I Teach Because of This, Not Because of That

Recently, I had two fascinating conversations with two very disparate people who have made very different life choices. Their stories re-emphasized to me some deep principles about life. Both of these stories occurred while I was either traveling to or attending the 10th Ed Leadership Conference in Lucknow, India.

The first story took place at Newark International airport. While waiting for my flight, a man sat down next to me, and we struck up a conversation. We were both headed to India, and as is often the case, we asked each other what we did for a living. I shared about Flipped Learning and my role, and he shared with me his story. He told me he worked for a Fortune 100 company and was going to India to sell stuff. He confided that he didn’t want to go. He said, “I am 60 years old, and making another sale just doesn’t seem to matter anymore.” He continued, “I have all that I ever need; a big house, fancy cars, the whole deal, and I wonder if it was all worth it.” He told me that he envied me because I was “making a difference.”

The second story takes place at the City Montessori School in Lucknow. The conference was a three-day event that brought together about 400 school leaders (principals and founders) from around India. Since I didn’t speak until the end of the second day, I spent the majority of my first day just trying to meet these amazing delegates. At one point, a young man came up to me and gave me some advice. He introduced himself (He was from the US) and told me I had a pretty strong accent and might want to slow down my delivery when I took the stage. I thanked him for his advice, and we exchanged pleasantries.

Little did I know that my encounter with this young man would rock my world.

As the conference proceeded, I learned more and more about the challenges of delivering a quality education in the Indian context. I learned how many parents are taking their children out of the public schools in favor of private schools. I learned how teaching students in English is a challenge given that their student’s first language could be one of many of the different languages/dialects spoken in India. I learned how poorly teachers are paid, and the difficulties of working with inadequate supplies and resources.

When it was my turn to speak, I hope that they heard from me that I was trying to understand the challenges they faced. But I realize that as someone from the West, I don’t really get it.

Then on the last day, the young man (his name is also Jon) stood up to speak, and I realized that some things in life matter more. Jon shared his story. His passion is to bring literacy to the illiterate. Approximately 30% of Indians can’t read or write. Jon and his wife have dedicated their lives to change that story. But it gets better: To reach those who can’t read, Jon and his wife have chosen to live in one of the many slums of India. They realize that if they are going to reach those who can’t read, they must be where they are. His purpose in coming to this conference was to encourage each of the schools to commit to eradicating illiteracy in and around their schools.

Another thing Jon shared was, “I can’t tell you how many people I have hired and fired. What I really need are people who want to help the people I work with. I can teach any literate person how to teach another person to read. But if they don’t have the right attitude, I can’t use them…”

And as I reflect on the lives of teachers all over the world, I wondered to what extent teaching is a job or a mission? My observation is that for some teaching is merely a job while for others it is a mission. For some, teaching is just a way to pay the bills while for others it is a high calling. Frankly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with approaching teaching as a job as long as teachers do it well. But at the end of the day, it is much more fulfilling when teaching is more than just a job.

So I am humbled by the example of Jon and his wife. I have not given up everything to go and live in a slum. I have not sacrificed to that extent to help others.

Ultimately, this was a wake-up call for me about the reason that I do what I do.

A job or a mission? Does it matter?  We’d love to hear your thoughts.

6 Responses

  1. Thomas White

    I would hope all of us that got into the profession of teaching were doing it to make a difference, and that teaching isn’t just a job but a mission, but I know that isn’t always true and I think for some who start out trying to make a difference teaching turns from a mission to a job. In my own personal experience that was me. I started out wanting nothing more then teach kids, make a difference in their life. I was totally on top of my game researching and using the best practices at the time. I became very involved in middle level education, getting my masters in Curriculum and instruction in the middle school, attending and presenting at National Middle School Conferences. I moving from special ed. to regular ed. to teaching Social Studies, reach more students, and focusing on trying to help students see they can make a difference in the world. However, something happened midway through my career. In my mid 30’s it became just a job to pay the bills and I began planning for retirement… Sad, as I look back on it. Then my life drastically changed in my early 40’s, and I was revitalized in my teaching and started to get that feeling of, teaching being my mission back. As I have moved into my 50’s, 1:1 and flipped learning have kept that passion and mission to help kids make a difference in the world now and in the future alive and burning. I look at some fellow teachers who are talking about retirement in four years, which I could do, but I am not even close to having that feeling, my mission of teaching is not complete and I don’t think it ever will be. It is who I am! I think that is what really defines a great teacher, it is just who you are!!! Someone with a passion for learning, taking risks, willing to make changes, and do what is right for kids.

    1. Jon Bergmann

      Tom: I love your willingness to admit to teaching being for a time just a job. Your transparency will help others. And boy am I glad that you have found again that passion. Keep up the great work.

  2. Susan White

    I don’t think I could ever call teaching just a “job.” I work so hard for those kids. It’s not for notoriety. It’s not for test scores. It’s not for the school board, administration, or the parents. My boss, is my class, I suppose. I work for them. I spend countless hours, creating engaging and relevant activities for them. i am so passionate about flipped learning, because I get to spend more time with my students. Is it tiring and thankless? Yes, often. But, like you said, it’s a calling for sure. Was it always that way? No actually. Unlike Tom, I don’t think I started to appreciate my calling until I became more experienced. But like Tom, going 1:1 and flipped learning has completely revitalized my passion for what I do.

  3. Eva Paňková

    Teachers, please stay on a mission!
    It takes 10 years of sustained study to become an expert. I am a mother for 13 years and I do not feel like an expert. I have a privilege to be a teacher in the flipped learning mission and as a mother, I am an observer of teaching practice at the school of my children. Many of the teachers use practice I was taught with an effect I have to transform information caught in their notebooks to the conceptual understanding after my work time. Speaking to the teachers at teacher-teacher relation did not bring an effect. So I share my consternation about naive educational practice based on intuition and not on research-based evidence on parent-teacher meeting with the observable outcome. So I am in double mission with one crystal clear goal, to change in education because a teacher is a person who matters. I love mathematics and physics because I have met great science teachers as a student. I am keen on flipping because I met Jon, Aaron, Raúl, Jozef and many great enthusiastic flipped teachers from Spain flipped learning community. A teacher with her/his personality, expertness changes children’s, parent’s lives and society. Educators all around the world, please stay in the mission on behalf of our children!

  4. Cliff Goodacre

    Such a great story Jon, thanks for sharing. What an appropriate time to read as I reflect back on my transition from the classroom to developing instructors at the technical college level. As I’ve reflected, what I’ve realized is I miss the students the most. I miss the daily interactions of helping them see they have far more potential than they give themselves credit for. I miss helping them explore math through a variety of active learning strategies and activities in the classroom – all possible because I was committed to Flipped Learning!
    What really hit me was attending the funeral of a former student, and athlete I had the privilege of coaching. As I waited in line to pay my condolences, I had the opportunity to catch up with student after student. I was introduced to wives, shown pictures of children, and discussed current occupations. It was in those moments, as well as the long drive home, that I realized those conversations were exactly why I got into teaching in the first place. And as I share my thoughts here, I am happy to say I am pursuing going back into the classroom and create more of those memories!

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