Teaching In the Blood
Recently, I was talking to my new neighbor who is a PhD student in one of the hard sciences (microbiology or some such). 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.”