Accept any challenge

7th February 2014 at 00:00

September 2013 marked the beginning of my 41st year as an English teacher at Citrus College. I have had the privilege of teaching more than 14,000 students in about 450 classes for more than 23,000 hours, and of reading at least 13,000 essays. Forty years is almost two-thirds of my life, yet it feels more like five years.

At times, when well-intentioned friends ask me if I am going to retire, my response is, "From what?" For many teachers, 65 (and older) is still an age of undiminished vigour.

So why do many of my senior colleagues and I continue to teach? For that matter, why does anyone teach? It's my favourite question, with answers that I'll be exploring in depth in future columns.

For now, though, I think many of us teach because we have an innate need to. We teach because we want to connect with people's minds and hearts. We teach because we are passionate about our subjects. We teach because since childhood we have felt most content in a classroom, with books and pens and paper. We teach because we want to think as quickly as possible, as deeply as possible, as clearly and originally as possible. We teach because we want to put that thinking into forms that will benefit our students and help them to think quickly, deeply, clearly and originally, too. We teach because to stop would be a form of self-destruction.

My late father, who was also an educator, had a recurring dream during his youth in the early 1930s. He found himself standing at the edge of a ravine. A narrow walkway led to the other side. Although he wanted to cross it, he was afraid to try because, far below, a body lay, and he felt responsible for its being there but he didn't know why.

We talked about this dream many times. He told me how, as a high-school student, he eventually came to understand that, in his dream, the body was his own and that his fear of something in himself was exactly what kept him from moving past it.

At the deepest and subtlest level of his being, that body stood for feelings common to human experience: the fear of failure, the dread of being insignificant, and the sense of worthlessness that comes with self- doubt. Not until my father heard and chose to believe the words of a trusted teacher was he able to find the courage to walk across to the other side. The teacher had said, "Accept any challenge."

I believe that the role of a teacher in a student's life is to help him or her to walk across the ravine - to accept the challenge, to face down the fears, to open the mind to the potential to do great things and think great thoughts. The alternative - a life not fully lived - is unthinkable.

The pleasure that comes from this profession has sustained those of us who practise it through all kinds of experiences. It can be difficult, challenging, exhausting, even frustrating. But most of all - and this is what keeps us coming back year after year - it is a safe haven to which we can retreat and from which we emerge emboldened and clarified and confident. And very thankful.

"I shall continue to teach as long as I can teach well," one colleague said to me recently, "and I hope I shall recognise when it is time to stop."

Dale Salwak teaches English at Citrus College in California, US.

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