I was invited to give a few remarks to some newly minted math teachers at San Francisco State University last night. I had two things to say.
Hi there. It’s nice to be here with you as you get kicked out of the nest. It’s an honor, in fact. I’ve met a few of you. Smart, thoughtful people each one. And it makes my decision to become a math educator seem smarter that you would make the same call. That’s real.
I’d like to say two things briefly about what happens next and then I’ll be done.
I’ll quote the first from someone I met a few weeks ago in New Orleans. He said to me, “Your first year teaching is about growing as a teacher, sure, but it’s mainly about getting to know yourself.” That’s wise. You go through life looking for mirrors. Literal mirrors at first and then figurative mirrors. Surfaces that reflect at different angles revealing more and more about your appearance and your character. At a certain point, a lot of us try to position those mirrors so that they reflect back only our best angles. The most valuable people in my life refuse to let me position them. My best friends notify me of my worst angles and refuse to accept them.
That’s what your students will do for you. They’ll reflect back at you the spot on your chin you missed with the razor. They’ll reflect back the parts of you that are insecure and afraid and small. Eventually all that reflection takes a kind of marvelous toll and you either decide that teaching kids isn’t any fun or you realize that you aren’t the spot on your chin. That isn’t who you are. And then your students start to reflect back generosity and humor you didn’t know you had. I hope you enjoy that. My first three years teaching were basically a bonus adolescence. I could tell you stories. But that’s number one. Enjoy learning about yourself. Enjoy self-study. Apart from whatever my teaching was doing for the kids I taught, teaching showed me the angles where I needed lots of work. It made a better person out of me
Here’s the second. It’s tempting to compare the job of teaching to other jobs you could have taken, jobs your college classmates took, jobs taken by the people you grew up with. I struggled with this for a long time. Friends of mine made more money working fewer hours and their profession wasn’t ever ripped a new one on national television. (Except for the ones who went into financial services. I dodged a bullet there.) Overall, that wore on me. I asked around about med school prereqs. I filled out an application for film school here at SFSU.
In case you ever feel the same way, here are two helpful ways to look at the job of teaching. The first is that you don’t have to worry, as many of my friends still do, that their jobs don’t really matter to anybody except the family they feed. You don’t have to worry that you’re insignificant to other people. You’re in the profession of developing humanity, one class at a time. That’s no small credit you get to claim. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to doubt your job’s value to humanity for thirty or forty years.
The other reason to love teaching when people try to convince you not to is that teaching has the best questions.
Me, I came to realize that past a certain baseline income, what I need most in my life are good questions. Questions that aren’t so small they crack easily. Questions that aren’t so big — like rising inequality or climate change — they put me in a fetal crouch. I need questions between those two. Questions at just the right size. Questions that crack after weeks and months not hours. Questions I can roll around in my head on long road trips or standing in line at the DMV or in some boring lecture. Lately I’m in the market for a ten-year question. Something that’ll take me through my thirties. I know I’ll find it in teaching.
See, there’s profit in answering a good question. The profit isn’t cash. The profit isn’t even answers. The profit is more questions. The best questions yield more questions once they’re answered. And teaching has all of them. For me, teaching has all the best questions. And most of them are timeless. Questions about human learning will endure even after questions about typesetting and carriage manufacture and driverless cars have expired.
You’ve signed onto a job that’ll yield the best version of yourself, one that offers you endlessly fascinating questions and the growing awareness that a lot of little people’s lives would be less without you.
I couldn’t be happier for you and I couldn’t be happier for myself that I get to count you all as colleagues.