Dr. Jeff Spanke is an assistant professor of English at Ball State University. He teaches courses about Young Adult Literature, Rhetoric and Composition, and English teaching methods. Dr. Spanke delivered the following keynote speech on November 8th during the Be a Teacher Day event in Indianapolis.
So, let’s do this.
If you would, go ahead and stand up—PAUSE FOR GRUMBLES—Now, everyone is here today for their own particular reason. Some of us have been dreaming about being a teacher our whole lives. Others are just now starting to consider it. Others haven’t even begun. But regardless of your particular story, I want you all to think of one reason why Teaching is something you’re now considering. One reason why you maybe wanna do this. One reason that explains why you’re here. Think about it…. think about it…
Now, if the reason you want to be a teacher…if the reason you’re considering being a teacher…if the reason someone suggested that you would make a good teacher is because, as a teacher, you’ll be rich, go ahead and sit down.
(No one sat.)
Now, if the reason you want to be a teacher…if the reason you’re considering being a teacher…if the reason someone suggested that you would make a good teacher is because, as a teacher, you’ll have the easiest job in the world….never stress…never struggle…never take work home, never worry, never fear, never lose sleep, never really work hard at all, go ahead and sit down.
(No one sat.)
Now, if the reason you want to be a teacher…if the reason you’re considering being a teacher…if the reason someone suggested that you would make a good teacher is because, as a teacher in America, you’ll be a part of the most respected profession in this country—more so than doctors, lawyers, engineers, athletes, scientists…the top of the social capital mountain—go ahead and sit down.
(No one sat.)
Now, if anyone in your life has ever tried to convince you not to be a teacher….if anyone has ever made you feel small, or silly, or cold, or childish, or wrong, stupid, dumb, silent, invisible—if you’ve ever had a bad teacher or had an experience that made you think twice about this crazy profession, go ahead and sit down.
(Everyone sat. The room went silent.)
[Cut to later in the speech]
I’ve been involved with schools, in one form or another, for almost thirty years. And every time I’m introduced to a group of strangers, I’m transported back to my first day of kindergarten when my teacher, Mrs. Stover, introduced me in front of all my new classmates, butchered my name, and everyone laughed. For anyone who’s ever been made fun of because of their name, or has a name that often gets butchered, you know what I’m talking about. That day in kindergarten was the first day I remember when people laughed at me for something so integral to my identity and personal place in the world. It’s my name. It can’t be funny…it just is… I just am. Right?
And of course, this makes sense. Before that day, the only people I ever really hung around were my family, who all had the same name as me, or my friends who knew me and didn’t care what my name was. So, hearing all of those strangers laugh was definitely a new experience for me. But it was also new because it was the first time in my life when I realized that people could take something as natural and essential as a person’s name and use it against them.
Do you all remember when that happened? When you first realized that the deepest, most intimate and personal aspects of our lives could not only be accessed but also totally shredded by a stranger’s snicker? Or worse?
Babies don’t really have this problem; I’d like to think that most babies don’t really recognize difference in others—they don’t care—as long as you don’t take my ball or steal my juice, we’re good…But something happens as we get older…for a lot of us, it happens once we start school….when we start to realize that not only are we all different but that these differences can be used as weapons and as ways and reasons to hurt other people. For some of us, it’s skin color. For others, it’s what bathroom we use. Or where we pray. Or who we play with. Or how we cry or eat or laugh. Or what we wear. Or how we see, hear, talk, smell, or sound.
For me, it started with my name.
As I grew older, it became other things. My clothes. My hair. Back when I had hair. The toys I played with, the fact that I was nice and wore a coat at recess and cared that my glasses were dirty.
Kids are ruthless. They’ll sink their teeth into anything they can as long as it keeps them safe and keeps you down. And my parents always told me the same thing; they’d say just ignore the bully…which never meant any sense to me because you can’t ignore the bully because the bully doesn’t ignore you. And you can’t stand up to the bully either because in my case, the bully is always bigger than me, and the bully always wins…
As a kid, all I wanted was for the bully to go away! So on that first day in Kindergarten, when my world was changing and crashing and suffocating me, I went home and asked my dad for help. And I wanted the same thing that every kid wants when they’re scared and cold and nervous; I wanted the problem to go away, for my dad to fix things. To make my world better and easier and simpler.
