On not liking teaching


Some hubbub has emerged over an opinion piece published over in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few days ago, entitled: “I don’t like teaching. There, I said it.”

You should go over, give it a read, and please let me know what you thought, before I let you know about what I think about it.

I’m not writing this response so that I can contribute my own $0.02. I’ve written this response because I hope to move the conversation beyond the myopia of the entire discussion involving the article, which only tracks the myopia of the piece’s author.

On one side, you have a predictable argument: “If she doesn’t like teaching maybe she should have a different profession.” On the other side, you have a predictable response, “If she’s teaching well, she doesn’t have to like it because that’s her own business.” Another predictable counter to the initial criticism is that teaching is only one part of the job of a professor.

The preceding statements are all correct, and they are not contradictory. And they’re all mostly pointless. Instead, we might want to look at the nature of our profession, and why this particular pseudonymous author doesn’t like teaching even though she’s chosen this line of work.

For starters, I don’t know many people that received their Ph.D. because they were interested in teaching and who were primarily interested in teaching at the university level. If this is one’s primary motivation in completing a dissertation, what are the odds that the dissertation will be completed, and what are the odds that the person will do a good job?

I have to admit that, if I were in a position in which I had doctoral students, I would be reluctant to take such a student into my lab because that student would lack the ganas that is required for success in grad school. You just don’t do research on something for five+ years unless you’re passionately into it, and that isn’t going to come from a desire to teach at the university level. If students go into grad school with love of teaching above all else, will these students ever publish their theses?

Being a professor may or may not someone’s greatest passion and a personal calling as a career. Regardless, being a professor is a job. You do something and you bring in a paycheck. In my view, it’s a friggin’ awesome job. No matter how you dress it up, though, it’s a job, even if you love it.

Most people don’t like their jobs. You wouldn’t judge your supermarket cashier, your plumber or your associate director of human resources based on whether or not they like their jobs. You care if your plumber replaces your fixture promptly, professionally, and at a good value. Your interactions would be more pleasant if he enjoyed his job, but that’s not your concern. Your plumber might not like being a plumber. For a bunch of people, this is what life is like, to a good extent, and our default mode is to not enjoy our moment-to-moment existence. (To be clear, the last plumber I interacted with was talented, friendly, pleasant and seemed to be enjoying life.)

Maybe my plumber was doing the same thing that the pseudonymous author of the Chronicle piece does. Maybe he doesn’t like plumbing deep down but he has to convince his clients that he likes it because that’s the only way he gets referrals and keeps his job. Heck, I’d be glad to offer a referral, and if he seemed like a gloomy gus then that might not be the case. I’m not sure. Smiles do matter. I would wager a small bet that my plumber, deep down, is happier than the author of the Chronicle. I doubt he’d write an article for a plumbing trade journal about not liking plumbing.

Would my plumber be a better plumber if he enjoyed his job? Over the years, I would think so. It’s hard to have pride in one’s job over the years if one doesn’t enjoy it. Why stay current with the latest plumbing technology? Why focus on quality control, and why not get a job done in the minimum amount of time and effort required as long as you can get away with it with the client? Yes, I do want a plumber that enjoys his job. Other than my empathetic concern for all other people, I don’t care if my plumber enjoys his job. However, I’m willing to bet that the happy plumber will be the more effective plumber in the long run.

The author of the Chronicle piece writes that if one likes teaching for the wrong reason (“because one loves the spotlight”), then this person might be a worse teacher than a person who doesn’t care about teaching at all. That’s a Ray-Bolger-scale strawman argument that I’ll choose to ignore.

The author implies that she’s a perfectly fine teacher, just as she is perfectly fine at cutting the grass, changing diapers and doing the laundry: “You don’t have to enjoy something to do it, and you don’t have to enjoy something to be good at it.”

In short, the author dismisses the notion that happiness leads to doing a good job. If you know how to go through the steps to do laundry or make risotto, then you don’t have to enjoy it to do it well, right? Isn’t teaching the same way, if you do what it takes to be effective in the classroom you don’t have to enjoy it to do it well, do you?

Is teaching so special? Do you have to enjoy teaching to do it well even though that’s not true of many other tasks?

I think that might be the case. A good performer that could fake enjoyment might be just as effective, perhaps. What evidence do I have? Oh, I don’t have any. I’m not even particularly concerned about being right, that’s just a hunch.

This question itself – is teaching different because excellence requires a passion – is the center of the banal discussion of this article that I’d like us all to get past.

This whole discussion has been based on a linear thinking about teaching. You enjoy teaching or you don’t, and as a result you are good at it, or you’re not, or there’s no relationship between enjoyment and effectiveness.

Instead of asking whether enjoyment of teaching is required to be an effective teacher, how about we ask:

Does effective teaching lead one to be happy?

It seems this is not true for the author of the article. She argues that when she’s an effective teacher she doesn’t enjoy it. This means that effective teaching doesn’t make her happy.

