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Why I Teach

By Brian Kelley

Asked to write to the prompt, “Why I Teach” brings up memories of the faces of young men lighting up when they heard my step-father’s name. So much of that, of course, is attributed to who he is as a person in addition to who he is as an educator.  He has talked so fondly about his students over the years. I’ll always remember family conversations held around the kitchen table and the great fondness in my step-father’s eyes when he talked about his students or players.

I loved knowing that. I loved knowing he was like a great mountain of encouragement—the closer those kids got to him, the bigger he seemed—kids my age. And I often looked for that same eye twinkle in my teachers when they talked to us.

I think about my relationships with teachers in my K-8 school: Mrs. Grasso driving an hour out of her way just to watch me play ice hockey; Sister St. Christopher thinking of me when the neighborhood apothecary wanted to hire a trustworthy delivery boy; and when the volunteer football coach took me into a corner bar after practice and told the rummies that I was going to be a hell-of-a player. All with a gleam in their faces.

When high school came, Mr. Ford talked to me like I was an interesting person; Mr. Smith went out of his way to creating extra opportunities for me to pass math class; and Coach Wright told me I could be on the baseball team even though I hadn’t “made the team”—he wanted to keep me around because I played so hard. He said he couldn’t promise me playing time. Everyone of them smiled. I remember them smiling as much as I do their words.

In college, Dr. Gaul took an interest in me and met me for lunch and talked about living a life inviting creativity and passion; a TA for an American literature class saw me reading Whitman in a hallway and noticed and asked, “Do you like Whitman too?” and then he spoke so warmly about our shared admiration for the poet. At every level, I kept encountering teachers who made me feel good about myself and what I was doing—and they didn’t mind if I wasn’t good at any of it. I can still see the joy and contentment in their faces. It was real, and I shared in it. I was a part it.

All of these teachers, and so many more, showed me that choosing teaching meant choosing a career of encouragement.

From grade school through college, I didn’t take advantage of every opportunity and I wasn’t a top student or a top athlete. Actually, I struggled throughout much of school. I was as deep in the cracks as a student could be without falling through the cracks.

What kept me from falling through, from being unnoticed, was that I liked my teachers. I liked what they offered me. I liked that I never remember feeling judged. I like remembering and believing that they cared about how I did and what I did. They showed me they did. They really made me believe in our relationships.

And I think many came to like me. Many looked out for me. Many encouraged me.

When I write, so much of what comes out is centered around my adolescence. And, so far, I have learned that when I was a kid, how important it was to have people who listened to me. To have adults who listened to me. And I had that.

I believe all young people need those adults in their life. The adults who listen and the adults who encourage.

I teach because that is the life I knew, the life I want to share, the life I want to lead.


Brian Kelley profileBrian Kelley teachers 8th-grade creative writing at Charles F. Patton Middle School in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania; his podcast about families and heritage “I Remember” can be found on iTunes; you can connect with him on Twitter @_briank_ or on his blog: walkthewalkblog.blogspot.com.

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