Making a difference. Job security. Lasting impact. Helping students achieve “ah-ha” moments. Summers off.
These are all benefits that come with being a teacher. The pandemic has caused many of us to question their existence these last two years, but they are significant reasons why many of us continue to teach.
All of those things resonate with me, but there’s yet another reason why I love teaching. It’s hidden beneath the surface, often overlooked, and deceptively important to my well-being. It’s not quantifiable like the two relaxing months of summer are or tangible like the warm-hearted embrace from a student at commencement.
What is this gift? What is this intangible dimension of teaching that I’ve come to view as one of its most valuable benefits?
The gift of youth.
Each day, I’m surrounded by teenagers. Eager, fearless, curious, bold, emotionally present, rebellious, unsophisticated, perceptive teenagers. By way of teaching, I walk into a building each morning and find myself immersed in their youthful worlds.
At the same time, each day I grow older. As a result, I move further away from what it means to be young. Sure, age brings its own blessings, but it also draws me away from those I serve. In this way, teaching is a paradox: I’m expected to reach today’s youth even as my body and mind naturally retreat from them.
And therein lies the gift my students offer me. They involuntarily surrender insights into youth culture, yes, but if I listen to them and observe closely, it goes much further than that: their youthfulness actually rubs off on me. My body might be aging year after year, but I’m unquestionably younger in mind and spirit because of them. They’re a big reason why I often forget how old I am.
Though many years their senior, I’ve learned a great deal about successful teaching and living a meaningful life from my students. I’m not saying that I do everything a teen would, but I have absorbed many of their finest assets. I constantly question myself, run towards risks, and embrace spontaneity. These and other qualities are transferred to me from my students in myriad ways — both in the classroom and out. It’s in their rebellious attitude and unapologetic creativity. It’s in how they audaciously seize the moment. It’s in their struggle to be understood.
I’ve never worked in any other field. If I did, having taught for 16 years, I’m confident that I would be a much older person than I am right now. I have my students to thank for that.