Now, that’s her real problem.

And, I suspect, it’s her students’ problem too.

Ignoring the parts of teaching that none of us like (grading, grade grubbers), do I like doing most of the other stuff? Not really. Do I derive deep enjoyment from crafting a particularly good lesson? No. Do I really like developing a new laboratory exercise that involves inquiry for students to learn a central important concept in my discipline? Not much.

I don’t need to hide behind a goddamn pseudonym to say that. You know why I don’t need to hide? Because I deeply enjoy teaching. I love it.

How can I love teaching if I don’t enjoy doing all of the parts of it?

I don’t love the process; I love the outcome.

My brain is adequately wired, and has enough experience, that I can be driven by delayed gratification. Among the list of great feelings are having taught a great class and a having taught a great course. Even better is when you’ve spent the whole semester teaching an academic scientific concept, and at the end, students tell you that you’ve made a difference in their lives.

You’re damn right that’s enjoyable.

If that’s not enjoyable, then I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you. If students aren’t telling you that you’ve made a difference, then you might want to reconsider what constitutes effective teaching.

So how are mowing your lawn, making risotto and picking up trash different from teaching? You do the first three for yourself. When you teach, you are not doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for others. That’s the difference.

Let’s look at the author’s risotto example more carefully. According to her, if you know how to follow the steps, then you can make a great risotto. (By the way, if you are making risotto with all of that stirring instead of using a pressure cooker, you’re nuts. Seven minutes under high pressure and the risotto is perfect without any stirring. Get yourself a pressure cooker pronto if you don’t have one, and let me know if you need any tips.)

So, she claims that that she can make a good risotto without enjoying the process if she follows the steps. That’s true, but who is eating this risotto? It’s my bet that she is. If she’s making this risotto and not tasting it, then she’s probably not going to be focusing on doing a great job.

If she’s making risotto for others, and she’s not eating it herself, would she still make good risotto? You bet she would, if she actually cared about the people for whom she was cooking. If it was her spouse and kids, she’d make it super-tasty, take the time to mince the garlic just right, and all that. If it was just some schmo who she was feeding in a soup kitchen, maybe she wouldn’t make as good of a risotto. She might be able to, but does she go through the effort? I doubt it.

I love making a great risotto, though I don’t do it often. I’ll spend much more time in the kitchen making the risotto just right because that makes it so much more enjoyable. Do I inherently enjoy peeling and mincing garlic? No? Do I like peeling, seeding, and cubing a butternut squash? Not particularly. Do I like making a special trip to the store that has the particularly good parmesean? Of course not. But I do it, because I really like the risotto. I don’t find the cooking process objectionable, and I love being able to make a wonderful meal.

If you were to ask anybody who knows me very well, they’d say that I enjoy cooking.

So, now let’s look at the teaching of our pseudonymous non-liker of teaching, which can only be evaluated based on what she says and chooses to not say. She implies that she’s a perfectly fine teacher even though she doesn’t enjoy teaching. She’s only teaching because it’s her job.

Even though she’s teaching just fine, she still doesn’t enjoy it. Effective teaching, even when done efficiently, takes plenty of time.  If she’s not enjoying the product, then how does she go through the motions to teach so well?  Let’s take a look at what she thinks goes into effective teaching:

Effective teaching is, after all, a set of behaviors. What students need from us are clear presentations, careful selections of course material, engaging discussions—in short, the right behaviors.

If she thinks that this list above comprises the top requirements for highly effective teaching, then no wonder she doesn’t enjoy teaching.

I’m willing to wager that if she were to cook some risotto for me, I would find it passable but not delicious.

What do I think is highly effective teaching? Here’s a starting point.

If you’re going to enjoy teaching, then what brings you the most enjoyment is successful teaching. If you think that a rote set of behaviors, disconnected to your own emotions, makes you an effective teacher over the course of your career, then you’ve squandered your time failing to change the lives of your students.

14 thoughts on “On not liking teaching

  1. There are plenty of factual and logical errors here, but foremost among them is this: “If you’re going to enjoy teaching, then what brings you the most enjoyment is successful teaching.” This is simply not true. I strongly suggest that you reread the “Ray Bolger” argument and take it seriously this time. Plenty of people teach because it makes them feel food irrespective of success. In fact, I’d like to know what you’d consider “success” and how you’d know when you have it, independent of how you are feeling and what nice things students say to you.

  2. Risotto in the pressure cooker? Very cool! I’ll have to try (though my pressure cooker tends to give everything a faint cinnamon taste, since I mostly use it to make applesauce).

    • If you make a butternut squash risotto (sautee onions and garlic in a bit of olive oil, put in 3 cups of stock, 1.5 cups of arborio, and one peeled, cubed uncooked butternut with a bit of thyme, then 7 min on high), then I bet the cinnamony flavor could go really well. Depending on the stock/rice/squash ratio, you might need a few min. extra cooking. Then use some Parmesan and/or balsamic vinegar, with salt and pepper to taste.

