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Why Teach?

By Caroline Fahmy, President and CEO

Some professions descend upon people who, from birth, have no other choice but to enter them. I think teaching is one of those professions. Our company recently had a retirement luncheon for one of our coworkers, a software engineer. His wife, a teacher, who just a week prior had also retired, was able to attend. As far as we knew, it was a happy occasion and we were all congratulating them on their retirements. Our coworker’s wife, the teacher, was heard to say, “I’m 73! Who teaches until they are 73!? But, I’m not happy, not happy at all to retire.” She, in fact, had a summer teaching job already lined up in the town they were moving to. She, like so many in the profession, is a teacher through and through.

My mother and father were both teachers and as a young person I had wondered why my parents had chosen to teach. As I grew older, it became clear to me they both had teaching in their blood. They and my sisters and I lived it every day. When my father passed, I inherited his extensive professional library of education-related books. Among the various interesting titles (Individualized Learning; Values Clarification; Learning about Learning; Culture in American Education; Educational Ecstasy; Group Processes; Social Class and the Urban School; Toward a Theory of Instruction; Schools Without Failure; and many more), I’ve become particularly enchanted by a book written in 1957 called Why Teach?, edited by D. Louise Sharp. The book is a compilation of articles by “120 men and women in all walks of life, a brilliant tribute to the teaching profession and a statement of its lasting rewards.” Although 1957 was a very different time, I am amazed how relevant the writings in this book are to today. Interestingly, teachers back then faced some of the same issues they face today, for example a lack of encouragement, low wages, abundant difficulties, self-doubt, teacher shortages, and few extrinsic rewards. And, like today, they were revered as some of the most wonderful, important, and influential people in their students’ lives.

As teacher shortages challenge the education system today, I hope repeating Dr. Sharp’s purpose in writing the book and excerpts from some of the articles might help inspire would-be teachers to enter the profession and express appreciation for those who have chosen to teach.

What follows are inspirational, humorous, and heartfelt excerpts from the book, Why Teach?


By Harry A. Overstreet and Bonaro W. Overstreet.

Dr. D. Louise Sharp has brought together in this book the testimony of a multitude of men and women who, either as teacher or taught, have been in on the drama of teaching….Every one of them points to the fact that wherever a genuine teacher is around, something immeasurably worthwhile for our human experience is bound to happen—to the teacher and to the taught.


By D. Louise Sharp

In my teaching, and in my counseling work with students choosing vocations, I have felt the need for inspirational materials in the field of teaching. It is not enough for a counselor to say: “There is a critical shortage in this area. You are needed.” If, however, many people in diversified professions were to point out the values in teaching as a career, the influence might be tremendous. With this in mind, I planned to edit a collection of articles in book form intended to stimulate interest in the teaching profession and to offer a challenge to young people who are making vocational choices. Such a book might also be influential in retaining some of the numerous teachers considering a change in vocation.

Dedicated elementary and secondary teachers, although comparatively unknown outside their local areas, have a convincing story to tell. Their articles speak for themselves, stressing the fact that at no other time in history have teachers been charged with so great a responsibilityor so challenging an opportunity. It is high time that we recognize the importance of the teacher’s work.

The Challenge of Rural Teaching

By Ezra Taft Benson

I hope young people who intend to become teachers will think about the challenge of teaching in rural schools and agricultural colleges. They will find boys and girls in their classes who have the curiosity and sense of reality about the world and the things in it that are engendered by daily contact with animals, plants, and the business of farming.

I hope these future teachers will keep in mind the words of the great agriculturist, scientist, and public servant, Dr. Seaman A. Knapp. “What can you teachers do to help our rural conditions?” he asked. “Everything. You can inspire in youth a love of knowledge, and make all its avenues look delightful. You can unlock the books, which are treasure houses of human wisdom, and give them a golden key.”

“You can create a love of investigation and give it direction. You can enlarge the knowledge of the people in common things and thus lay the foundation of common sense.”

[His words] are just as true now as they were in his lifetime. Rural teachers will be among the leaders in rural progress in the future.

Priceless Career

By Karl W. Bigelow

My grandmother, who took her first school in a small town in Maine ninety years ago at the age of sixteen, used to tell me a story that gave me a vivid idea of what teaching can be like.

In those days every village school had a group of “big boys in the back of the room” who had been successful in resisting learning….

So, when the usual method of teaching failed she hunted around for alternatives. For some time such as she could discover also failed. Finally ––in the night––my grandmother’s best ideas came to her in the night––she thought of a new approach.

