Why Do We Teach?

“Certainly he’s got go,” said Gudrun. “In fact I’ve never seen a man that showed signs of so much. The unfortunate thing is, where does his go go to, what becomes of it?”

(From Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence)

To coincide with the Olympic Games in Rio I watched again the film Chariots of Fire. One major theme of the film relates to why top athletes run.

The film tells the stories of two British runners who participated in the 1924 Olympic games in Paris. One, Eric Liddell, runs for God; the other, Harold M. Abrahams runs for acceptance.

“I believe God made me for a purpose. And when I run, I feel his pleasure” states Liddell. Elsewhere he asks “So where does the power come from to see the race to the end?” His answer, “From within.”

In contrast, Abrahams states “I’m forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what it is I’m chasing.” When contemplating the hundred metres Olympics final he says “I’ll raise my eyes and look down that corridor: four feet wide with ten lonely seconds to justify my whole existence. But will I?”

Liddell’s religious beliefs give meaning to his sporting efforts; Abrahams takes a professional approach, employs a coach and rejects the “archaic values of the prep school playground.” He states his belief “in the pursuit of excellence” and claims that he’ll “carry the future” with him.

These two runners remind us of questions we need to answer about the purpose of our teaching.
• Why do we teach?
• What do we want students to learn?
These questions require more than standard responses such as  “to develop lifelong learners” or “to promote literacy and numeracy.” The questions bring us to the heart of why we teach what we teach and touch on what we see as our purpose or meaning in life.

The answers to the questions inform how and why we teach the subjects we teach. And they help us answer children’s questions like “what happens someone after they die?” or “why do people do bad things?”

Although a teacher may have personal answers to such questions, sharing the answers needs to be considered in light of the ethos of the school in which we teach and in light of the values espoused by the education system in which we work.

In the history of public schooling never before has reaching a consensus among stakeholders about the purpose of education been so difficult.

But at least if I know what gives my teaching purpose, it’s a start.

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