By Sidney Perth
I will never forget the day. I was in my third year of graduate school and had reached a point where I was comfortable discussing things with a faculty mentor. Perhaps letting down my guard too easily, I told him that I was not so sure I liked teaching.
That was an understatement. My admission wasn't because of a bad episode. And it wasn't that I was experiencing my first taste of burnout (that would come later). Rather, my discomfort with teaching stemmed from the broad experience I was gaining in the classroom. My Midwestern state university required teaching assistants to lead four 50-minute tutorials each week for a large introductory course. I had four semesters of that behind me, and two small courses that I taught on my own during summers.
I had become aware of just how repetitive teaching can be, of how few students had much interest in the topics to which I wanted to devote my life, of how universities thwart learning in various ways, of how sometimes I was too tired to enjoy a class or was just not in the mood to teach, and of the many pedagogical failures and disappointments that I would face if I continued. The list of cons has multiplied since then.
The mentor to whom I spilled the beans had won teaching prizes and honors at college, university, and even national levels. His response? He didn't like teaching, either.
The effect of his remark was liberating. I had been captive to the claim that I would be good at teaching only if I liked it. Discovering that I didn't like it had led me to think that I was not fit for academic life, and that I should leave teaching to people who liked it.
The connection between enjoying teaching and being a good teacher admits of plenty of exceptions. We all know people who genuinely love teaching but are not good at it. In fact, enjoying teaching because one enjoys the spotlight might increase the likelihood that one is an ineffective teacher.
I'm certain some readers are thinking: But if you enjoy teaching for the right reasons, wouldn't you be more likely to be good at it? Perhaps that is right. But even so, another attitude works just as well: I don't enjoy cutting the grass, but I do a good job anyway because I care about how my yard looks. Plenty of things are like that: exercising, changing diapers, cooking risotto, doing the laundry, picking up trash. You don't have to enjoy something to do it, and you don't have to enjoy something to be good at it. Do all good writers like doing the writing? Do all of them enjoy it?
So if you don't like teaching, don't worry about it. You don't have to like it; you just have to care about it. For many faculty members, that's much easier. Reasons to care are numerous: democracy needs more educated and critical citizens; being educated correlates with higher levels of happiness; teaching affects your annual performance evaluations. The list goes on. I chose to write this essay under a pseudonym because the pressure to publicly pledge your love for teaching means that some administrators and colleagues at my institution, having read this, would recall only that I dislike teaching, not that I nonetheless make an effort to be good at it.
And all is not lost if you have crossed over the line to disliking teaching. It is still perfectly possible to do a good job, even an excellent job. In fact, it probably happens on your campus every semester. The trick is as simple as it is human: Hide your dislike. 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. One of those is hiding your dislike. Students don't learn by peering into your mind to see if you are enjoying teaching. Why would it matter to them if you feign it? It isn't a wedding.
Take grading papers, an activity to which many of use are deeply averse. Don't we often dislike grading because we care about whether our students are learning, and we think they have fallen short? If you were indifferent, you might not dislike grading papers so much.
The same points apply to other aspects of teaching. Several semesters ago, I found that I no longer enjoyed working with a particular undergraduate. He showed promise in the major early on but soon plateaued and no longer pushed himself to learn more. But I found plenty of reasons to continue to care: He was still learning, he clearly deserved to pass my course, and he deserved the degree. Shifting my attention to those things motivated me to continue doing a good job. And through it all, I hid my dislike.
Even if liking and enjoying teaching are neither necessary nor sufficient for being a good teacher, I found out some years ago that it is a mistake to not pause and reflect during those times that I actively dislike what I am doing in the classroom. Sometimes I have discovered that I have slid into ineffective teaching. Gripe sessions with colleagues hinder more than they help. I just have to take note, reflect, and shift my attention from whatever I am disliking about a particular course to what I care about it.
Too often we look at whether a colleague or a prospective colleague seems to like teaching, and then use that as a proxy for whether they are good teachers. We should look at whether they engage in the right behaviors. And for those of us who sometimes find ourselves not liking teaching, let's not feel guilty. There is nothing wrong with not liking what we do. There does not have to be anything debilitating about it, either.
Sidney Perth is the pseudonym of an associate professor in the humanities at a university in the Midwest.