August 21, 2013 14:12 Age: 4 yrs

Mr. McCurry, Why Are You Just a Teacher?

Category: News, Home, Doug McCurry
By: Doug McCurry

In today’s education debates, I have often heard public charter schools or the education reform movement in general labeled as “anti-teacher.” Nothing could be further from the truth at Achievement First. At the core of AF’s approach is a simple premise: great teachers are the most important factor driving student achievement. AF’s teachers participate in more than 20 professional development and data analysis days a year in addition to weekly individualized coaching and two hours of site-based PD every Friday afternoon. Moreover, our Teacher Career Pathway is a nationally recognized approach to growing, recognizing and retaining great teachers.

The article I wrote 18 years ago about the value of great teaching still resonates today:

“Mr. McCurry, Why Are You Just a Teacher?”
This article originally appeared in the Charlotte Observer on March 14, 1995

A few days ago, a student of mine asked me a question, which demonstrated that like many others, she does not respect the teaching profession.

"Mr. McCurry, I've been wondering," she sheepishly began, "you were a Morehead Scholar at Carolina, right?"

"Yes," I replied tentatively, wondering where she was going with this.

"Well, I don't mean this in a bad way, but why didn't you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman? Why are you a teacher?"


Implicit in her question is the idea that teaching is the plankton of the workplace ocean, inferior to more lucrative or seemingly powerful occupations. Sadly, this perception of teaching is pandemic in our society. No other occupation that requires such a high level of skill, intelligence and education has "just a" in the title, as in "he is just a teacher."

Many people congratulate Phi Beta Kappa students when they decide to pursue law, medicine, politics or business, but they often second-guess the decision of these blue-chip graduates to become teachers. Sixteen-year-olds normally understand why a high-profile lawyer might want to start her own business, but—as happened recently at my school—they question why a woman who has worked in the State Department and written a novel would want to apply for a position teaching English.

If the teaching profession is not respected, then why do we do it? Mr. McCurry, why are you a teacher?

One reason I teach is because I believe it is vital for our society to have standards—a common set of knowledge and skills that all must have to fully participate and contribute. A democratic society functions best with a literate, skilled citizenry that appreciates the struggles and problems of the past and has the knowledge, ability and creativity to tackle the challenges of the present.

To help my students reach this standard, I want, at the very least, to teach them basic subject-matter knowledge and skills. My English students should learn that writing is a laborious process of prewriting, writing, revising and editing and that a comma is needed before conjunctions joining two independent clauses. By the end of the year, they should also develop the vocabulary skills to know that imperturbable comedians are able to handle every situation with levity and aplomb even if people in the audience lack decorum and scream vituperative comments without compunction. My International Relations students should be able to discuss the Tet Offensive's effect on the nation's psyche, and my Economics classes should know why the miracle of compound interest makes dollar-cost-averaging in no-load, equity-oriented mutual funds an extremely lucrative long-term investment strategy.

Another reason I teach is because I believe we are in dire need of thinkers. The abilities to perceive bias, connect concepts and create new ideas bring us a clearer, deeper appreciation of the world's beauty and complexity. As Henry van Dyke said, "A strenuous life with its eyes shut is a kind of wild insanity."

Good teachers inspire students to fuel their natural curiosity and explore why the sky is blue, how the HIV virus systematically destroys the body's immune system, or why no woman has ever been elected president. To teach them to think critically, I challenge my students to analyze Steinbeck's ingenious indictment of bourgeois ideals or to dissect the well-intentioned white liberal's role in simultaneously helping and hindering black civil rights leaders.

Sharing knowledge and stimulating thinking are essential, but the main reason I teach is because I believe our selfish society needs more people who care about others. More important to good teachers than passionately teaching any fact or skill—more important than the Treaty of Verseilles, Hemingway's tone in “A Farewell to Arms" or the definition of pusillanimous— is teaching students how to be caring, compassionate citizens of the world.

Teachers set examples of care and compassion for their students. When teachers ask students how their semester is going, come to their games, scold them for being rude, congratulate them on getting into college, joke with them in the hall, tutor them after school, encourage them to volunteer at the homeless shelter, challenge them to take their school work more seriously or talk with them about a bad situation at home, we do so because we care.

Because teachers are a source of work and discipline, students sometimes forget that we do what we do because we care. Adults in other professions who might disparage or patronize teachers should also realize that we, unlike some others, did not choose our profession for money, prestige or power. We chose it for the reason that everyone should choose his or her occupation: It was where our greatest love met the world's greatest need. We chose teaching because we care.

In sharing knowledge, sparking thought and inspiring compassion, teachers do not really teach subjects—math, band, Latin or history—we teach students. As such, I do not really teach history and English. I teach David and Kara, Tukuli and Julianne, Richard and Will, Jujuan and Amy, Jenna and Page, Katie and Karen, Mary Ann and Marcus, Jennifer and Patrick.

Mr. McCurry, why are you a teacher? The answer is you. I did not decide to teach for my own edification, for the summers off or for access to the gyms. Like any good teacher, I chose this profession for you, the students.

Think about it.