    • But really, there’s so much more than applesauce! Brown rice in just 10 min of pressure. Didn’t soak your beans? Unsoaked black beans totally done in less than 20min, pintos well done in under an hour. Brussels sprouts completely done in 6 min. Just bring broccoli up to pressure, and then quick release under the sink and it’s perfect. Brown lentils can be done in 10 min, and you can make it a stew by putting in potatoes and other chunky things in, too. Pearl barley takes 20 min under pressure, and if you put in some split peas and a few other things at the start, it makes a split pea soup, especially with good bay leaves. If you’re busy and get home late, then, man, a pressure cooker change change things big time. I’d say every other meal I cook involves a pressure cooker at some point, some having a couple going simultaneously.

  3. It sounds like you and the author of the article are saying similar things. If you define teaching as the process – making rubrics, lessons plans, giving lectures, grading – neither of you seem to like it. If you define the end result as “having given knowledge” or something, you say you love it, but she doesn’t mention it. Maybe she is missing the point, in that she doesn’t get any joy from teaching – maybe few do – but also doesn’t get any joy from feeling like she has educated someone. This could be because she’s focusing on the wrong thing, or her teaching is actually ineffective. I’ve heard from a few people that they started liking the teaching role only after they had a few success stories with their students. She makes the same point you do – that she doesn’t like cutting the grass but likes a nice lawn, and writers hate writing (but I’m sure they feel pride in the finished product). She sounds like she hasn’t broken through to the fulfilling part of teaching yet.

    Also – great blog, keep it up!
    – Grad student, T.A.

  4. My enjoyment of teaching has to do greatly with the audience. When I have a class composed of students who would rather be elsewhere or who are really passive, then I feel all my efforts to engage them are wasted and I don’t enjoy teaching at all. If I have a class with which I connect, where I see they are listening and learning, then it’s enjoyable.
    Last semester I bored myself and probably my class as this was the 6th or 7th time that I taught the course but I had no time to revamp it, and the class was unusually large and passive. I don’t think I have enjoyed any course less in my 10 years of teaching than that one. We’ll see how the evals come back, but they probably won’t be great, even though I am experienced, always have very high evals, and have received awards in the past.

    And it doesn’t help that I had to do all the grading as no money for TAs. (I am in STEM in a large public research university, so I have huge research obligations. I would say that teaching is decidedly not the first priority for people in my position.) I like teaching in general, but sometimes you’re just not feeling it.

    I always try to remember what the best teacher I ever had said to me as I was starting my TT position, “There are 20% of students who will do great no matter how poorly you teach, there are 20% who will do poorly no matter how well you teach, and then there is 60% where what they learn really depends on how well you teach. So teach to the 60%.” I try hard to remember these words as the 20% who do poorly no matter what tend to suck away too much of my will to live.

    • You can’t teach well if your students aren’t engaged. And if you have a bunch of students who can’t or won’t engage, even though you’re providing ample opportunity, then, yeah, you’ve got to focus on those for whom you can make a difference, leaving the door open as much as possible. That sounded more authoritative than it should be, but it’s just an opinion like everyone else’s.

  5. I have had a number of jobs where I have had lots of external recognition for a job well done, (including cooking for others) but really didn’t like the job. Contrary to the theories above, the end product wasn’t any better than if I had done it just for myself. But I was paid to do a job and I decided to try and excel at every job I had. Why I stayed at those jobs had little to do with the job itself but primarily external factors. Even jobs you don’t like have at least some redeeming values if you look for them.

    People may say teaching is different, but I don’t see it that way. Every job I’ve ever had involved teaching someone something, even if it wasn’t in the job description. Maybe the setting or motivations or structure was different for both parties, but it’s still teaching. Some people are good at it, some are not, that doesn’t mean they weren’t necessarily motivated. Luckily the things I suck at don’t affect the lives of people trying to learn from me. A couple caveats… I am not a classroom teacher but I do teach others outside of my job. In addition, I have a high internal motivation to improve what I am doing, even before “kaizen” became the pop work philosophy

    • Sorry for the double negative in the comment above… I should know better.

  6. There were some ideas that I glossed over about how/if teaching differs, and also I’ve had a couple days to mull this over after posting the piece and hearing from others. I danced around what “being a good teacher” is, and only referred to my earlier post, which is about the difficulty of measuring teaching excellence because the effective means are so variable, and the useful outcomes to be measured can only take place in the super-long term.

    If you think that teaching effectiveness is connected to how much others are inspired in a variety of ways (and that’s what I think, at least at this moment), then I think how much you like it does matter in a relatively unique way, because the desired outcome, in my view, includes an emotional response. This does go against conventional wisdom, I realize. Conventional widsom, however, might be oxymoronic.

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