Larry Efird: A teacher is what I am

Published 6:55 pm Saturday, October 17, 2015

Have you ever gone through a time when you doubted whether or not you could go on being a teacher? It’s probably not a good idea to ask that in the middle of winter, or when semester grades are due. But the doubts do come, especially if you’re having a particularly challenging year, or if you read the latest news regarding education in our state or country. I’ve had days when I wanted to walk out of my room and never return, but deep down I knew teaching was in my blood, and I wouldn’t be happy doing anything else. New teachers need several years to settle into the reality of what teachers actually do, whereas the seasoned veterans wonder if their effectiveness (or nerves) can hold out until retirement!

When my oldest son was a senior in high school, he had to make a decision regarding whether or not he wanted to be on a swim team in college. He had won a state championship in high school, and the thought of continuing a sport he had grown to love for four more years was a major consideration. There was just one problem: he knew that college swimming would be much more demanding and that his commitment level would have to increase on a daily basis, year round. He also knew that to be successful, he would have to put swimming first, and studies second.

After a long period of agonizing over his decision, he announced to me that he had made up his mind. He said, “Dad, right now in my life, swimming is something I do for fun and because I like it a lot. But swimming in college will be more than something I do; it will be what I am.”

(Was this the same kid who had told me when he was in first grade that he liked school, but it seemed like a big waste of time?)

Surprised to hear the emerging sense of maturity in his thinking, I felt a great sense of relief. The funny thing is that the words of an 18-year-old helped me with some struggles I was having in my own life at the time.

I was experiencing some of those feelings teachers have when walking through the “Valley of the Shadow of School.” I knew I couldn’t afford to send three children to college during the next decade. We needed a new car. There were never ending doctor’s bills to pay. Almost every day I struggled to ignore my own personal problems so that I could focus on my students. I often wondered, “Is it really sensible for me to teach other people’s kids when I can’t adequately provide for my own? Is my job that important? Can’t someone else do this better than I can?”

While chaperoning a school trip to Boone, I had some free time to dig through the shelves of an antique bookshop on King Street. The treasure I found was well worth the $15 I sacrificed to pay. Hidden in the pages of an 1847 edition of The Highland Pastor, the following words were almost audible to me:

“But he is training a whole generation for this world and the world to come. He is impressing his own character … and …principles … upon those who will impress them on others… He is not living in vain, who does his duty in the sphere to which he is called. It may be an humble one; the world may know little or nothing of the man, or the place where he toils, but he is sowing seed for eternity, and it will bear its fruit.”

As I wiped away the goose bumps on my arms, I could also hear the words of my son, and I realized that being a teacher was not just something I did each day; it was who and what I was. I realized that I didn’t just teach for a living, but I lived to teach. It wasn’t my career; it was my calling. That was something from which I couldn’t walk away.

Larry Efird teaches at A.L. Brown High School in Kannapolis.