Are You a Teacher Or a Person Who Teaches

When I was much younger and had more hair I would go to a little establishment in Saratoga Springs called Cafe Lena. This was one of those special places where the true artists and truer wannabes would gather for folk songs or poetry readings or student written one-act plays. After putting on a torn flannel shirt and snatching up my obligatory copy of On the Road I would head up the narrow stairs to the tiny stage. I frequented this establishment quite often, especially when there were poetry reading, considering myself to be quite a scholar and scribe of verse myself. On one of these occasions I witnessed something so simple and profound that it stayed with me all of these years. Near the end of one of the poetry readings an older gentleman with a beard the color of grey clouds got out of his seat and took the stage. He was carrying a dulcimer. He sang some songs that he had written, which I’m sure were remarkable but it was what he said at the end of his set that stuck. He said something like: “I know a lot of you in here like to write poetry, but how many of you are poets?” I glanced around quickly, a pang of guilt, and anger rushing through me. He continued: “A poet sees the world in a particular way, and it is not only when he holds a pen. He sees the world this way all the time, because this is the only way he can see it. He is always a poet.” And then he grabbed his dulcimer and left the cafe without saying another word.

I’m certain what the old man said was not novel, and he was probably paraphrasing something he had heard somewhere else. But for me it was like a bell had been rung in my brain that would not be silenced. I think of this story every now and again, and I try to retell it to my students in a way that makes sense to them. I thought of this story again yesterday when I went into my classroom for the first time to begin preparing for the new school year. I ran into a number of my colleagues who were swarming around the office of our network manager, to receive their new Macbooks. Many of them offered me excuses for not attending the Reform Symposium, for which I had invited each one. Some of them told me that they must have missed the email I sent because they never open their email in the summer. I snickered a little to see their mouths gape when I told them that I had done all of the work for the conference without a scrap of monetary compensation, and they quickly retorted that they would never attend professional development for free.

It is here that the positive energy of my PLN breaks down. They are not with me in my school. In my school a teacher who attends free professional development during the summer is either crazy or has too much free time. But this is not how I view it. I am a teacher. A teacher sees the world in a particular way, and it is not only when he is in a school. I am a teacher all the time. This is different from a person who teaches. A person who teaches puches an inner clock, even if that clock counts time outside of the classroom, all the while thinking what will I get for this time rather than what will my students get. I realize now that I can never help those who only teach, and I will continue to be frustrated if I try. But I am going to do my best to find all of the teachers in my district. So which one are you? Are you a teacher or a person who teaches?

Photograph: Hugh Morton via


14 thoughts on “Are You a Teacher Or a Person Who Teaches

  1. Tyler Rice says:

    Isn’t it sad how people who teach mock teachers, both subtly and overtly? Don’t fly too high…

    “Doesn’t he have a life?”
    “I don’t have time to read all of those books and blogs and Twitter. I have more important things to do.”

    When you find your calling, the burning desire to do it to the best of your abilities is all-consuming. When it’s “just a job” you don’t feel the same way. Teaching is a calling. It just is.

  2. Dean says:

    I wonder how many of your co-workers showed up at school during the summertime for new Macbooks with the intent of doing school work before the start of classes in September! Obviously, that’s why the district issues laptops in August…

    Good luck on the hunt for teachers, Chris. They’re out there, but it’s not safe or particularly popular for them to identify themselves.

  3. Dvora Geller says:

    I never thought of it quite this way before. I have been lucky to work in many places with a lot of teachers. They have inspired me throughout my career as a teacher. Summer is a time to think and read and plan.

  4. Theresa says:

    Ah, learning outside of school time – such a foreign concept for many. I agree with you that teachers should be learning all the time. I love the people I interact with on Twitter and more. I have been preoccupied this summer but still got to one day of reformsymposium, a few tweets and am now back to my blog and getting ready for September.

    I cannot convince my co-workers of the benefits of information in most situations. I have shared resources from twitter with them and they love them, but . . . .

    Teaching is a career change for me so maybe that is where the doing things on my own comes from????

