All the prospective teachers in my classroom were angry. You could feel the tension hanging in the air within the classroom walls. I was teaching in a Teacher Academy program for high school juniors and seniors. I had just shown my group of high school aged future teachers an article that compared teacher salaries to the yearly income of a wide variety of other professions. But this activity backfired. The reality didn’t just inform them, it infuriated them.
Heated comments fueled by adolescent hormones were flying around the room. “Why should we work this hard to learn about a profession that pays so poorly”? “What makes accountants and salesmen more valuable than teachers?” “How come basketball players and sports figures are worth so much more than teachers who educate our country’s children?” They looked at me with indignation. They seemed to blame me as though I had written the economic reality of my own profession.
“Maybe it’s a good time to revisit the question I asked you on the first day of school,” I challenged them. “Why do you want to teach?”
I paused and waited for their answers. But they weren’t falling for it. They didn’t feel like sharing those touchy-feely stories again. If society didn’t value teachers were they preparing for the wrong career? Their body language said it all. They leaned back in their chairs and crossed their arms over their chests. They were daring me to defend a profession that was seemingly undervalued by our American culture.
I paused even longer, and not just because I know that an effective teacher gives students time to formulate answers. I waited because I knew I had to say exactly the right thing to this group at this moment. I couldn’t come up with the right words. I started to sweat.
Finally seventeen-year-old Chelsea began to speak. “My real dad is jealous of my step dad,” she began.
Every head in the room swung to look at her like she was nuts. Why in the world was she talking about her two dads at a time like this? But she read their body language and continued, “Wait, just a minute, hear me out. My real dad is jealous of my step dad. I know this is true because he told me so. My real dad said he is jealous for two reasons. First, my step dad gets to live with me. My real dad claims he’s jealous because my step dad gets to spend more time with me.”
“The second reason he says he’s jealous is because my step dad is an engineer who designs toys. He first designs a toy. If that toy design is selected by the big toy company he works for, he gets to watch the whole toy development process. He watches them produce the toy, choose packaging for it, and market the toy through ads and television commercials. He even gets to see his finished toy on the toy store shelf and watch kids take it home to play. My real dad thinks that would be such a cool way to make a living.
You see, my real dad drives a delivery truck. One day when we were having one of those kind of serious father/daughter talks, he told me that in his job at the end of a really good day all he has to show for it is an empty truck. He told me that he doesn’t care what profession I choose, but he wants me to choose carefully so that at the end of the day I will have something more than an empty truck.”
She paused to let that sink in and then she continued, “That’s why I want to teach. Because as a teacher, at the end of a day of helping students learn, I’ll feel a sense of accomplishment that will be so much more than an empty truck.”
I had a lump in my throat when she stopped speaking. I thought about the courage of her father. How tough it must have been to so eloquently admit his jealousy for her stepfather. He was so focused on his daughter choosing a career with meaning that he put his own self-esteem on hold to share an analogy she will never forget. She internalized his message so completely that she could pull it out and share it with others at just the right moment. It changed the whole climate of my classroom in an instant. My students sensed the complete truth in that story. I didn’t have to add a word.
Isn’t that, after all, why all of us teach? At the end of a day, a school year or even a career we will have so much more than an empty classroom. In this profession we build relationships that can honestly span a lifetime and touch generations to come. When we prepare a student to enter a profession with meaning because we have first helped him believe in himself, we help define not just his life, but the way he raises his family as well. As a career teacher, I admit not every day is easy. On those tough days I like to think about Chelsea’s story of the empty truck. I make myself stop, close my eyes, and actually visualize that truck. Then I take a deep breath and just keep on truckin’.
Today Chelsea is a teacher and has her own students in Hamilton, Ohio. I have written my second book for teachers titled TEACH…To Change Lives and Chelsea’s story is only one of the stories in it. It is now available at Amazon.com.