Reason, Purpose & Triumph

Part of the Why I Teach essay series.

I never wanted to be a teacher. I hated teachers. Growing up, I told myself I would be a movie star, a famous writer and a media mogul in the tradition of Ted Turner. Teaching was the furthest from my mind, and being a teacher was worse to me than almost any other job. I could not understand why or how people became teachers, and would never, ever, submit myself to that type of torture and disrespect.

I grew up in a family of teachers: my mother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins and godmother were all teachers. My discontent with teachers started in the home. During the holidays I would dread sitting with the family, because it always turned into an oral pop quiz. I would be bombarded with math equations that I should be able to solve without pencil and paper, calculator or fingers. I would have to spell “grade-level-appropriate” vocabulary, which often became an exercise in confusion. This fueled my feelings about teachers. Needless to say, I could not wait to return and take it out on the unsuspecting teachers at school on Monday.

Lincoln Duane Johnson in front of his whiteboard
Photography by Ron Newkirk

The turning point was when I entered college and had to take general education classes my freshman and sophomore years. I began to notice the difference between the great teachers and the ones who were indifferent to my abilities as a student. I began to notice my own strengths and attribute them to the teachers who nurtured and augmented them. I also noticed my weaknesses, and realized that many of these attitudes were also learned in school. I saw a definite connection between the teachers who loved the work — loved their careers, loved their subject matter and loved their students — and my own learning in the classes they taught.

Something clicked in me. Upon graduation, I felt an urge to become a teacher. It was a difficult decision that took me a few months and some urging by my educator mother to fully realize. At 22 years old, I still had dreams of making it big as an award-winning actor and winning the Pulitzer Prize as an author. After months of motivation from my mother — whose career has taken her from teacher’s aide to associate superintendent — I decided to drive an hour from my home and take the test. I aced it.

My first day of teaching, I had very high ideals and very little training and experience. That first school year was the hardest of my life. I struggled with classroom management, lesson planning and relating to the other teachers. I felt defeated, and I left the profession to pursue a master’s degree and career in publishing in New York City.

During the two years I lived and worked in New York, I was haunted by my failure as a teacher. I thought of classroom management techniques and new ways to engage students. I thought about how I was so harsh and unfeeling with my past teachers without knowing what they were really going through. These were constant concerns of mine, until one day my wife advised that if I was going to obsess about it, I should return to teaching.

That was all I needed. I immediately returned to Los Angeles, and to the teaching profession. This time it was very different. I was able to manage my class, and I was teaching with a fervor and success that made me forget the trials and tribulations of my first year. It was my calling. On the heels of this success, I remembered what my own education was like and decided I needed to work with children in high-risk areas and low-performing schools. They are why I teach.

Throughout all these years in the classroom, I have sought out and assisted students in the worst socio-economic situations. I enjoy them and never tire of them. There is never a dull moment. They motivate me to be the best teacher for them, in spite of their protestations and refusals to allow me into their lives and minds. It is a constant struggle to reach them, but when I do, I feel strong, proud, successful, vital and needed. In my past, I was chasing dollar signs and notoriety without meaning. My students have given me reason, purpose and triumph that no money could buy.

I teach for students who have no fathers or male role models. I teach for children who know neither who they are nor what they want to be. I teach for students who have gaps in their skills and abilities that need filling. I teach for students who feel they are failures and have had teachers who have not only told them that, but have acted as such with them. I teach for the parents who think teachers do not care. I teach because it is my penance for the treatment of my teachers.

I teach because I can, and because I want to, and because I am needed. This is why I teach.

Lincoln Johnson is a special education mathematics instructor at Locke Launch to College Academy in South Los Angeles.

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