My interest in teaching as a career derives from two complementary sources. First, I think that education is objectively valuable vis-a-vis the political and ethical project of democracy. On the level of society, this means that being an effective teacher constitutes a social contribution in a way that, say, advertising or finance banking does not. In terms of economic function, I construe education to be productive rather than predatory. On the level of individual persons, teaching at its best assists students in making informed decisions, fulfilling their potential as human beings, acting autonomously, and generally being smart, decent, and free. These two levels at which education is objectively valuable are consistent with the basic Enlightenment political and ethical project (i.e. freedom, justice, self-determination, consent, etc.) to which I ideologically subscribe. I believe in teaching.
Second, I have observed that in my personal experience, I have consistently been fulfilled by my experiences in a classroom, whether as a teacher or as a student. As an undergraduate at TESC, I came to embrace the college’s philosophy of collaborative, self-directed learning. This philosophy is most apparent in TESC’s emphasis on the seminar as the main arena of education: an open, informed discussion of complex issues between peers. The political benefits of this model to citizenship in a democracy are obvious. What’s more, seminars deliver the intellectual camaraderie which is essential to development as a thinker. As Thoreau wrote, “Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which [the student] gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made.” Seminars deliver precisely that kind of association. For me, the community modeled by TESC programs in general and seminars in particular is not just the best way to learn, but among the best ways to live. Intellectual development–the pursuit of truth, if you will–among admirable peers in a community based upon our deepest values: this is what teaching, at its best, creates.
After graduating from TESC, I volunteered in Peace Corps Philippines, where I worked as an educator in health and the humanities. As an HIV educator, I planned and conducted presentations to a wide variety of audiences, which ranged in size from half a dozen to hundreds of students and which included police, teachers, nursing students, sex workers, villagers, and other PC volunteers. This was done in collaboration with Filipino counterparts and other PC volunteers. I also contacted local colleges and collaborated with administrators and teachers to teach or co-teach classes in philosophy, ESL, and literature. Working in a formal classroom, I was surprised by the contrast between my host-schools’ pedagogy and my experience as a student at TESC. The former emphasized obedience and rote memorization rather than critical engagement. I found this to be both an obstacle and an opportunity: as a teacher, I constantly looked for ways to engage my students as autonomous thinkers, and encouraged them to take a critical attitude toward their own education. For example, I used gaps in my own knowledge as an invitation for students to teach me: “I don’t know; what do you think?” For me, my experience as a teacher in the Philippines exemplifies the basic challenge of teaching: how can one work within existing institutions to create a community of critical, autonomous learners? And because of this experience, I can say with some confidence that I am both able and eager to accept this challenge.
After returning to Washington from Peace Corps, I began working as a writing and humanities tutor at Seattle Central Community College. This has proven to be a singularly fulfilling experience: working one-on-one with students on improving their writing or understanding their assignments gives me an opportunity to intellectually engage with students. This is exactly the kind of engagement I was initiated to at TESC, and which I tried to engender in Peace Corps. When I’m with a student, we’re learning together. My role is not to to copy-edit or to tell her what the “right” answer is. Rather, in the tradition of Socrates, I endeavor to act as ‘midwife to the student’s own ideas.’ I help her to draw out the substance of a thought or question, to follow its implications, and to structure this process of inquiry. Rather than an expert or authority, I am an assistant and co-learner. And I do learn: not only from the content of the students’ assignments and the work we do together, but also from exposure to the various backgrounds of my students. When I tutor, I benefit as a learner, as a teacher, and as a neighbor.
It is my hope that the three instances of education I have discussed–as a student at TESC, as a teacher in Peace Corps, and as a community college tutor–have rendered obvious the causes and reasons for my decision to become a career teacher. Throughout my time as a student and a teacher (two roles which, in my view, ought to be similar rather than opposed), I have found the experience of learning together to be among the most satisfying and worthwhile activities available to human beings. This is the more selfish motivation I have for becoming a teacher proper: I want to continue this sort of activity, and I want to share it with others. I’m applying specifically to TESC’s MiT program because the college’s values and practices so closely coincide with my own.
In closing, I’d like to expand on the discussion of the political and ethical value of education with which I began this essay. It’s no secret that our society–as a nation and a species–faces serious challenges. Fifty years ago people were freaked out by the possibility of nuclear war; today, we’re too preoccupied by the probability of environmental collapse to be much concerned about such a quaint worry. Our national government resembles nothing so much as an angry traffic jam. Instability, bolstered by escalating injustice, pervades the economy, while discussion of the same is rooted in mythology and blame rather than science and solutions. Xenophobia thrives under the aegis of Security, while racism and sexism have acquired the invisibility of an economic (rather than legal, and thereby explicit) reality. In listing these issues, I don’t mean to be pessimistic. We might be able to surmount these problems. But they will not solve themselves. The only thing that can hope to address them is people who are committed to justice and basic human decency, and who have the intellectual and interpersonal skills to tackle macro-level problems. In short, we need citizens–not in the negative sense of persons with Constitutional protections and suffrage, but in the positive sense of neighbors who take responsibility for the fate of our community. This is a resource which can be provided only by education, and which is best provided by the fundamentally democratic model practiced at TESC.