education philosopher

Teaching In the Blood

Posted in Teaching by KevinCK on July 14, 2009

Recently, I was talking to my new neighbor who is a PhD student in one of the hard sciences (microbiology or some classroomsuch). We were talking about what our career aspirations were, and he asked whether I wanted to be on the teaching or research side of academia. Without giving it a thought, I said “teaching,” and was actually quite alarmed at how quickly I said it.

Those who know me, or have read much of my blog, know that recently I burned out of public school teaching (right on qeueapparently, because there is alleged to be such a thing as the two year teacherBut even after that, I cannot shake my desire to teach (and would notwant to). When I read teacher biographies I still get the semi-jealous feeling when I read of being in the classroom. Long and short, there is a part of me, it seems, that has teaching in the blood.

Not literally, though. None of my relatives have ever been schoolteachers of professors. So , if it is not “in my genes” what is it that makes me like to teach so?

Some might say that there is a perfectly egoistic explanation to why teachers teach. One viewpoint says that teachers like the feeling of power and authority that they get from teaching. There is a little truth to this, as one of the things I love most about teaching is the ability to be theatrical and a showman in front of students and the feeling I get when their attention is captured. So, yes, there is a small thrill to being the “center of attention.”

But anyone whose been a teacher knows that loving to be the center of attention can lead to as much headache for teachers as joy. In fact, some might say that thsoedesirous of being the center of attention should otbe teachers because teachers so rarely are the center of attention in the classroom. We fight for attention, duking it out with joke-tellers, chatter of last night’s party, the ADD student that can’t stop interrupting, and…general boredom. Yes, there are times where we get to be the center of attention but I do think that any teacher who teachers for these moments is miserable the rest of the time. Long and short: we do not teach because we like being the focus of the room.

There is another possible egoistic definition; those who teach, it is said, like the feeling that they were the ones who taught students a particular thing. Much like the theory that some people give to charity becuase they like being the ones who helped the cause, some suspect that teachers teach because we like to be the people who made a difference in our kids’ lives.

This is quite a bogus explanation. Of course, there is a very small part of me that gets jealous when a teacher is able to get through to a kid when I wasn’t – what did I do wrong?. But in the end, I really don’t care if a student got the concept from me or another, as long as they got it. There is really no egotism about it. (And besides, the chance that many or most students will remember me – one teacher among many – is fairly slim.)

So why do I like to teach? First, the most basic explanation: I am good at it and it is natural for me. Just like anyone else, I like doing things I am good at, and don’t like doing what I’m bad at. Without intent to brag, I’ve always felt like a natural explainer. In elementary school, I often got in trouble for talking when in reality I was helping a student figure out how to do the task at hand. In high school, I liked to go to the board (in English and History classes; not math). In grad school, I remember vividly a pre-class discussion where I was attempting to explain our weekly reading of Kant to some other confused students. Teaching is simply a role I am comfortable in and many have told me I am good at it. (In order to be good at something, of course, it helps to feel ;natural doing it.

The second reason I like teaching is an altruistic one: I really like the feeling one gets when a student gets what they did not get before. The more difficult the concept, the better the feeling is when a student begins to understand it. I have, many times, caught myself tearing up when I was able to help an on-the-verge-of-giving-up student to grasp a concept. They make a certain subtle face, their eyes widen a bit, there is a bit of silence, and then their heads begin to nod: “Yeah, okay: I think I understand now.”

And I think that my joy at this shows because several students told me that what made me a favorite was my obvious joy in seeing them progress. This, of course, is a  constant source of joy whenever I reflect on it. It is the biggest reason why I teach.

Lastly, I really enjoy the creativity of teaching. By creativity, I do not always mean in an “innovative” sense where one constantly is able to think of a way never thought of before to make a lesson into a game, social activity, etc. (That is the type of creativity most teachers tend to focus on.) By creativity in teaching, I mean the challenge of coming up with better and better ways to explain and reinforce a lesson. Sometimes that means making a game or interesting activity out of a lesson, and sometimes it means simply figuring out a simpler way to explain a complex concept. (A fond memory of creativity was when I figured out how to explain the biological concept of “half life” using a folded piece of paper. That was a great, but simple, thrill.)

So these are the reasons I don’t think Icould ever leave teaching behind. I like learning, yes. But I love teaching to others. I enjoy watching them acquire knowledge, or be able to appreciate a perspective, they’ve never gotten before. And I enjoy figuring out creative ways to deliver that knowledge. Of course, I do like the performance aspect of teaching, but that is purely tertiary – a perk.

For those teachers out there, I hope you understand what I am saying. For those who are not teachers, I hope I’ve given a glimpse at why “once a teacher, always a teacher.”


3 Responses

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  1. Mandy Jansen said, on July 27, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Hello. I saw this link in your email signature, so I followed it here. I wanted to share that having a job as a professor of education with a significant research workload doesn’t mean that you are giving up teaching at all. We all have teaching in our workloads, too. Even when courses get “bought out” from grants to focus even more time on research, you don’t give up teaching completely — you buy out some classes, but not all of them. So, I wouldn’t say that this question — research side or teaching side — is an either or thing. The question is not whether you have a research job or teaching job, as faculty jobs are usually a blend of the two, but how much emphasis on teaching and how much emphasis on research.

    I like hearing about your passion for teaching!

    – Mandy

  2. KevinCK said, on July 27, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    Dr. Jansen (I’ll have to get used to the whole “first name” thing for one of my professors),

    Thanks for the comment. I hope you have enjoyed wandering through my blog. Yes, I do love teaching, and the only reason I think I burned out was the school I was in, rather than the craft I was doing. (An upper-middle class school that underachieved in every area largely owing to student and parent apathy.)

    I certainly understand that a professor’s job involves teaching as well as research, which is one reason why I think I’ll be happy there one day (especially teaching students that may actually WANT to learn.) My goal – you’ll find this out in our proseminar class – is to teach at a liberal arts school, where I do a bit more teaching than research. I was quiite jealous of my profs at the Univerity of Richmond for their more close involvement with the students than profs at larger universitiies. Delaware is a good sized university for getting a good balance between teaching and research, too.

  3. Mandy Jansen said, on July 27, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    Hi, Kevin. Yes, I have enjoyed the opportunity to learn a bit about your thinking through your blog. Thanks for sharing the link.

    I taught middle school for three years, and I felt similarly to you in that I still loved teaching even though I stopped doing it. So, I related to what you wrote here.

    I personally didn’t know about the degree to which I wanted to incorporate research into my job until I had the chance to conduct research back in graduate school. So, I didn’t know how much I enjoyed it until I tried it. Maybe you already have engaged in research, so you have the experience to help you make this kind of decision, but I hadn’t had much research experience prior to grad school. I did a bit of research as an undergraduate, but it wasn’t until I was engaged in a research group for an extended period of time that I had the joys of getting surprised by data. In no way am I trying to discourage you from your goal, as having a job at a liberal arts school is an excellent goal. I just surprised myself in graduate school and my goals for myself changed as a result of experiences in graduate school. I don’t know whether or not you’ll have a similar experience, though.

    I agree with you that if you enjoy both teaching and scholarship, then a faculty job is the ideal type of job to pursue, because most faculty jobs encourage you to be excellent at both areas. I also agree with you that UD has allowed me to have a good balance between opportunities to work closely with students and to pursue my research — sometimes these opportunities align, such as when I’ve worked closely with doctoral students who are my research assistants and advisees.

    Best wishes,

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