Well how’s that for a last second change of plans? I was all set to talk some more about curriculum writing today. I even had the first paragraph or two of a draft started, when I happened to see this tweet in my feed:
Considering what a powerful, life-changing decision it was for me to become a teacher, I realized that’s what I need to talk about today.
Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher.
Cliché, right? Ask any random sample of teachers, especially elementary teachers, to write about why they became a teacher, and I’d wager this is the first sentence written by more than a handful of them. Looking back, it’s definitely the case for me.
I loved school. I loved everything about it. I loved my teachers. I loved my friends. I loved learning. I loved making good grades.
School made me happy. I was one of those kids who would see his teacher cleaning out bins of extra worksheets at the end of the year, and I would gasp in delight. I’d run up to her desk and beg for some to take home so I could play school with my friends over the summer.
But my cliché story gets derailed pretty quickly. The trouble is, as I grew up, I convinced myself that I needed to do something “better” than teaching. I was a smart kid. Clearly I was supposed to get some big time job where I’d change the world and earn lots of money when I grew up. That’s what all those years of education were for, right?
So with the idea of teaching a distant thought in the back of my mind, I went to college and attempted to start forging my successful career path. It didn’t go so well.
I started off in the business school at The University of Texas at Austin. I felt out of place immediately. Here were all these people wanting to work for companies to help those companies make more money for their owners and shareholders. This is not a knock to anyone who works in business, but I very quickly learned this just did not match my personality at all. The idea of working at a job which boils down to helping someone else earn money just turned me off so much.
Thankfully, I had a fantastic macroeconomics professor, so I thought I had found my salvation. After a year and a half in the business school, I transferred into economics. It didn’t go so well.
It turns out economics doesn’t really fit my personality either. In my college courses, it seemed like economics was all about turning everything in the world into variables in order to construct equations to explain how different financial processes work. And while on an intellectual level I get why that’s done, on a personal level it felt dehumanizing.
You could sum up everything in the most beautiful equation, but that’s not going to change the fact that many people in our world go without food, education, clothing, shelter, or safety on a daily basis. They’re not just numbers.
I became overwhelmed with doubt. Here I was, halfway through my college degree, the smart kid who everyone knew was going to do great things, and I had no clue what I wanted to be when I grew up. Jobs in the “real world” seemed pointless and not worth striving for.
My personal life wasn’t in a much better state. For most of my second year of college, I was dealing with upheaval and turmoil in my friend group. That strain and my doubts about the future kept chipping away at me until I just went sort of numb and started having thoughts about how nice it would be if I just didn’t exist anymore.
I called these my “bad thoughts” and I kept them to myself for months. Thankfully I never tried to act on them, and eventually I got the courage to tell my two best friends before the start of my junior year. They didn’t really know how to help me, so it was a bit awkward, but I don’t think they realized that just having two people I trusted enough to talk to helped me more than anything in the world.
During the fall semester I went to counseling, was diagnosed with depression, and was prescribed Prozac. If you haven’t experienced depression before, it’s hard to describe, but the medicine helped get me to a middle ground. It didn’t make me happy, but it took away my sad. Side effects aside, it was amazing. Well, at the time I didn’t really feel much of anything – that’s sort of the point of being in a middle ground – but in retrospect it was amazing. It gave me the clarity to realize that I couldn’t continue with the way things had been going. Something had to give. I decided to drop out of college.
It was a tough decision, and one that my parents weren’t terribly thrilled with, especially since I didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell them the whole story (read: that I was having suicidal thoughts). But it was exactly what I needed to do. It wasn’t without a price of course. Withdrawing in the middle of the semester meant that I wasted thousands of dollars on tuition and fees. But it’s a cost I’d gladly pay again. Once the deed was done, it was like I came out of a dense fog. For the first time in a long time, I could finally just stop and think about what I wanted to do with my life.
And that’s when, after years of letting it linger in the back of my mind, I let the thought of teaching come out to play. I was hesitant at first, remembering the reasons I had pushed the idea away for so long. But after some reflection, I realized that in order to be happy in life, I wanted to work with and help others. Sure, I may not be able to change the whole world, but working in a classroom, I could have a very real impact on the lives of 22 children. I liked this idea. I wanted to pursue it.
So, that spring I re-enrolled at UT as an education major, and I never looked back. For the first time in college, my classes were interesting to me, I was engaged, and I knew I had made the right decision. I found joy and happiness again. I even discovered passion for the first time ever.
So when I look back at why I chose teaching, I did it because I realized that in order to have a fulfilling life, I needed to do something that matters, something that helps others in a meaningful way. There are other careers that help others, don’t get me wrong, but this is the one that called out to me and helped pull me back from a very dark place.