I work, therefore I am: as the kids say … NOT!

An article by Sean Donaghey with the headline “I work: Therefore I am” appeared in the Globe and Mail newspaper a short while ago.  It started this way:  “Self-discovery is hard work. To pull it off, you usually drop out of society and rough it in the wilderness.”   My version of that might be spending far too much time in my kayak paddling along the Humber River just 20 minutes from home right in the heart of Toronto.  “No chatting with friends at Starbucks. No retail therapy at the nearest mall. ”  The article goes on to explain how Sean went through life from one job to another until he finally found the job that defined him; as he puts it:  “now I truly know who I am and what I was meant to do.”   It’s a lovely tale, and it nearly made me tear my hair out.

For many years I have known who I am and pretty much what I was meant to do.  I’ve always tried to be my authentic self and do what I thought I was supposed to do.  That hasn’t always meant what is does for lots of people though.  I’ve never been very caught up in doing what others have thought I should do.  Being authentic, making sure that I always speak up – and act – when I experience a social injustice, trying my best to show respect and build dignity for everyone I meet on any given day; this is who I am.  Who I am, however, is the reason that I chose to do what I’ve done for work these many many years.  I am … therefore I teach.

I didn’t plan on being a teacher.  Many visions of what to do “when I grow up” scuttled around in my mind when I was young.  Choosing to become a teacher was such a lucky choice for me because it’s been a place where I’ve truly been able to find my own voice.   The admiration that I have for teachers all over the world was expressed in an article that I wrote after working in Prishtina, Kosovo on three occasions between October 1999 and March 2000; an article that drew on the journal that I’d kept while working there. 

But this evening, in this principal’s office, I am almost overwhelmed by the courage and dedication of teachers. Take away their building, and they find new places to teach. Take away their supplies, and they develop strategies that don’t rely on paper or pencils. Take away their resources, and they become storytellers. Take away their salaries, and they find ways to survive without money and still provide a cake to celebrate a child’s birthday. Take away their freedom, and they wash the only shirt they have left and stand proudly in front of their students as they teach about peace and democracy.  (Click here for full article.)

Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, wrote that “Between a text and its meaning lies the act of interpretation – and this depends on who is interpreting, in what context, and with what beliefs.”  That interpreting – bringing ideas to life – that, to me, is the domain of teaching.  Who we are as human beings, the context and manner in which we pursue learning with our students (and I think that we’re all sometimes students to each other)  and the underlying deep beliefs that we bring to each encounter each day … well, that’s what makes for teachers (and people) who make a difference and are remembered for many, many years. 

I hope that’s what I’ve been – at least some of the time – in my years as a teacher.  I hope that’s what I’ve also been – at least some of the time – in my life as a whole.  At the same time, it’s what I’m still hoping to achieve as I redefine myself in retirement and explore new worlds of being.

I am, therefore I am.  And so it is for all of us.


4 responses to “I work, therefore I am: as the kids say … NOT!

  1. I also knew, from quite a young age, that I wanted to be a teacher. In fact, in high school, I decided that I wanted to be an ESL teacher. Thirty-one years after starting my career, I can say that this was the right choice. I don’t love every minute every day – I could definitely do without all the marking – but, I’m never unhappy about facing another week of school. Being an ESL teacher is a very big part of who I am as a person. How will that change after I retire?

    Here is what I have posted on my bulletin board in my Guidance office:

    by Rabbi Zev Shostack

    I am that most fortunate of men
    For I am eternal
    Some live in the world of today…I live in the world of
    Some find meaning in the termporal and the transient.
    I find purpose in the enduring and the eternal
    For I am charged with that most sacred of missions
    To transmit all that our forebearers lived for and
    Loved for and died for to the next generation.
    I span the generations
    Making the wisdom of the past live now so that the
    future will have meaning.
    I make wisdom live
    For I am no mere bearer of knowledge
    I do not simply teach the mind
    I reach the heart and when I reach the heart I touch
    the soul.

    To those who say two generations hence what shall I be
    If but a distant memory I respond…
    Though the mind fades…memories linger
    Though the body fails…the spirit prevails
    Though the scroll burns…
    The letters dance in the air.

  2. I was a teacher until last June. I am struggling with retirement now.

    Last year I knew it was my last year, and every day was a happy celebration. Since June, I come across great ideas and I think, “Oh, I’ll share that with my kids!” Then comes the crash when I realize I will NOT share it. My colleagues are in full swing now, and I’m just warming the bench.

    Who am I, now that I am no longer me?

  3. Welcome to the conversation Jeannie; good to have you here. It’s just those moments of recognizing what is gone that I’m thinking about a lot. When our identities and self-image are so tied up in what we do – and I think that’s likely true for many teachers as well as folks in other fields – it’s hard to remember that we are no less “us” than we were when we were working. That’s the challenge isn’t it; seeing yourself as still someone with so much to contribute without the constraints of a paid job. Here’s a place to share for sure.

  4. Entrepreneurs are told to develop an “elevator pitch” – it’s called that because if you happen to run into a potential investor in an elevator, you need to explain your concept in a few well-chosen words, before the elevator reaches it’s destination. It occurs to me that’s what we need to to when we retire from paid employment. Before retirement, we automatically had an answer for the question, “what do you do?” We still need a short answer that goes beyond, “I’m retired”, which is a conversation stopper. We need to be able to say, “I’m retired from whatever, and now I ________” By developing this pitch, and practicing it a few times, we help ourselves to forge that new identity. So Jeannie, never say “I’m just warming the bench” – you are what you say you are.

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