, that face! But we know it is good for them. We know what they do not– that there is a wider world out there for them, and that they will need ways of dealing with it. Math has a logical, beautiful order to it. There is a discipline of thought that is rich and worth learning. And that is the first part of my answer. The noble part.
Here is the second:
I teach for totally generous and totally selfish reasons: I generously want children to find the wonder and excitement of knowing something beautiful. I want them to feel and own discovery of patterns and trails that numbers make; how they loop back upon themselves; how they start at one place and end up in another. I want them to see the magic of numbers. I want them to feel the satisfaction of revealing the secrets behind the magic – the elated rush of struggling with and conquering a numerical puzzle. It is Alice finding a key to a door and then choosing the correct potion to become the right size to fit through the door. (And for many children, math is as confusing as wonderland was to Alice!)
And selfishly: to see that most elusive of creatures – the excited spark when a student makes that connection to something learned. That spark is my adrenaline, my satisfaction. It creates a pride in me about that student that is like no other feeling in the world.
There are many comments about how students don’t care; how testing is killing the learning; how teachers’ hands are tied by administration. Still we teach. We teach because we know in our hearts that it is right and important. We want to be in the classroom. We want a better future for our students than they can possibly envision. We hope, eternally. We hope. That’s why we teach.
Our hope is stubborn and sure. Our hope does not back down. Our hope transcends the newest strategy, policy, or curriculum. Our hope spurs us to persevere with every child.
We must not, cannot assume that we have no impact. No one comes up at the end of each period with a trophy or a plaque. Children rarely write thank you notes (or parents for that matter). As teachers we may never see any result, we may feel we are simply parroting what other, greater teachers have already said. We cannot let that stop us. It is persevering into the dark, shadowy night, not knowing what we will meet along the way, with people telling us to go back, to beware, calling us foolish. Hope. What a powerful thing. Our students are the beneficiaries of this conviction, this hope. They may neither appreciate nor value it, now. But someday, ahhh someday, we know they will. There will be that moment, although we won’t be there to see it, when a child will silently thank a teacher for not giving up. And since we don’t know which child in our care that will be, we must place that unopened hope with each child we teach. And we will, because we must teach as surely as we must breathe. No matter what.