Why do I do it?
Do you have those moments or even challenging days where you ask yourself this question? “Why do I do this job? Why do I put myself through this? What difference am I really making?” I have lots of those days, so I decided it was time to flesh it out through introspection. This is just my story. It may resonate with you. It may not.
I’m a career educator. I started teaching in 1990 in classrooms in a remote province of China in Urumqi, Xinjiang. It’s in the far northwest part of the country which borders lots of “stans” like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries. I spent a year there and then returned to my hometown of Moore, Oklahoma. I taught two years of junior high social studies and coached football, wrestling and track prior to getting engaged to my high school sweetheart and moving to the Tulsa area. I’ve been blessed to work for Jenks Public Schools since August, 1993 as a middle school teacher and coach and later a high school social studies teacher, varsity football and wrestling coach and administrator. Although my experiences with the district have shaped who I am, I do not claim to be a spokesperson for the district (and I’m sure they don’t claim that for me either). The views expressed in this blog are mine and mine alone. They may resonate with you. They may not.
The answer I’ve developed lately on why I do what I do is that I’m doing it for “them.” Who is “them”? I’m glad you asked.
Them #1 – My family. My wife and three children have been on this educational adventure with me. My wife knew what she was getting into, to some extent, as I was teaching and coaching when I finally matured enough from the insecure and self-centered young adult to the guy who realized I was going to blow the relationship opportunity of a lifetime with someone I have loved since I was 16 (although honestly I didn’t and still don’t always do that well). My kids on the other hand had no say in the matter. Our first child was born on the day following a coaches Christmas party, our second child was born on a day I was supposed to report for a professional development workshop and we went to the hospital for my daughter’s birth on the night of a JV football game. My wife paid the price mostly for those weekend wrestling tournaments, the Sunday afternoon game plan meetings, the out of town workshops in the summer and I realized I had to make some changes on what my career would look like. My children have probably vacillated between the advantages and disadvantages of my work. They enjoyed the goodies from hospitality rooms at away tournaments. They’ve also endured having dad know their friends, their teachers, their assignments, their grades on each quiz, etc. All through my career though, they’ve been at the forefront of my efforts. I wanted to be a great classroom teacher, a good coach, and a quality administrator for lots of reasons. First, I always wanted them to be proud of what I did and how I did it. Maybe more importantly, I wanted to be the type of classroom teacher that I wanted them to have. I wanted to be the kind of administrator who I would want their principal to be. I want to help create the kind of school that I would want them to be a part of. Even before I had kids, I wanted to be the type of educator that I felt every student deserved. I can assure you, in 25 years, I’ve fallen WAY short of that mark many times. I appreciate their support and belief in me, and I hope someday they realize how much they encourage me to become better at my job. I do this for them.
Them #2 – My colleagues. These are special people that I’ve walked and worked alongside with, many for over two decades, but some much less than that. I don’t think their influence on me can be measured in years as much as the richness of experiences. Mike, Judi, Tonya, Amy, Eric, Clay, Mark, Annmarie, Ray and so many others have been there with me through professionally rewarding experiences as well as significant let-downs. They’ve done “life” with me and me with them as we’ve endured loss, illness, failures and multiple personal challenges. However, these aren’t just colleagues. They are treasured friends. They don’t just make me a better educator. They make me a better person. I am starting this blog because they encouraged me to share my thoughts and they said others might want to read them or be encouraged by them. If I fall short of their confidence, it’s not a failing on their judgement, but a lack of ability to communicate on my part. I write this blog and I do this job for them.
