Why do we teach?

I had the pleasure of spending my Saturday with a large group of teachers looking to learn more about their craft and how they might create a culture of thinking. Drawn by the opportunity to hear Ron Ritchhart of Harvard’s Project Zero share his research into the cultural forces that shape the learning that is possible in our classroom hundreds of teachers braved the wet Sydney weather on their weekend. Accompanying Ron were thirty teams of teachers who had taken the time to prepare ninety minute workshops. At the end of an exciting day we all left with new ideas, renewed friendships and bubbling with positive energy. 
Days like this renew our energy level and inspire us to persist in our efforts to meet the needs of every child we teach. They are opportunities to connect with colleagues, to share stories from the classroom and share ideas that work. It is the collective wisdom of the profession in action on days like this ensures educators are well supported in meeting the challenges that a rapidly changing society brings. Together we are stronger. 
Seeing this crowd of teachers gather and then disperse back to their schools with new wonderings and puzzles of practice in their minds led me to reflect on a question a parent had recently asked; “Why do you teach?”. It is a question we quietly ponder at times and one that those outside the profession occasionally ask as they consider the logistics of meeting the needs of a class full of overly excited children with vastly divergent learning needs. How we answer this question and the patterns that emerge reveals a lot about the profession. 
Often we recall those rare and special occasions when our actions result in a breakthrough moment for a student. Many years ago, I had a girl in my junior special needs class who passionately loved the colour purple. The staff of the school knew that wearing purple was dangerous. Her response to seeing the colour was extreme and at best would result in her throwing herself at whoever was wearing the purple item and clinging to them with all her might. At worst, it would be a catalyst for fitting and would end with calls for medical assistance. The special moment for us came one day when we were cleaning paint brushes in the sink. Blue paint mixed with red in the sink and the signs of over-excitability emerged as the water flowing down the drain turned purple. I removed one of the brushes and almost immediately the purple vanished and the water returned to a much less exciting colour. Reciting the mantra of “calm” I slowly returned the brush to the flow and the purple came back. Repeating the process a few times allowed the girl to enjoy her favourite colour without the usual dangers. By the end of that year her family was able to paint a wall in her bedroom purple. It remained her favourite colour but became one she could calmly enjoy. Moments like this are special but if we spend our time waiting for them we will rapidly lose interest. 
Teaching is something closely linked to our concept of self. We are teachers. It is part of our nature and our professional practice is an expression of who we are. It connects with a desire to share and to partake in something bigger than ourselves. An opportunity to make the world a better place by shaping the next generation. We teach because we believe what we do matters and has purpose. There are challenges here for some as the nature of teaching changes. For those drawn by visions of the wise professor dispatching words of wisdom with empowering speeches of wisdom the change to a ‘learner centred model’ disrupts their patterns of practice and self-concept. The move from the sage on the stage to the guide by the side brings new opportunities and, for those with a passion for learning, exciting times. 
We teach because we choose a career path where every day brings a new challenge, every day is different and our creative abilities are required. Teaching is an art form, a rich canvas for self-expression and imagination. We take the raw material from the syllabus, blend it with our understandings of our students needs and create patterns of learning that engage, inspire and empower. Our classrooms reveal our passions, our creativity and our values. We maintain a performance schedule like no other artist, with morning, matinee and afternoon shows every day of the week and frequent evening, pre-dawn and all-day events. It is no wonder that by Friday we are ready to collapse. 
Our roles are diverse. We are, on a daily basis a mix of administrator, counsellor, nurse, cleaner, photocopier repairer, data analyst, detective, consultant, curriculum expert, mathematician, entertainer, scientist, author and so much more. Learning new skills comes with the territories, adapting to change is the norm and it is this diversity that ensures we are never bored. We create learning environments and opportunities wherever we are. We work with limited resources and discover novel ways of turning every moment into a chance for learning. We are worn down by the challenges and built back up by the triumphs. At the beginning of the year we see the long climb ahead of us and yet we move forward knowing that at the end of the year the view from the top, the success and growth we achieve with and for our students will make every stumble worth it. 
Only those who have taught a class for a year, who have struggled with the challenges faced by students and who have shared in the moments of success will truly understand why we teach. Maybe that is why we seek out opportunities to gather and share what we do, to spend even a Saturday in the company of those who “get” what it is that we do and why we do it. Teaching is a beautiful thing to be a part of. 
 By Nigel Coutts