And I was ready.
I sat down, told him about my day and the kids who laughed and the tears I denied but how I cried anyway…and I’ll never forget what he said next.
He said, “Jeff. Your name is Spanke. It’s a silly name. And people are going to make fun of it. For the rest of your life. And it’s going to hurt.”
And in that moment, I started to feel really sad. And pissed. And vulnerable…and really fragile…as if there was this hole inside of me that everyone could see and rip and spread apart like the gate in Stranger Things.
But at the same time, something about the way my dad told me this—after all, he was once a little kid named Spanke, too—made me feel strangely valuable. And powerful. Purposed, as if I had some secret that no one else could see or touch or have. That I could predict the future and protect myself against things that I couldn’t control but could now figure out how to navigate.
And thirty years later, if you were to ask me why I want to be a teacher, my answer will change from day to day. But I can honestly say that on that day, way back in Kindergarten, I learned the value of a real education. Because if we can learn to be vulnerable and powerful at the same time, that’s when we move mountains. And yeah, I know that it doesn’t make a lot of sense that someone can be fragile and strong at the same time, but I think that’s an appropriate metaphor because teaching, frankly, doesn’t make a lot of sense. At least not in ways that carry a lot of social currency…
We live in a country that has, what I would argue, an unhealthy obsession with simplicity and certainty. We love things to be easy and clean and shiny, and we love to think we know stuff. We cherish resting under the convenient delusion that we understand things, especially when we have no possible way of understanding those things…
We do not like things to be hard or boring or messy, and we really don’t like to be confused and uncomfortable. And if something’s hard and confusing and uncomfortable, in this country, we do not like it. And if we don’t like it, we don’t trust it. And if we don’t trust it, we can never respect it or really even accept it.
Well, here’s the thing; teaching is incredibly hard. And it’s incredibly complicated. And as a result, this country does not understand…or respect teachers.
Now I know what you’re thinking; But we have teacher appreciation week!! That’s true, we do. And we have cool commercials that, like, thank teachers and stuff! And sometimes at Pacers games, we clap for teachers and give them gift-cards to Penn Station!!! And every year on Jeopardy, we have a teacher tournament of champions… Yeah…We do…
But here’s a dark truth about the world…Every time we take a group of people and remove them from the Whole for no real reason other than to separate them— regardless of what happens to them in this separation, the reality is that we never really considered them part of the Whole in the first place…They were never equals. They were always somehow other…
Interestingly, we also have a kids tournament of champions on Jeopardy every year, right? We have Young Adult Literature in bookstores—and it even has its own section!!! …which is good and fine and cool and neat and important, right? …It’s just not real literature…I mean…it has its own section…
So as 1) high school students who 2) want to be teachers, I say this with love, you all are double-cursed. Cuz society does not understand teenagers…and we really don’t understand teenagers who want to be teachers…And you will have to explain and defend your decision to people who will never understand…for the rest of your life…and it’s gonna hurt…
But make no mistake. And I’ll defend this for the rest of my life…Teaching is the most important job in the world.
Always has been and always will be. Every doctor who ever cured a disease learned medicine. Every engineer whoever built a bridge learned about bridges. Every poet learned to read, every athlete had a coach, every artist was taught the beauty of crafting meaning from the absurdities of our world. And most of this probably didn’t happen in a classroom…but most of the learning we do’s got nothing to do with schools….and the most influential teachers in our lives, for better or worse, rarely have a license.
But the only reason these great people did great things—these doctors and scientists and athletes and artists—is because somewhere along the line, they learned that greatness is not simple, and the real beauty is in the lack of certainty. It’s the gap between comfort and closure. The borderlands. Limbo.
Great people see the tensions embedded in incompletion and uncertainty as potential and possibility. And power. And profundity. Never a weakness. And never over.