Them #3 – My staff. I have the honor of serving alongside some of the most creative, innovative and compassionate teachers I’ve ever known, and I seek to bring my best each day because I know that is what they are doing. In fact, a conversation late one afternoon this week inspired some of these musings. Two teachers who are not afraid to confront the condition of their practice were going over recent events in their classroom. They were probably a little discouraged that they “weren’t feeling it” with the way their students were responding. So many teachers in my school (and schools across the country) don’t just focus on the lesson planning or the instruction or the grading which takes a great deal of time, effort and energy. That’s just part of the job. They also take their students home at night. Not literally of course, but in their brains. Many still have them in their heads as they hit their pillows or they wake up in the middle of the night thinking of them. During lunchtime and hallway conversations, they talk to colleagues about the struggles they notice with some of their students and look for ways to break through the barriers holding students back from success. Sometimes there are barriers that we have resources for. We have a clothing closet. We have a social worker. We have meals at a free or reduced rate. We have a grief group for students who have experienced loss. But it seems like it is harder to break the barriers of substance abuse or apathy or fear or hopelessness that many of our students carry with them each day. Our teachers don’t want to let their students down and due to the courage they show in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges with students, I don’t want to let them down. The bravery and authenticity of our teachers makes me want to show up each day and try to make it easier for them to work their magic. I do it for them.
Them #4 – My students. I’m not a mathematician. I’ve had to take statistics courses in grad school and survived but it wasn’t pretty. In fact, my GRE math scores will never impress anyone at a party. I think my 8th grade daughter might have actually laughed at me when she saw my score report. Although I’ve identified this as one of my many weaknesses, I’ve often tried to calculate the number of students I’ve had in my career. I’ll try to be conservative and estimate that I usually taught 5 periods a day. In those 5 periods, I know I’ve averaged at least 25 students a period (probably closer to 30 for most of those years). Even I can multiply 25 * 5 and arrive at teaching 125 students conservatively each year. Then I can multiply that by 20 years as a classroom teacher in Oklahoma. That brings me to 2500 students and it doesn’t include the number of athletes I’ve coached on junior high and middle school track teams, wrestlers or football players over the years. I have always wished that I could recall each name of each student, but I’m not naïve or vain enough to try to make that claim. These days, I recognize lots of faces and I always appreciate when a former student comes up and speaks to me. Just a hint, it puts a lot of pressure when the greeting is, “Hey, Mr. Fox, remember me?” I may remember but that doesn’t mean that I can bring the name out of the vault, so it’s helpful if the lead is something like, “Hey Mr. Fox. I was in your 5th hour history class in 1998…” or something to that extent. I will say that I remember lots of names and lots of classroom experiences. In fact, I’ve shocked more than a few former students by telling them what row and what desk they sat in during class or who they sat by. I guess my brain just flashes back to that picture. Pictures help. I have a team picture and a plague I was given for coaching the 3rd place team at the Old Fort Classic wrestling tournament back in 1993, and I look at it and try to recall all the names. I also lament the amount of hair and the circumference of my waist from that period of my life. I remember Cory, Justin, Bishop, Matt and others, but I can’t get them all. What I do remember is lots of stories. I remember lots of personal challenges that my students had to overcome. I remember their faces as they dealt with issues ranging from a breakup with a boyfriend/girlfriend or a cancer diagnosis for a parent or being evicted or getting accepted to their dream college or the stress of having the most creative invitation to homecoming ever in the history of homecomings. I have lots of student stories and I hope to share some of them in posts to come. On days that I’m struggling with making a difference or giving my personal best or being worn out, I try to remember the students. I try to remember the students in the past that I tried to assist. I try to remember that there are still students walking in my halls that need an educator who cares about them. On the best days, I remember the calling to serve them and I remember why I show up each day to do what I do. I do it for them.
Well, you persevered through these ramblings to get towards the end of my inaugural blog post. You may feel cheated out of a few minutes of your lifetime that you’ll never get back. You may be thinking, “Who does this guy think he is to assume he has something worthwhile to blog about?” You may be right. This may be vanity. This may be self-promotion. This may be “boosting” as some of my more helpful students would tell me so I could be more current on trending teen vernacular. I’m going to try this. I often tell my kids to “prove them right or prove them wrong.” I’ll try this at least a few more times and see if my voice can develop and my thoughts can be refined. I may prove some doubters right. I may not have anything to say. I may prove some wrong and start to articulate, not just my challenges, but the challenges others in this demanding profession face as well. I encourage you to think about why you do what you do and who you do it for. I encourage you to do it with all your might and to do it for them. This week, I’ll do it for them and I think I’ll be a better me because of it.
Until next time, do it for “them.”