In her book entitled Cultivating Teacher Renewal, Barbara Larrivee wrote that “teaching is emotional labor.”1 This is certainly true. And I would add that such emotional labor requires an attitude of service.
Because at its best, teaching of all kinds is a service profession over all else. But not everyone approaches the task from this perspective. For many, particularly in higher education, teaching is an obligation that takes away from their scholarship and research. And there are some good reasons for this, because the research and scholarly imperative are important too, and being a productive scholar does not necessarily involve the same skills that great teaching does. This is because teaching with a service orientation requires a tremendous amount of time and attention to each student combined with a kind of softness. I believe that great teaching requires Vulnerability, Humility, Courage, Passion, Calling, and a desire to build Community.
Vulnerability is probably one of the greatest challenges to teaching, year after year. We have to sometimes allow ourselves to be disliked, as we give tough assignments and push our students into uncomfortable mental spaces where the real learning takes place. Each student has a different path to building knowledge and skill, and a teacher must be willing to subordinate themselves to this reality and treat each student as an individual. Interestingly, this softness and vulnerability—which we must carefully maintain—is sometimes at odds with faculty politics and administrative distractions. When we rise to the bait, we risk losing our vulnerability in the classroom that is so important to creating community there, and the motivation to keep giving that vulnerability to our students.
Great teaching of any course requires humility—an essential modesty. A teacher who is drawing attention to himself is drawing it away from the students. This is very hard to maintain over the years, because a sustained subordination of ego is not natural for most humans. But, unless we are teaching math or science, what we teach is inexact, and we must be in service to others—our students—as we ask them to stretch and grow into uncomfortable spaces.
It also requires courage—it takes courage to teach in an open-ended way because in life, we rarely know what will happen all the time. In an anatomy course in medical school, when the professor is lecturing on the bones of a skeleton, this is a subject that is pretty much fixed. But many of our subjects are about balancing competing choices, and teaching that kind of critical thinking requires courage to stand behind inexact arguments and terminology.
You have to have passion for what you do in many areas of life, but particularly in teaching. Passion for the subject you teach can be infectious, and students often comment favorably on their teacher’s passion for the subject they teach, whatever the course.
The late novelist David Foster Wallace was a creative writing teacher for several years at three colleges. In The David Foster Wallace Reader, there is a collection of his syllabi for the courses he taught at those schools. His mother, also an English teacher, offers this wisdom about teaching—describing how her son David approached his teaching—in an introduction to his teaching materials:
Good teachers are those who so love their subjects that they try with all their might and main to help students to love them, too, forever.2
In teaching, there is often a sense of being called to the work, as most teachers have largely put aside ambition for wealth or public success, which is already a powerful measure of their passion for the work. If you ask them, they will often say they feel called to the work, and it becomes their vocation. The poet David Whyte, in his book Consolations, says this about the relationship between ambition and vocation:
Ambition, left to itself, like the identity of the average billionaire, always becomes tedious, its only object the creation of larger and larger empires of control; but a true vocation calls us out beyond ourselves; breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies, and enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place.3
In his seminal book, The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer stresses the importance of establishing a “community of truth” in every classroom to encourage and support deep learning. But most teaching goes against this principle. Instead, he writes:
[O]ur conventional pedagogy emerges from a principle that is hardly communal. It centers on a teacher who does little more than deliver conclusions to students. It assumes that the teacher has all the knowledge and the students have little or none, . . . that the teacher sets all the standards and the students must measure up. Teacher and students gather in the same room at the same time - not to experience community but simply to keep the teacher from having to say things more than once.4
As we prepare for our winter break in the school year, let us renew our commitment to service in our teaching lives, and make the experience for our students one of community rather than convenience.5
Letters of Recommendation
I have one more Newsletter recommendation - one that started just this week. Ruth Reichl has been a food writer for many years, and was the restaurant critic for The New York Times and the The Los Angeles Times, as well as editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine - among her many accomplishments. She is now writing a newsletter on food called:
Q of the Week
The Q of the Week this week is a Quote, from the American novelist Ernest Hemingway:
The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after.
BARBARA LARRIVEE, CULTIVATING TEACHER RENEWAL: GUARDING AGAINST STRESS AND BURNOUT 37 (2012).
THE DAVID FOSTER WALLACE READER 601 (Little, Brown & Co., 2014).
DAVID WHYTE, CONSOLATIONS: THE SOLACE, NOURISHMENT AND UNDERLYING MEANING OF EVERYDAY WORDS 14-15 (Many Rivers Press, 2015).
PALMER, THE COURAGE TO TEACH at 92.