My Ball State students say all the time that the best teachers aren’t the ones with all the answers; they’re the ones that ask the best questions. Real education starts in the spirit of inquiry and wonder. It’s the difference between the caveman who hears the rustling in the bushes and just ignores it and the caveman who hears the rustling and chooses to investigate…The first caveman lives a pretty simple, certain life; but he doesn’t live very long. The second caveman may be a little more anxious…a little weird, a little less cool…maybe even a little lonely and different, but he knows how to survive because he has the courage to read the world…
Nobody in my family really understands what I do. They know I’m an English professor, but they have no idea what that means. There’s a difference between knowing something and understanding it. They all just think it has to do with grammar or something… Maybe Shakespeare. Probably Shakespeare.
But so what! Their knowledge of my life is somewhat incomplete. I know this. And our world may be incomplete. It may be fragile. It may be vulnerable. But all that means is that we have the power to do good in it!
Who’s ever heard the phrase, “be the change you want to see in the world?” And yes, as teachers, we strive for and get to, quite literally, be that change… But to me, the most important word of that phrase isn’t ‘change’, it’s ‘in’ because it means that we are always part of the world around us.
There’s two things I know about the world; we can never really escape the world—we can try…and we might even convince ourselves that we’ve succeeded, but it’s always just a lie—and the world doesn’t really need us…the world doesn’t really even like us. In fact, the world spends a lot of time trying to remind us of how big and strong and powerful it is.
The world can be a bully too.
And we can’t just ignore it.
If a tornado is coming toward your house, we can’t just wish it away, pretend it’s not there, or somehow “overcome” it, right? We can’t always stand up to it either…The tornado is bigger than our attempts to prevent it…it doesn’t care about us and yes, it will always win….the world, in some sense, will always win…just like the world always laughs at my name…but I can’t get burned out…A lot of teachers quit because they realize that they can’t really change the world in the way that they want…So if we can’t change the world, we have to change our relationship with the world. And that starts with connections. And relationships and growth and discovery…It starts with changing our perspective and realizing that, yeah, maybe we, as singular people, can’t cure all of the cancers…but maybe we, as singular people, can make things better for cancer patients. Maybe I can’t fix poverty. But I can serve the poor. Maybe I can’t fix education—though I’m trying—but I can teach kids.
And we’ve all experienced this for ourselves, right? Those fleeting but almost miraculous moments of Awe that come from someone Seeing us and recognizing whatever macaroni crafts we’re offering the world.
Every one of us has had someone look at us and say, hey, that thing you’re doing…do it again…that question you asked in class…it was good…that tattoo on your arm, it’s awesome! Who did it? What does it mean? How do you know? Tell me another story… This is where education begins…and this is the joy of being a teacher, because we get to be there throughout the whole process… But it can go the other way, too. We’ve all had negative experiences, too, right? Hey, that thing you just did…Stop….that question you asked in class…it was inappropriate; you should know better…. that tattoo on your arm, cover it up. We don’t need to see that. We don’t need to see you.
Teachers can be bullies, too…Which is exactly why we need good ones.
We don’t become teachers because we have all the facts or because we need praise. We don’t become teachers because we love living comfortably or because we crave power or money or unrelenting respect…The real value of a real education isn’t about certainty and closure and capital. And it’s not about making our lives easier so we don’t have to worry about fear or laziness or anxiety and discomfort.
Education—like, for reelz, hands dirty, change the world, mold the minds, help the children Education— is about having the courage to stand toe-to-toe with whatever bully is standing in our way—whether it’s a river, a tumor, a tyrant, a policy, or poverty, apathy, hunger, or hate—and saying, I am still here. And I am still breathing. Please move.
I am who I am. You are you, we are we, this is me, so call me by my name.
One of my favorite writers once wrote “All great deeds and all great thoughts have a ridiculous beginning.” For some of you, that beginning might literally be right now. Today. In this moment and space.
No, sorry, teaching doesn’t really make a lot of sense…for many, it’s ridiculous. And thus, worthless.
But as teachers, we get to make sense of it. And we can’t be afraid to be ridiculous. We have to find the value in being vulnerable and the strength in the fragility of our precious charge and composition. Cuz I think the world could use a little more greatness. And misunderstandings that lead to wonder. Every kid deserves that. My kid deserves that. And so do you.
Now go do the good well.
Let’s do this.