When They Call Us “Good”: To Teachers

I have always wondered why certain professions were accompanied with the descriptor of “good”; why non-profit professionals, teachers, social workers, and the like are consistently told that the work they do is so good–and those in other professions are not.

 

For a very long time–even before I made my informal foray into education–I was always bothered by the notion that teaching could and would be considered “good”; there is something troublesome about the indication that traditional, and largely static, conceptions of goodness and meaningfulness are assigned to those positions from which an excessive amount of personal wealth cannot be wrought.

 

This said, in this article, I will not be discussing the merits and demerits of calling one profession “good” over another. I will be analyzing why that term was assigned to my job to begin with.

 

I suppose to a certain degree, the “good” professions consistently expose themselves to the sheer weight of humanity. Educators, from early childhood teachers to graduate professors, encounter the “human” day in, and day out. What I mean by this is not that we come into contact with more humans in a given day than do many other workers, though this is true. I mean the conventional meaning associated with the word “human.”

 

Most things associated with humanity have a primary theme in common: impermanence, mortality, fallibility, and culpability. When things and people are described as “too human,” “human,” “mortal,” and the like, they are one of the aforementioned descriptors. Education, regardless of content, is a humanistic pursuit–at its core, it is the intersection of the lives and developmental trajectories of both students and teacher, and the job of the teacher is to facilitate those intersections.

 

I imagine that there are likely a number of people that would disagree with my assessment; that the loaded phrase we have come to know as “education” is something entirely different. Some would argue that education is primarily centered upon the heavy and messy job of identifying and ameliorating gaps in the skills that allow students to more fully participate in the world around them. This is not incorrect, but it is not at the core of what we do; the “skills” are seemingly always in flux, existent, or non-existent–due to national standards initiatives, state standard initiatives, content/education level (pre-K vs. art school), and various other factors that make this definition too inconsistent to be considered core.

 

The intersection of human life will always involve the aforementioned common theme of humanity–the imperfect, blameworthy, and flawed existence of man. Facilitating the intersection of life will also inherently involve the facilitation of mistake. The job of an educator is one that is consistently and constantly marked by mistake; without it, there would be no job. The very definition of learning is contingent upon the notion of acquiring something that was not previously present in its correct and most effective form. What marks education is the idea that progress isn’t made without misstep, and we cannot be better in any facet of our lives without first being worse. What marks the job of the teacher is the recognition of this fact and the use of it as fuel.

 

In questions of what it is that we owe to the world and to ourselves, I have a creeping suspicion that at the very least, we owe it to acknowledge the flaws in the world, and to live not in ignorance of, but in symphony with, those flaws.

 

I have a very difficult–impossible, actually–time buying into the notion that teaching is good for the reason that it is inherently rewarding, that the gains outweigh the personal sacrifice, that my life is some warped iteration of the Freedom Writers, or that my students are the deserving recipients of charity.
Education is not charity, and teaching is not wholly selfless. It cannot be. Teaching is, more than anything, a recognition of mutual humanity. It is a recognition of the fact that at one point or another, we need someone on our side as we discover the world, too–and there cannot be anything more “good” than that.

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