The Key Difference (or so it appears): Do You Love Teaching?

Please, any of my students reading this, do not give me an apple. I have sufficient!

I wander around fair bit for work. (I make it sound more impressive than that but the truth is that I end up in lots of different places to work on my many projects and sometimes the movement, although purposeful, is more Brownian than not – due to life.) I’ve had a chance to talk to a lot of people who teach – some of whom are putting vast amounts of effort into it and some of whom aren’t.

The key difference, unsurprisingly, is generally the passion behind it. We see this in our students. They will spend days working on a Minecraft construction to simulate an Arithmetic and Logic Unit, but won’t always put in the two hours to write 20 lines of C++ code. They will write 20,000 words on their blog but can’t give you a 1,000 word summary.

We put effort into the things that we are interested in. Sure, if we’re really responsible and have self-regulation nailed, then we can do things that we’re not interested in, or actively dislike, but it’s never really going to have the same level of effort or commitment.

Passion (or the love of something) is crucial. Some days I have so much to say on the blog that I end up with 4-5 days stocked up in the queue. Some days I struggle to come up with the daily post or, as yesterday, I just run out of time to hit the 4am post cycle because I am doing other things that I am passionate about. Today, of course, the actual deadline timer is running and it seems to have made me think – now I’m passionate and now you’ll get something worth reading. If I’d stayed up until after my guests had left last night, written just anything to meet the deadline? It wouldn’t be anywhere near my best work.

Passion is crucial.

Which brings me to teaching. I know a lot of academics – some who are research/teaching/admin, some research only, some teaching/admin and… well, you get the picture. The majority are the ‘3-in-1’ academics and, in many regards, looking at their student evaluations and performance metrics will not tell you anything about them as a teacher that you can’t learn by sitting down with them and talking about their teaching. It is hard to shut me up about my courses and my students, the things I’m trying, the things I’m thinking of adopting, the other areas I’m looking at, the impact of what other Unis and people are doing, the impact of reports. I am a (junior) scholar in the discipline of learning and teaching and I really, really  love teaching. For me, putting effort into it is inevitable, to a great extent.

Then I talk to colleagues who really just want to do their research and be left alone. Everything else is a drag on their research. Administration will get the minimum effort, if it’s done. Teaching is something that you have to do and, if the students don’t get it, then it’s their fault. What is so weird about this is that these people are, in the vast majority, excellent scholars in their own discipline. They research and read heavily, they are aware of what every other researcher is doing in this area, they know if their work has a chance for publication or grants. Having these skills, they then divide the world into ‘places where I have to scholarly’ and ‘places where I can phone it in’. (Not all researchers are like this, I’m talking about the ones who consider anything other than research beneath them.)

What a shame! What a terrible missed opportunity for both these people who should be more aware of the issues of learning and teaching, and for the students who could be learning so much more from them? But when you actually talk to these academics, some of them just don’t liked teaching, they don’t see the point of putting effort into it or (in some cases) they just don’t know what to do and how to improve so they hunker down and try to let it all slide around them.

Part of this is the selective memory that we have of ourselves as students. I’m lucky – I was terrible. I was fortunate enough to be aware and mature enough as I reconstructed myself as a good student to see the transformative process in action. A lot of my peers are happy to apply rules to students that they wouldn’t (or don’t ) apply to themselves now or in the past, such as:

“I’m an academic who doesn’t like teaching, despite being told that it’s part of my job, so I’ll do the minimum required – or less on some occasions. You, however, are a student who doesn’t like the sub-standard learning experiences that my indifference brings you but I’m telling you to do it, so just do it or I’ll fail you.”

This isn’t just asymmetrical, this is bordering on the Stanford Prison Experiment, an arbitrary assignation of roles that leads to destructive power-derived behaviour. But, if course, if you don’t enjoy doing something then there are going to be issues.

Have we actually ever asked people these key questions as a general investigation? “Do you like teaching?” “What do you enjoy about teaching?” “What can we do to make you enjoy teaching more?” Would this muddy the water or clear the air? Would this earth our non-teaching teachers and fire them up?

Even where people run vanity courses (very small scale, research-focused courses design to cherry pick the good students) they are still often disappointed because, even where you can muster the passion to teach, if you don’t really understand how to teach or what you need to do to build a good learning experience, then you end up with these ‘good’ students in this ‘enjoyable’ course failing, complaining, dropping out and, in more analogous terms, kicking your puppy. You will now like teaching even less!

It’s blindingly obvious that some people don’t like teaching but, much as we wouldn’t stand out the front of a class and yell “PASS, IDIOTS!”, I’m looking for other good examples where we start to ask people why they don’t want to do it, what they’re worried about, why they don’t respect it and how we can get them more involved in the L&T community.

Let’s face it, when you love teaching, the worst day with the students is still a pretty good day. It would be nice to share this joy further.


3 Comments on “The Key Difference (or so it appears): Do You Love Teaching?”

  1. Liz Phillips says:

    Today is the last day of my summer break. Most of the educators I know are rather melancholy about the reality that today’s perfect sunshine, light breeze, and harmonious birdsong is a tribute to what some of us see as an even better day coming tomorrow.

    Tomorrow, I will meet my new students. I will be so excited, so full of energy–and so startling for those who don’t understand. I have been living all summer for this day. Why does the sun seem so bright, the breeze so comforting, the birdsong so uplifting? It’s the prelude to the school year. Maybe the best school year yet. And maybe the next time you visit SW Virginia, we can talk about our attitudes and passion for teaching. The way I see it, amplified by this post, is when a glass is half empty or half full, it’s my desire to get that glass filled to the brim so kids become passionate about learning.

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  2. Nick, this is an excellent post and it is reflected, as I think Liz is noting, throughout the educational system. Your more recent post on compliance in the system is part of the issue. I found, over the past few years, I needed to balance my passion with compassion to effectively serve my students and the importance of what I do. It is a hard journey, but the compassion part re-energizes.

    Ivon

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  3. […] The Key Difference (or so it appears): Do You Love Teaching? « Nick Falkner. Share this:EmailDiggRedditFacebookPrintStumbleUponTwitterLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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