The next day she kept the big boys after school––not a new experience for them. “Boys,” she said, “I got to thinking about you in the night. You won’t be in school much longer. In fact, the way time flies, it won’t be long before you have your own farms and families. Indeed, before any of us know it, you’ll probably be leading citizens and selectmen of the town.”

“Boys,” she continued, “when I got to looking ahead like that I began to feel badly. As selectmen you will be expected to keep the town’s books, but you won’t be able to because you don’t know any arithmetic. I couldn’t get back to sleep thinking about how ashamed you––and I––will feel!

I believe if I borrowed the town books I could teach you to keep them. Would you like to try?” Of course they said “Yes.” And of course they learned both to keep the books–-and arithmetic.”

It is for me a favorite story of teaching. It reveals a true teacher’s attitude to children…to subject matter, to learning, and to herself. Such teachers are beyond price. And such teaching, with its triumphs, big and little, brings excitement and satisfaction to the teacher himself. What a career it is for those who love learning and their fellow man!

No Short Cut to Learning

By Paul G. Hoffman

If our children are to be well taught, we need not thousands but tens of thousands of good, qualified teachers. That means that we must give thought to how the teaching profession can be made more attractive. As many of us review our own lives we will find that we owe much to our teachers. To two of mine I am indebted for learning that there is no substitute for work.

It was the superintendent of the grammar school I attended who gave me my first lesson. I was—according to my mother, who might have been prejudiced—a bright child. In any event, I skipped two grades which resulted, by the time I reached the eighth grade, in a deep conviction on my part that I could acquire knowledge without effort. Mr. Maltby, the principal of the school, did not share my conviction. He first tried gentle persuasion in an effort to get me to rely upon work rather than my wits. When this failed, he took a more drastic step—he made me read to all the pupils of the eighth grade Aesop’s fable about the hare and the tortoise. At the conclusion he commented pleasantly but with telling effect that while I might be a rabbit, I would have to be a working rabbit or all the turtles would pass me by.

One would think that no further lesson would have been needed in persuading me of the need, if not the glory, of hard work. As a matter of fact, when I first entered high school I did work hard, but it wasn’t long before I was again attempting the experiment of acquiring knowledge by osmosis. In this case it was Professor Clark who was responsible for an abrupt change in my attitude. He was a mathematics teacher and the course was algebra. He asked me the answer to a problem on which I was presumed to have done some studying. I gave an answer, but one unaided by any study, which proved to be dead wrong. He asked me to stand up and face the class, and then said in the most solemn tones, “Mr. Hoffman, during the first few weeks you were in my class I thought you were a mathematics star. I find instead that you are a comet. Comets are flashy, but they fall and fall hard.” After this episode I reluctantly concluded that there were no short cuts to knowledge.

He Taught Me How to Think

By Harold R. Medina

I had many courses with Professor Gauss—later to become perhaps the best-known and best-liked college Dean in America—and during my senior year I was with him almost daily….Gauss attracted me as he attracted everyone, and I sensed at once that he had something to impart which was infinitely more important that the courses he taught. It was many years after I left college before I realized what it was: he had taught me how to think.

For Gauss dealt in ideas without seeming to do so….Gradually he instilled in me the determination to be, as he was, a seeker after truth; the elusive, utter truth, no matter where it led or whom it hurt. How he did it I shall never know, but of course his own integrity was a constant example to follow. As one of my classmates put it: “He made you want to do the right thing, and the right things was what Dean Gauss would want you to do.”

He made his students work and think and scramble to keep pace with him. His criticism had the bite of a serpent; but he always wound up with a note of such discriminating praise as to leave the objects of his attacks determined to scale new heights. A former editor of the Daily Princetonian, now famous in the world of letters, once told me, “He gave us hell and made us love it.”

Dreams Realized

By Pauline D. Mullins

As I look back upon my first year of teaching, parts of which I remember vividly, I chuckle now. I can remember, as if it were yesterday, two boys who took great delight in attracting my attention by making peculiar sounds. That in itself was frustrating enough; however, I particularly remember a set of signals whereby one would “beep” and immediately his friend would reply with a similar “beep” or two.

I did what I could to discourage such behavior. I wondered at times how much I had taught them and how well they liked me due to my firm manner. Soon the term was over. We said good-by. It was a sad day for me for I was not only leaving my class but the school as well. After the class left, I packed those odds and ends I had accumulated during the term, said good-by to the faculty, and started out for my new school located about a half mile away.

As I stood waiting for the bus suddenly a twitter and a “beep” attracted my attention. My two friends had stayed behind to say good-by again. The bus did not come. The storm had upset traffic and delayed my bus, but my spirits soared. The three of us trudged through the snow to my new school. We went in together, met the principal, and still together organized my new room.

