What’s So Great about Teaching?

About twenty years ago a policeman came into my classroom to talk to my students about his job. He started out with great enthusiasm, “How many of you want to be a cop?”

Not a single hand went up. Two or three kids even laughed.

Stricken, he said, “That’s not funny—in most classes a lot of kids want to be a cop. Ok, then tell me what you want to be when you grow up.”

Hands up all over the room. He listened as kids told him a wide variety of ideas from astronaut to doctor (it wasn’t just “doctor,” either, it was a particular specialty all picked out in fifth grade) to entomologist.

“Ento-what?” he exclaimed and then turned to me. “This class isn’t normal!”

Apparently no one had warned him he was coming to a Highly Capable classroom.

Once he left I did talk to my class about being polite with guest speakers (which is an important life lesson).

Then I asked them to write a piece for me. “Tell me the job you want and give me three reasons developed in detail for why you want that job.”

They immediately turned the tables on me. “So why do you want to be a teacher?” “Yeah, what’s so great about teaching?” “What three reasons do you have?”

“I know—I know—it’s because of all the vacations!”

I got them quiet and said, “Those are legitimate questions. If I ask you why you want to have a job one day, it makes sense that you would want to know why I want to have the job I have now. So I’ll give you three reasons. And they don’t have anything to do with June, July, and August.”

All these years later, my reasons are still the same.

First off, teaching came naturally to me. From when I was in junior high or high school, if I was swimming at the pool, I would end up teaching some kid how to swim or how to dive off the side into the deep end. If I was drawing pictures in the park, I would end up teaching a cluster of kids how to draw. No matter where I was or what I was doing, I ended up teaching someone something. I figured I might as well be paid for it.

Second, I’m good at it. When I taught kids horseback riding at summer camps back in high school, I told stories about medieval knights carrying their spears in their right hands. “See how it makes sense to mount on the left? See why we hold our reins in the left hand? Cowboys don’t throw a spear with the right hand, but they do throw a rope with their right hand.” Then we would act out mounting the horse while holding something in the right hand.

To this day, I find that telling stories and acting out scenarios helps kids remember information.

I have another advantage as a teacher. Does anyone remember Gregorc’s Learning Styles? I took a test a long time ago to determine my teaching style according to Gregorc. I found that, operating in my normal mode, I was pretty strongly Concrete-Sequential. But the minute I got frustrated, I flipped into Abstract-Random mode, in his parlance.

How does that help my teaching? As long as everything is going smoothly, I generally continue in a Concrete-Sequential style. But if students don’t understand a concept, if they start asking a lot of questions, if they look confused, then I get frustrated. I stop teaching the way I’ve been teaching—the way that hasn’t been working. I say, “Ok, let’s look at it this way.” I come up with a sideways, out-of-the-box way of explaining the concept. A more Abstract-Random way. (Something that’s not in the script of a Direct Instruction lesson.)

I’ve had students say, “Now it makes sense.” (I’ve also heard the criticism, “Well, why didn’t you say it that way the first time?”)

My third reason I want to be a teacher?

I love it when kids get it. Nearly forty years of doing this job, and if some kid suddenly grasps an idea they’ve been struggling with, I do a victory dance right there with them. I’m pumped. I’m excited. I’m vindicated!

This is the coolest part of my job! I get to watch the light bulbs go on.

Right here, by the way, is why I set impossibly high standards for my kids. So when they meet those standards, that victory dance is SO incredibly sweet.

Twenty years ago I gave my kids those three reasons, and they agreed, they were legitimate reasons to want to be a teacher.

I still think so!

4 thoughts on “What’s So Great about Teaching?

  1. Mark

    I have several questions swirling in my head, variations of “what does it say about our society that is isn’t expected for ‘highly capable’ students to consider being a police officer or a teacher?”

    I know that wasn’t the point of your post 🙂

    For me, what’s so great about teaching is the ability—no, the necessity—to be a creative problem-solver every minute of my day. I enjoy the intellectual challenge of that.

    1. Jan Kragen

      Yeah, that made me wonder too.

      Understand, they were just challenging me because if they had to justify their job choice, then so should I. Several of my former students are now teachers, some of them in my district, which is fun. And some of my current students want to be teachers.

      Fifth graders don’t always know what they want. The kid from 20 years ago who wanted to be an entomologist is now a librarian at UW, and the aspiring doctor who carted around a hardback copy of Grey’s Anatomy in fifth grade is now making olive oil in the California wine country.

      General contractor, realtor, hair stylist, medical researcher, Peace Corps volunteer, chemical engineer, furniture maker, chocolatier, pastor, auto mechanic.

      Someone once asked me how I measured success. I said it wasn’t by the jobs my students ended up pursuing. I believe in the value of honest work. Whatever work they choose to do.

      (It’s not the complete truth, actually. Deep down, I am waiting for the day when a former student comes into my room and says, “Mrs. Kragen, I just wanted to let you know, I am part of the first manned mission to Mars.” On that day I can retire happy.)

      Oh. And as far as I know, no former student has gone into law enforcement. I think my kids who had that interest and skill set went into the Navy or Air Force.

  2. Hope Teague-Bowling

    Great conversation! I’ve been thinking a ton about this question:
    “what does it say about our society that it isn’t expected for ‘highly capable’ students to consider being a police officer or a teacher?”
    I’d also challenge us to replace “high cap” with “students of color” as I think some of the issues overlap.

    A huge part of this is the way the profession is presented to the next gen. When teachers seem discouraged or stressed that’s what kids pick up on. We have to talk up the beautiful aspects of the job —as you did Jan!

    We have to encourage and cultivate students who show potential as teachers!

  3. hanneke

    The total weight of his known armor is 173 pounds not counting the weight of the spear itself, his helmet, sword, or leg greaves. How Big Was Goliath’s Spear? We are told that the staff of his spear was like a weaver’s beam.


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