  5. ktenkely says:

    Could not have said this better Chris. There is a difference between the teacher who shows up to teach and the teacher who lives their learning and teaching all the time because it is who we are at our core.
    I have heard similar sentiments over the years from both teachers and administrators. I have heard administrators say that they would never expect a teacher to go to PD that they weren’t compensated for. These are the same administrators who wonder why their staff isn’t getting on the technology train. It is exhausting and sad to those of us who are teachers.

  6. Colin Graham says:

    Hi Chris,
    Interesting post. This sort of dichotomy is summed up by a ‘crass’ comment I heard in a staff room, at lunch time, during my teaching practice (or practicum if you are in the US). One fresh-faced, newly-qualified teacher said: “But isn’t teaching supposed to be a vocation and not just a job?” A deputy head of another department just snorted and said: “If that’s what you think, you should become a priest. They’re the only ones who get ‘called’ these days.” That was fifteen years ago, and I suspect was said more out of cynicism and disillusionment with the position she had reached in her job. The younger teacher was totally crushed, although he hid it well. It did make me wonder though… I had made a choice to go into teaching, it wasn’t a career move and I agreed with the first teacher, but wisely kept my mouth shut!

    I suppose I have been fairly fortunate to have gone on to healthy atmospheres where colleagues, if not actively involved in PD, did not belittle my attempts to improve myself. What is even more galling is when you attend required PD sessions which are costing the school money and are basically worthless or impractical.

    Anyway, great job on the Reform Symposium. I enjoyed the sessions I was able to attend and appreciate all the time you and the other organizers put into staging it.

    • Chris says:

      Thanks for the comment Colin and for attending the symposium. I think I may have been more than a little irritated when I wrote this post and I am feeling a little better about the situation now. I can’t control others and should stop trying I think. But I know there are some teachers I work with that feel the same way I do, we just need to work together. As silly as it seems I guess I do see teaching as a calling. I really have to agree with you about the school sponsored PD though, and perhaps this is part of the reason some teachers are resistant to it. My school schedules PD with no real input from the staff so half of them tune out when it is given. PD should be differentiated just like instruction.

  7. Elle Ryan says:

    I’m glad I stumbled across your article! Don’t we all receive the same comments from staff from time to time. People think I’m mad when I do so many ‘extra’ things for the students! But that’s why I’m there in the first place.
    Teachers like everyone else need encouragement and teaching. Keep up the good work Chris – you are inspiring!

  8. Jessica says:

    Oh, I know, your words ring so true in my ears! A summer safely tucked away with my PLN is about to end, and the real world sets in. I have yet to meet my new colleagues and see how they work. But I hope passion will be there, and that we are all teachers!

  9. Evan says:

    This reminds me of an old adage – If you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life …

    That’s a teacher, not a person who teaches.

  10. Ed Tech Omar says:

    The bell is still ringing in my head, that’s for sure! Although you may not have said it, nor did the grey haired philosopher probably say it, the idea struck a reverberating chord in me. I have been so stuck trying to get people to accept technology as part of their day to day lessons that I have forgetten what the students actually get out of it. Why should I push a specific tool/resource if it does not enhance the student’s experience?

    Thank you for a low tech reminder of what we are all here for!!!

    • Chris says:

      You are quite welcome. It feels good to do that hand slap to the face sometimes doesn’t it?Once you’ve gotten centered with that teaching is a piece of cake.

  11. Ed Tech Omar says:

    That is so true! At my previous school, I was the go to guy for tech integration and it was like being a dentist. But instead of having to pull something out of people, I was trying to force something upon them that they were not ready to accept. And it quickly became a game of how to get these teachers to use technology in their classrooms as opposed to how these teachers can use technology to enhance their lessons.

    One of my more successful projects involved students creating faux Facebook profiles on our server as absolute monarchs and they had to comment on one anothers’ profiles and have discussions about taxes, revolution, etc. Despite a few bugs, it worked out beautifully. The social studies teachers where able to use technology and enhance the learning.

    Sorry for being wordy, but all that is to say that as tech integration supporters, we need to be teachers at heart and provide other teachers with tools that they can use in their pursuit of that ultimate goal and not just force people who teach to use yet another tool that they may have no desire to use.

  12. […] Are You a Teacher Or a Person Who Teaches? […]

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