I suppose that I always dreamed of becoming a teacher. But not in the sense that people dream of becoming professional athletes or famous singers. I never fantasized about teaching the French Revolution in the same way that young kids imagine dropping an NBA title-winning jumper in the driveway on a rainy Saturday morning. I think that for me, my dream to step into a classroom was the nascent aspiration of a young man deeply dissatisfied with something that he couldn’t quite articulate and didn’t yet understand.
When I was a senior in high school, I was nominated for an award that recognized future social studies teachers in the state of Massachusetts. For my application, I wrote an essay explaining my motivation to pursue a teaching career. The application invited candidates to explore their interest in history and their commitment to working with youth through education. My essay, instead, explained my desire to teach in the country and to live with my dog in the back of a red Tacoma. Needless to say, I did not win this award. I am not particularly proud of my essay, and I shudder to think what my history teacher would have said about the way in which I had honored his nomination.
But at its core, my response reflected a stirring within my soul that would continue to grow and guide my development as a professional educator. This current, I think, was some kind of early awareness that teaching, by nature, is one of the few radically compassionate acts still available to us within western society. As a result, my career as an educator has run parallel to, and significantly influenced, my own understanding of what it means to live a moral and ethical life grounded in love and service to others.
Ultimately, for me, the dream of a dog and a truck wasn’t a choice. It was a retreat from individualism, western culture, wealth, privilege…you name it, and I was running from it. And for many years, I kept finding new and creative ways to run. But somewhere along the way, the dream changed. It didn’t necessarily change in overtly dramatic terms. I have spent the last five years teaching, working as an administrator, and guiding in outdoor education. I have taught in rural South Dakota, on a small island in the Pacific, and in the woods of northern Vermont. I have lived in tents and in cars, and at one point, my trailer became home to ten dogs taking shelter from a grueling South Dakota winter (although I never did buy my red Tacoma).
The change in my life was a far more subtle one. The fantasy of a truck, a dog, and a teaching job was only a superficial attempt at rebellion. It was grounded in self-image and my own desire to be different, rather than in a concern for the well-being of marginalized young people. More importantly, the mere possibility of this choice existed solely as a result of the very things from which I ran: wealth, privilege, and individualism. Thus for me, teaching was, and has been, the mechanism through which I encountered and addressed my own selfishness, arrogance, and individualism. At its core, teaching invites us to perform the most authentic and radical human act: to honor the other above the self. To stand in front of a classroom is to acknowledge that all people have a deep worth and an inherent goodness. Nowhere is this more true than in education, where teachers work long hours for very little thanks and often return home at the end of the day with a bruised ego and a lingering uncertainty about the difference that their efforts may or may not have made on the lives of their students. But through it all, they continue to persevere, often in the face of overwhelming odds.
When we read about the educational challenges that confront our teachers and youth in America and abroad, it is easy to think only in terms of numbers or policies: the achievement gap, inequalities in district funding, debate surrounding the Common Core, and a myriad of other aspects of education in desperate need of attention. But today, on National Teacher Appreciation Day, I would invite people to reflect not on the numbers or the policies. Instead, I would ask that we pay homage to the selflessness of teachers who put the welfare of children above their own interests every single day. Perhaps in our own ways, we can honor this example through our actions, words, and convictions.
As I conclude, I am left reflecting on one of the many long days during my teaching career when I had failed to help my students understand a particular subject. Demoralized and exhausted, I recall explaining my concern to a dear friend and colleague, who thoughtfully responded across the kitchen table: “Sullivan…we don’t teach English or history. We teach kids.”
Timothy Sullivan is a Boston College graduate, and went on to receive a double masters degree at BC and Stanford University. He spent the last six years teaching at Red Cloud High School (Pine Ridge, SD), Xavier High School (Chuuk, Micronesia), and working in a collaborative environment at True North Wilderness Program (Waitsfield, VT). He currently lives in the Boston area, and continues to work in education as the Curriculum Director at Bridge International Academies. He believes that every child deserves to have a high-quality education and is proud to be a part of that mission.