Be a Teacher

Our soul grows by subtraction, not addition.
-Meister Eckhart, 14th century theologian
In a perfect world, the greatest among us would become teachers . . . and everyone else would have to settle for something less. Because passing our history, traditions, and keys to civilization on to the next generation ought to be, and is, the greatest honor and responsibility anyone can hold!

-Lee Iacocca, past CEO of Chrysler and author of Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher, perhaps even a great one.
And if I was, who would know it?
You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.

-dialogue between Sir Thomas More and Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons

Are you a college sophomore not yet decided on a major? A junior wondering if you’ve chosen the wrong one, or a senior dreading graduation because you’ve just spent four years studying something you never really cared about?

How about a forty year old burned out by corporate America and seeking a life vocation that will honor that “still, small voice within.” Or a fifty-five year old on the cusp of Erik Erikson’s “integrity vs. despair” stage of psychological development, wondering if it’s too late to experience that deep sense that life has meaning and that you might yet have something to offer.

If so, take a tip from Lee Iacocca and Thomas More: Become a teacher. You are never too old to make that life change. In fact, the older you are, the more life experiences you have to draw from and share.

Why become a teacher? I can think of at least three reasons:

1. Teachers directly impact young people’s lives in the present moment. Whether their students come from strong, healthy family backgrounds or less than desirable home lives, teachers become the additional adult mentors and role models that children and adolescents seek. We talk much about peer influence today; what we forget is that young people are also drawn to whichever adults in their lives treat them with respect, affirm their interests and talents, and give them the one-on-one attention they crave. Teachers naturally fill that void for the young, modeling for them a healthier version of what they can become.

2. There are few professions whose impact reaches beyond the present to the degree that teaching does. Teachers touch the hearts and minds of potentially thousands of young people, impacting them in a way that continues throughout the years, often through more than one generation as lessons learned are passed on to others. All of us can no doubt recall teachers who positively impacted our lives, even changing the course of our lives. Exactly fifty years ago, a high school English teacher took me aside after I had given a presentation to my classmates and told me I should consider becoming a teacher. And I did. How many other professions have that impact?

3. We desperately need moral leadership in our society today, and throughout the ages and across the many cultures teachers have provided that moral leadership. In a conversation with a physician friend a few years back, he bemoaned the emphasis on financial gain too frequently observed in those entering medical school today. “All they want to know about is which field of medicine will result in the highest income,” he told me. “Gone are the days when men and women entered the profession to serve humanity. Now it’s all about amassing a fortune.” And I hear similar stories from other professions, as well as from the corporate world. We need good men and women to reverse this frightening decline in basic human values by teaching and modeling an alternative vision, one of service and altruism, to the next generation of leaders.

Today, more than at any time in our history, we need good teachers. No, not good teachers. Great teachers. We need great teachers to give our youth the hope they need to become men and women whose hearts and minds are directed outward toward others, not inward toward self-aggrandizement and societal status.

Be a teacher. It’s no easy job, not for the feint of heart. Wimps need not apply. It’s for men and women of stamina, both physical and moral.

Be a teacher, and become part of the process of shaping a new generation of value-centered leaders.