Friday, February 22, 2013

Something for me, something for you

There have been a series of really good posts recently about the teaching profession. None of the posts really got at the pressures that I'm feeling, though, so I wanted to take a stab at telling my story.

Freshman year, I was enrolled in Philosophy 8, and I got a B- on my first paper. I was a bit taken aback, since that was not the feedback I was expecting on the paper.*

* The words "See me in my office" are scrawled across the top of the page. Cautiously, I knock on the professor's door in Emerson Hall. She tells me to come in. "Sit down, Michael, please." She explains how my paper has changed her views on Descrates' skeptical argument in his First Meditation. "Have you considered a career in philosophy?" she says. "Really, you must. The field needs you, Michael."

I really wanted to do better on the next paper. I was taking a walk between buildings, and trying to run through Descartes' argument for the existence of the external world. My mind was fuzzy and distracted, but I pushed the noise away and I was able to see the argument in my mind.

By pushing away the distraction I got myself into a sort of locked-in focus. The moment was one of clarity. I held the argument in my mind for the rest of the day, and wrote the paper, which ended up getting great feedback.

I come back to that moment often because it was so satisfying. There was a challenge, a breakthrough, followed by a well-earned clarity. As a student I tried to push myself toward those sort of moments. There are a handful more times that I had those sort of breakthroughs*, usually as the result of long walks where I tried to train my thinking on one particular problem for an extended period of time.

* By the way, by "breakthrough" I just mean that I understood something that I was supposed to, for a class or a paper. I don't mean that I made lasting contributions to anything except my own understanding of some subject.

That rush is all about feeling a challenge and just plowing right into it, and pushing past it. It's one of the most satisfying feelings that I know.

Dan and Patrick went back and forth last week about whether teaching remains a challenge for good teachers. My metric for how the "challenge" afforded by an activity is the frequency with which it can create those breakthrough moments for me. And by that measure, teaching is just doing OK, not great. Yeah, it's challenging, but not in the ways that create those moments.

I don't know why this is. Part of it is that I usually don't have time to dwell on an idea for long enough to really tackle it. Because of the quick turnover time of units and lessons, I often find that my best ideas come quickly and accidentally, instead of through deliberation and purpose. I struggle to construct my schedule in a way that gives me more time to work on long-term problems or projects, but (so far) that itself has been frustrating. And those breakthrough moments, when they do happen, are irrelevant to many of the partners in my students education.*

* "So why not get yourself in grad school or something? The teaching profession isn't about making sure you get your highs in life." True. Nobody needs to bend the profession to meet my needs.

But there is a sort of deep satisfaction that I get out of my job that has nothing to do with intellectual breakthroughs. I really love teaching because of students. I love that good teaching requires me to make myself invisible. I love how teaching requires patience and a deep concern with the ideas of others. I love how it's all about helping people get excited about things. I love how it's about community. And I find all of these things completely satisfying.

So, in short: the pressure I feel is that I like teaching because I think that it's a fundamentally good activity, but that there's something that I get out of it also. Every once in a while this work gives me those breakthrough moments, when I'm able to plan a unit that I'm really proud of, or design a lesson that nobody else has ever thought of. I'm able to design a classroom that works. At these moments, teaching is the perfect job. It allows me to help others, while indulging my addiction to flow.

But, overall? Teaching requires a great deal of professional selflessness, and offers me a lower rate of selfish intellectual indulgences than I experienced as a student. That's the pressure that I feel.

I apologize -- at the end of this post, I'm starting to think that it needs a few more minutes in the cooker. (Which I can't afford, because of grading, lessons, units, see above.) But I think the takeaway is that since teaching requires a certain degree of selflessness from me, I need an extra bit of selfish satisfaction from it. If I had a job in finance, I'd be well-paid and have plenty of time to pursue my own intellectual interests and challenges. If I had a job as a doctor, I'd have good job security, a great deal of respect from peers, and time and energy for the myriad things that could give me some sort of selfish satisfaction.

But I work nights and weekends, am earning 5 figures for you know FOREVER and my friends, parents and students constantly ask me what I'm doing teaching when I could be doing X. So I need a little bit more from teaching than it's giving me right now.*

* But, like I said, it's no one's job to give me a dream job. Hence all the hand-wringing about how to get better, and the interest in Cal Newport, etc.

2 comments:

  1. "So, in short: the pressure I feel is that I like teaching because I think that it's a fundamentally good activity, but that there's something that I get out of it also. Every once in a while this work gives me those breakthrough moments, when I'm able to plan a unit that I'm really proud of, or design a lesson that nobody else has ever thought of. I'm able to design a classroom that works. At these moments, teaching is the perfect job. It allows me to help others, while indulging my addiction to flow.

    But, overall? Teaching requires a great deal of professional selflessness, and offers me a lower rate of selfish intellectual indulgences than I experienced as a student. That's the pressure that I feel."

    +1 to all of that.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Totally agree with this post (so far: I'm only in my 3rd year of teaching, too). But that's why I'm excited to have opportunities at our school such as "SAC Week" (aka Jan term, mini-term, in other schools) where we teachers get to teach 2 alternative classes for 2 hours a day each in place of our typical course load, and students get to experience academic classes outside of what they usually would. One class I'll be teaching is Philosophy.

    However, that's one week out of a whole year. I agree that the "selfish intellectual indulgences" are few and far between, especially when compared to undergrad or grad school. (Especially those I found in my Philosophy classes.) We'll have to see if we have more opportunities for that as we continue to progress in this profession in future years.

    ReplyDelete