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Beidler tells the world, “Why I Teach”

Pete Beidler

Sometime back in the mid-1980s, English professor and Chaucer expert Pete Beidler wrote an essay explaining why he continued to teach after being presented with other career opportunities. The essay, which was written for an academic journal and ultimately ran in Reader’s Digest, has since been translated into eight languages, was written up in TIME magazine, published by Andrews McMeel Books, and has become required reading for nearly 2,000 Chinese schools.

In fact, it is estimated that some two million Chinese students read the essay every year to underscore the pivotal role an inspiring teacher can play in the lives of students.

"I don't know about those numbers," Beidler says, "since accurate data are hard to come by. But it continues to amaze me that that essay that I tossed off on a weekend almost a quarter-century ago still interests people. The only thing I really know is that teaching has been exactly the right profession for me. I think it is less what I do for my students than what they do for me."

Most recently, Beidler’s essay was included in Jiaoliu magazine, a Chinese-language quarterly magazine about life in America that is published by the State Department for readers in mainland China.

“Each issue of our magazine is thematic, and for this issue, we were featuring the Fulbright Program, which is marking its 25th anniversary in China this year,” says Charlene Fu, the former AP foreign correspondent in Beijing who now edits the 80-page publication. “We were looking for works from former Fulbrighters and Professor Beidler’s piece was perfect.”

Using his gift to help those around him

Fu says that her publication showcases American values, and that Beidler’s piece is “a wonderful example of the importance of following your calling in life --doing what you love and what you are best at -- rather than what society or family expect, or going after the big bucks.”

Beidler’s career, Fu says, “is an example of how, when an individual knows what he's put on this earth for and uses that gift to help those around him, everybody wins. It's American individualism at its best, coupled with another great American instinct: giving back – to society, to those less fortunate, to those who just need a helping hand."

The progression from a cluster of opinions on his chosen profession to an educational classic began when Beidler, who serves as the Lucy G. Moses Distinguished Professor of English at Lehigh, was named Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education) in 1983.

“As the result of the award,” Beidler says, “the editors of the Alumni Magazine Consortium invited me to write a short essay for their magazine.”

The essay, which was published as “Why I Teach,” told of how Beidler preferred a lifetime of shaping young minds over a more lucrative or powerful role in university administration.

“I don’t teach because teaching comes naturally to me,” he wrote. “I was the quietest kid in class all through high school and college. The last thing I wanted to do for a career was stand in front of a group of people and jabber.”

It’s also a demanding profession.

“Teaching is the most difficult of the various ways I’ve attempted to earn my living: bulldozer mechanic, carpenter, temporary college administrator, or writer. For me,” writes Beidler, “teaching is a red-eye, sweaty-palm, sinking stomach profession.”

But teaching holds other allures: the chance to make a fresh start every semester, work autonomously, help talented young men and women carve out a career path, and to learn.

“I stay alive as a teacher only as long as I am learning,” he writes. “One of the major discoveries of my professional life is that I teach best not what I know, but what I want to learn.”

After the essay was originally published in the Consortium magazine, Beidler was awarded a Fulbright grant to teach at Sichuan University in the People’s Republic of China during the 1987-88 academic year. While there, he learned of the impact the essay had on several students who wrestled with career choices out of college.

“I hope my words have meaning for teachers at other levels and might help others decide what to do with their lives – especially in an era of disillusioned teachers and looming teacher shortages,” Beidler told Foreign Affairs, a magazine published by the Fulbright Foundation.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Tuesday, May 10, 2005

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