Classroom with 3 students, teacher in back helping boy student, girl up front

What It Means to Be a Teacher

Teachers play important roles in shaping children's minds. Here's what it means to be a teacher. Who knows? Teaching might just be your calling.

When I moved out of my childhood bedroom three years ago, I found a pile of notebooks beneath my bed. They were worn with age, the pages yellowed and frayed, but the handwriting was unmistakable—they were my childhood journals. I opened one and flipped through it, stopping on a page that read: “I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up, but I do know one thing—I want to change the world.”

I was 11 when I wrote those words, but the heart of it will always remain true. I majored in Elementary and Special Education at West Chester University of Pennsylvania seeking a way to make a difference, and I’ve certainly found it. All my life, and especially during my undergraduate years, I witnessed the power of education, the way it uplifts and nurtures, inspires and empowers. It is, I believe, the single most important influence on the future of humanity. To be a teacher is to hold that future in your hands.

To be a teacher is to uplift and nurture

“I can’t write.” The second grader sitting in front of me was adamant as he tossed his pencil down on his desk. “There’s no story in my head, so I got nothing to write down.” I was assistant teaching, and the students had been writing stories for several days. This child in particular was known for his tall tales at recess; I’d overheard him telling the other children about a “velociraptor” he’d seen in the woods behind the playground. He did have stories in his head, and my goal was to help him realize it.

“So let’s talk instead,” I said. “What’s on your mind today?” He looked surprised at the question. But then he told me about his grandfather, who he’d just met for the first time. “I thought he was kind of boring at first. But then, I asked him to play baseball with me,” the boy said with a grin. “And he used his cane as a bat!” The story in his head came pouring out, and soon enough he’d written the whole thing down.

Teachers don’t just teach content—we teach kids. They’re at the center of everything we do as teachers, and every day is a new opportunity to make sure they feel valued and uplifted. In order to influence what students know, we must first understand and nurture who they are. Students must know that we care, that we value the interests and backgrounds they bring to the table. My future classroom will be many things—a library, a laboratory, a think tank, a theater—but above all, it must also be a home and a haven.

Related: 5 Great Reasons You Should Become a Teacher

To be a teacher is to inspire

Great teachers ignite students’ interests and inspire them to wonder and discover. They take on many roles—storyteller, historian, mathematician, scientist, caregiver—and each one brings learning to life. Children naturally want to find the “why” behind everything, and one of the things I love most about teaching is guiding students to discover the answers—and, better yet, inspiring them to keep asking questions.

Some of my most memorable lessons are those that took a detour from my lesson plan because of a student’s fascinating question. “But what about Jell-O?” brought us from an activity on the states of matter to a discussion about non-Newtonian fluids. “How do we really know what the author meant?” began a debate about which is more important: the author’s intention or the reader’s interpretation. “Why do we say the Pledge of Allegiance?” leads to still more questions, like whether “liberty and justice for all” is a description for our nation or an ideal to which we’re still striving.

Some of these questions have answers, and some do not. But all are products of critical thinking and act as catalysts for productive classroom discourse. When students are inspired to question, to consider, and to investigate, they grow as learners and individuals.

Related: Why You Should Consider a Degree in Education

To be a teacher is to empower

What children learn in school is powerful. In Rhode Island, a group of fifth graders used their education about the effects of burning fossil fuels on the environment to help draft and pass the Used Cooking Oil Recycling Act, a feat that adult environmentalists in the state had been struggling to achieve for years. A Girl Scout troop studied air pollution and the effects of thirdhand smoke, helping pass the first ordinance in Colorado to ban smoking in vehicles containing children. These students, and many like them, use what they learn in school to make real, valuable changes in their communities.

The best teachers do more than just teach the facts; they encourage children to consider why the facts matter. Education at its best helps students develop problem-solving skills, passion, and empathy. It transforms them from passive recipients of knowledge into agents of the change they want to see in the world.

Related: 5 Little-Known Things About Teaching Elementary School

If teaching is your calling…

As Mother Teresa once said, “I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the water to create many ripples.” This is what it means to be a teacher—to cast our stones, to instill in our students a love of learning. We give them the tools to make ripples wherever they go. For you may be only one person, but you are one person who cares.

If teaching is your calling, you’ll spend your hours in many ways. You’ll write lesson plans and IEPs, draft assessments, and send emails to families. You’ll tie shoes, zip coats, and dry tears. You’ll find yourself singing Schoolhouse Rock while peeling glitter glue out of your hair and wondering where it all came from. You’ll make your students laugh, make them think, make them believe. You’ll make them see the world in new ways. But most of all, you will make a difference.

Interested in becoming a teacher? Check out this list of great Colleges to Prepare for a Career in Education to get your search started!

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About Kristen Loughlin

Kristen Loughlin is a CollegeXpress Student Writer and college senior studying Elementary and Special Education.


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