Teaching in public schools has always been a tough job. Cyclical budget cuts, eroding discipline and parent support, and increasing campus violence are just a few reasons.
Much of the public seems to think the main draw to teaching is the lengthy time off. In truth, however, most teachers spend a lot of vacation time working: teaching or taking classes, writing curriculum, or catching up on research in their subjects.
So why become a teacher? I recently talked to some of my colleagues--diverse in age, subject expertise, teaching style and length of experience--to try to get a general sense of what attracts people to teaching.
Idealism is one of the driving forces. English teacher Peter Sawaya said he chose the profession out of a desire "to save the world." After 26 years, he has lowered his sights from saving the world only a little: "Maybe instead, . . . I can influence a few (students) through literature and art."
Kate Kranz, a five-year veteran, was similarly motivated. "I wanted to make a difference in the world," she said, "and I stay with it because I do that hourly.
"I really feel like I have an impact on the lives of my students, helping them rechannel their energy to cope with their problems, rather than be overwhelmed by them."
Likewise Diana Garcia, now in her 18th year of teaching: "I always thought it would be wonderful to be that person who could impart knowledge and inspiration to other people. Maybe I'm still idealistic enough to believe that it still makes a difference in someone's life."
A variation on the theme of idealism is the drive to help children and teen-agers make something of themselves. It too is a powerful lure to teaching.
"Giving the encouragement to get students to risk and try--that's what's most important," said Linda Wexler, a longtime teacher at Santa Monica High, "so they can find their own special gift and be happy with themselves."
Rob Thais, in his 17th year of teaching, sees the importance of helping students in a broader context. He recalled crossing a nearly empty UCLA campus at twilight recently and seeing an almost mystical tableau: a classroom aglow, with students entranced by a pacing, gesticulating teacher.
"I just thought, 'That's what it's all about,' " Thais recalled. "This is how civilization continues--one person who has the knowledge is willing to spend time and energy and sacrifice money in order to pass the torch."
Chris Corliss finds helping at-risk children especially rewarding. "They're kind of the forgotten students in many cases, and are shunted aside," said Corliss, a teacher for seven years. "I believe that every kid is a genius in some way, and it's our job to uncover what that is."
Some teachers say the job is appealing because it's just plain fun.
"I just love working with the kids," said Terie Mueller, a math teacher for eight years.
"I was ready to quit at the end of this year, and then something came back--I started enjoying it again," she said. "There's just something about working with kids and feeling productive."
Many teachers say you must be part actor to handle so much time in front of groups each day. For some teachers, that is part of the appeal.
"Teaching, for me, was a job that I could connect with," said Randall Denis, in his fifth year teaching history. "My personality could fit in. I could be a ham and entertain people and, at the same time, accomplish something."
Thais agrees. "I like the show-biz aspect of it--that I'm a performer standing in front of a bunch of people trying to make them happy," he said. "As a colleague of mine says, it's five shows a day, five days a week."
Teachers have more independence and room for individual styles than is possible in many other occupations, and that's a plus for some of us.
"I've always liked the individual responsibility of teaching," said Mark Black, a biology teacher and wrestling coach since 1976.
"You're the professional, the one with the training and educated judgment, and no one else is really telling you how to be," he said.
My reasons for teaching?
Idealism is a big part of it. John Kennedy died when I was just 17 days old, but his idealism and value on public service somehow took root and stayed with me.
Also, my father was a professor and my mother (the other Mary Yarber) teaches high school English, so I suspect there might be something in the genes.
Besides, I love to read, write and talk about books, and getting paid to do what you love is a rare and irresistible opportunity.
Still, being a teacher means battling a lot of obstacles every day. Next week I'll present some other teachers' views about what makes the job difficult. You may be surprised to learn what is (and isn't) on the list.