When people ask me who I am, the short answer is “a teacher”, even though I do a bunch of other stuff.This is why.
I didn’t know I wanted to be a college teacher until about 3rd year of my major at University of Havana.Even then, the thought came slowly, something like “yeah teaching could nice, but if I have to do something completely different, I may as well enjoy that”. By the end of 5th year (it was a 5 years major back then) I was sure there was nothing else that could fill me up. I’ve been in front of classroom for 9 years straight, at least twice a week one semester a year, ever since my first time. And I’ve loved every minute of it.
Students are the same everywhere. They have hopes, dreams and a lot of misconceptions. They come thinking they want to be something (an engineer, a computer scientist, a journalist, a lawyer, …), because they think that choice will lead them to do something (solve problems, work at a large company, travel the world, …). So they focus in that search: what is the something they want to do, hence, the something they want to be?
My main task is to try and convince them otherwise. The search is not about a something. It’s about a someone. You need to come to college to discover who you want to be, not what you want to be. And if this sounds a bit philosophical (or plain crap), then I’m (un)apologetically sorry. Engineer, computer scientist, lawyer, all of those are just labels that somehow try to average over the set of things that people who label themselves that way like to do. Don’t get me wrong, labels are important. They help us organize and understand the world. But if there is one occasion when you don’t want a simple label to smooth away all the tiny details, is when choosing (or searching) what you want to do for life, or even better, who you want to be for life.
So when people ask me “are you an engineer, a scientist or a philosopher?” I answer yes. I’m mostly a scientist, because I do more research than the average engineer; but I’m also an engineer, because I solve more problems than the average philosopher; and, I’m also a philosopher, because I like to think more about the implications of my decisions than the average scientist. I’m also a lot of other things, if you ask. It’s not that I’m somehow “better” than any of these individual labels, it’s simply that I choose to be my own personal brew of these “things”, taking from each what I like and dumping what I don’t. To a simple question (what are you?) I can only give a simple answer (yes). If you want the details, you’ll have to ask a deeper question: who are you?
My first day in class every year, I like to throw a simple question at my students: who do you want to be? Most of them answer with a combination of whats. I want to be this or I want to do that. Over the course of the year, some of them actually start to discover they want to be someone, not just something. They start dumping the labels and start answering to this question not with things (I want to be a programmer) but with choices (I want to solve this specific problem, I want to cure this disease, I want to create this gadget). Those choices become the who they strive for. Eventually, even if unconsciously, most reach this state. A tiny fraction of them will consciously acknowledge it. And an even smaller fraction, maybe one or two a year, sometimes none, will actually come one day and say to me something like “thank you for helping me find my who”, even if not with those exact words.
And that’s it. That small moment when I realize someone found its own best version, and I had a tiny bit of influence. That’s my payment. That’s why I love teaching.