The next month or so I lost track of my two friends, but on Valentine’s Day one came back with a box of candy he had bought for me with money he had saved from his paper route. As old as I grow, I shall never forget the heartwarming rich experience these two boys brought to my life.

From Generation to Generation

By James Newcomer

My brothers and I like to tell of the day that Miss Noggle came to call. Miss Noggle had taught us geography in grade school. She had taught our father and mother, now in their sixties, and she had taught neighbors older than they.

Miss Noggle, only five feet tall in her tallest year, sat straight on a chair in the reception room. She had come to call because the three Newcomer boys were all at home together.…We three men, approaching middle age and confident in our positions as fathers and men of affairs, stood straight and serious, as we had stood beside our sixth-grade desks, subjected to the strength of character and force of mind of a little woman who had helped mold thousands of boys and girls into men and women.

More than a quarter of a century after we had been her pupils, we summoned the best in us to meet her exacting eye. There is no doubt that if the impulse to know and to do well stirs in us now, that impulse is there partly because of Miss Noggle and others like her. She made us know that there is an ideal larger than that of our own making. She helped make us honest enough to recognize our own inadequacy in relation to that ideal. And she gave us the determination to seek to be adequate.

Following her profession two generations behind her, I feel it my privilege to teach young men and women the difference between right and wrong, in regard to both facts and ethics. I too lead them away from reliance on guesswork toward the confident search for truth. Somewhere in Miss Noggle’s youth some teacher had helped instill in her the sense of responsibility that inspired her teaching. She passed this on to me. And I count it the great gift of my life to help provide the continuity that keeps that sense of responsibility alive in the coming generations.

No Mean Calling

By Harry A. Overstreet

Teaching is the fun of getting acquainted. I have the memory of a half century and more of faces—rows of them, listening; sometimes wide awake, sometimes not so wide awake; taking down notes; or clusters of them around me, putting questions, venturing their own ideas, sometimes exploding into doubts and opposition. People—young and old! I’ve been privileged to know them and talk the blessed old universe over with them.

[T]eaching is never a peremptory relation of master and servant, although by the poor practitioners it is sometimes made to seem so. It is the relation of host and guest. We throw open the door and invite them all in—big and little and in-between. The table is spread. We hope the food is good and tasty and that there is plenty of it. There is no finer job than this of being host to the human race.

Why I Became a Teacher

By Philip Perlson

When I meet a friend from my childhood, and, after the usual effusive greetings, I am asked what I “do,” I think I blush a little, and I say, half-apologetically, “I’m a teacher.” Then my childhood friend’s eyes usually open wide for a moment in a quick surprise followed by a hearty laugh and a slap on the back. “So you’re a teacher!” and another booming laugh.

No, I’m not ashamed of the profession I’ve chosen; and my friends don’t look down on me for having chosen it. But, you see, I was the original school-skipper. I invented variations on playing hookey [sic] that read now like science fiction. Teachers were enemies to be outwitted and foiled at every turn. I hated school and looked at it each day as a place to spend five hours in penal bondage.

Naturally, [my friends] want to now how I ever decided to enter the field of teaching, what brought me full circle to a desire to devote my life to the schools I hated so much as a child. Well, the answer I give is, “I like it,” or, “It’s interesting and challenging work,” and these things are true; but the real reason I kept locked in my heart, for to others they may sound sentimental, dramatized, and idealistic. Yet these inner reasons were the impelling forces that made me a teacher.

My heart was given its reasons during World War II—the first time I saw a buddy die; when hungry children came to me along a French country road to beg my meager rations; when I saw once-proud and mighty cities, centers of commerce and industry, culture and religion, reduce to disgusting and heart-breaking rubble; when I tried to take comfort in religion and found that the words of God had been only imperfectly learned after being taught for countless generations. After all these things I began to understand that the means for a better world were known but that ignorance, poor educations, or educations along animalistic, antisocial, or selfish lines were bringing about the end results I was seeing. I began to feel that only through dedicated teachers could the unborn generations yet to come be shown the good things in living, the worth of a fellow human, the glory of God. I wanted to be a reaper of the untouched crops of knowledge and deliver the grain and the chaff of ideas to make a pablum for the future citizens of our civilization.

So now I’m a teacher—not a schoolteacher, but a teacher of children. And I’m a cooperating teacher in the teacher-education program of a great university. Thus, I help the hope-of-the-world, and I help those who will carry on when I am gone. Who can ask more of life—or death?

Cover Quote

“The Nation’s strength depends upon the minds of its people as surely as it does upon their arms. The education of young Americans is our first line of defense, and a broad highway to greater opportunity. Congratulations to those who have dedicated their lives and talents in the teaching profession.”