Why did you become a teacher?

There’s a teacher shortage in Minnesota and MPR News’ stories today on the subject say it’s complicated, and it probably is.

The reason, the story says, is nuanced and includes understanding why people become teachers in the first place.

I’m not any further in trying to understand that question than I have been since I quit a work study job in college, teaching photography to the little mobsters in Boston’s North End.

Coincidentally, I saw this today in the Woodbury Bulletin police log.


Not every teacher is getting a bloody nose from a football thrown at her, of course, but every teacher has a story or two that doesn’t resonate with the lives of those of us who work in the luxury of a cubicle farm.

In his essay in City Pages last week, for example, Tom Rademacher shares his story of life in a Minneapolis school. It’s based on a book he’s written, the title of which considers it a “love letter” to teaching.

He quits a lot and keeps going back the next day:

I quit last week. I didn’t quit the time I had to break up three fights in one day. Nor the time a parent called to tell me she wasn’t sure her kid had learned anything in my class. Nor the time that one guy I worked with sent me a three-page email about all the things he thought I was doing wrong. Nor any of the next 20 times that same guy sent essentially that same email. Nor the time I switched to a new school and that same guy contacted a coworker to tell her to make my life hell that year. Nope. Kept wanting to quit, didn’t quit.

Every time I’m about to quit, something amazing happens. Every time I’m so close to finding anything else to do all day, a student shows me why I need to stay.

Last Tuesday, I was as close to quitting as I’ve ever been. I spent my prep hour updating my resume and scrolling through job listings for any job that would let me pee when I needed to.

On Wednesday, I was reading an article with my class (“From Lynching Photos to Michael Brown’s Body: Commodifying Black Death”). At the end of the day one of my students took over our room.

For 20 minutes, this student spoke truth about being a black male, about the fear and assumptions he feels increasingly as he gets older, about his passions to succeed, to “live greatness,” how often he is made to feel like s***, and how often he is told he isn’t s***. He spoke with anger, with pride, with intelligence and hope, and with a broad perspective and understanding of our world.

It was, after a decade of teaching, among the most impressive things I’ve ever heard.

A friend of mine — the little girl who grew up down the street — posted the article on Facebook. I still have a hard time accepting that all the neighborhood’s little kids have grown up and become something special. She became a high school English teacher.

I didn’t know what to say in response to her posting, so I only came up with, “thank you for doing what you do.”

I wonder how often teachers hear that?

Today I read this story in the Rochester Post Bulletin about two teachers in Pine Island who are calling it quits. They’re retiring. One hopes to spend more time building houses on mission trips to Mexico; one wants to visit Austria.

Mark Aarsvold has been helping turn some neighborhood’s kids into something special for 37 years; Dorothy Walston has been doing it for 20.

There wasn’t a lot about what kept them teaching; it pretty much was another story of a teaching shortage.

But they both seemed to agree on what they’ll miss. The kids.

If pressed, it wouldn’t surprise me if either or both could come up with a story about a football or two.

No doubt, it’s true that the teacher shortage is nuanced and complicated and beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. I just know every story I read about teaching is a story about people far better than me.