I know, it’s not the time of year when most of us wildly love teaching, but I’m thinking across the long trajectory of my career. I remember that first day in class when I spent a lot of time on my outfit and the content and none on my nearly empty teaching toolbox. Little did I know that I would spend much of my career filling my own box, trying to do that for others and in the process developing a lifelong love of teaching.
I love its complexity. When I first started writing about teaching, I didn’t have a wealth of knowledge on the topic. I was preparing a newsletter at Penn State because my boss directed me to do so. By the third issue, I was out of content; I’d written everything I knew about teaching. It was a librarian who introduced me to pedagogical literature—journals, a spate of them that covered college-level pedagogy. I was surprised they existed and by what they contained. In those days the journals frequently published reports of teachers’ experiences—not all of them robust, but some of them amazingly insightful, pragmatic, analytical, and inspiring. And here I am 35 years later, still reading about teaching, captivated by new ideas, alternative approaches, challenges to old thinking, and ways forward to new understandings.
Many faculty continue to question the intellectual robustness of teaching. I can understand a preference for research, but to consider it inherently superior, more worthy of intellectual prowess, that makes no sense to me. What happens in the classroom and online is dynamic. It unfolds, regularly does not go as planned, and inevitably requires on-the-spot adjustments. While teaching content, a teacher must observe and analyze student response, and then use those assessments to decide what comes next and how to get there. Good teaching expresses personhood, a balanced integration of personal identity and professional responsibility, nonverbally communicated by how the teacher handles content and responds to students. And those who prefer research think that’s simple?
I love that teaching can always be done better. Some teachers do have lots of areas with potential for improvement, but I never observed one who didn’t start with something to build on. Even teachers with many strengths can climb higher, reaching for those rarified heights where every student learns. Teaching has enough complexity to support continuous improvement. Always working toward better teaching gracefully moves us beyond who needs to improve and to a place where continued growth is possible for (I wish I could write expected of) all teachers.
I hate it when improvement rests on premises of remediation and deficiency. “I need to get my ratings up.” So be it, but when that’s the driving motivation, students get cheated, and so does the teacher. Students get teaching that’s been quick-fixed, infused with techniques, bells, and whistles that dress up learning events. Does that teaching promote more learning? Maybe, but better learning should be the primary driver of efforts to improve. And higher ratings don’t cause teachers to live in love with teaching for the rest of their careers. Improvement ought to be about finding the path to better, more wholesome, more authentic ways of teaching and being.
I love how teaching feeds the soul. A few years back I was checking out at Costco when the clerk said, “You don’t recognize me, but I took Speech Comm 100 with you.” I didn’t recognize her. “When was that?” “Oh, probably about 10 years ago. I remember lots of stuff from that class,” which she proceeded to reel off as she passed my stuff over the scanner. She had indeed taken my class. When I got home, I found her in my grade book. Despite a C+, she was still carrying around stuff from the course. It was one of those encounters that raised the usual questions about grades, but I still felt good. Not many jobs let you knock on mental doors and offer gifts that make understanding possible, questions answerable, and lives richer—to say nothing of people who can quote things you said 10 years previously.
We teach for the students. We teach for the future, hoping to make it better—as tenuous as that proposition feels these days. Now as I sort through a lifetime and take measure of what’s made a difference and been worthwhile, time spent in the classroom emerges near the top of my list. I’ve been there for others, but teaching has nourished me, kept me feeling full and satisfied with my place at the table. As long as I can get classes at 8 a.m. and a room with moveable desks, I’d sign up for another full teaching load in a heartbeat.