Why (oh why) teach?

The question of the hour, dear reader, is why teach? And as someone in the middle of grading a stack of papers while trying to finish their thesis, my first reaction is to say “good [expletive redacted] question!” But after a moment of cooler contemplation, I feel like I can offer up an answer of sufficient insight and, hopefully, readability.

I teach for selfish reasons.

I teach because of the overwhelming feeling of fulfillment that comes over me when I see a student do something they had not previously been able to do. This moment is what makes it all worth while, the moment when you can see irrefutable proof that you are actually doing something, and helping someone to do things of their own. It would be easy to frame this as an altruistic motivation, but I think that would be taking something away from the true feeling of the matter. While there is certainly an altruistic element to it, I like to think I would help others even if it didn’t make me feel good, one should not ignore the sheer magnitude of gratification that comes along with helping someone to reach an “Aha!” moment. Rather than frame the teacher as a saint, tempting as that may be, I instead posit the idea of benevolent self interest. If you can make a career out of helping people and feeling good about yourself, that can’t be too bad…

I teach because of my love for learning. I’m the kind of fellow who, when at a loose end, will go on a wikipedia binge and read everything I can find on the history of Norway as an independent country. Spoiler alert, they had to fight Denmark, like, a million times. I once spent the hours between midnight and two AM learning everything I could about the Blakiston’s Fish Owl (who walks from place to place so much that he trudges out a trail in the snow from his nest to the river where he hunts by jumping on fish) and, by way of geological association, the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. The point of all this is that one major fringe benefit of teaching freshman composition, is getting to study vicariously through my students, and learn about 30 weird new things with every new stack of papers.

I teach because it forces me to improve constantly. There is a point in the pursuit of any skill where you feel like you have achieved some fraction of mastery, like you really know what you’re doing. And then you try to teach someone. Suddenly they are asking you all the “why” questions for things that you do naturally, and you are forced to go back and think, why do I do it that way? Is there really a benefit or necessity in that? This can be a frightening moment, but it is also the moment where your mastery truly deepens, as you begin -out of necessity- to develop the rationale and theory behind your actions. You might know intrinsically to make a certain action in a certain situation, but teaching will force you to develop the understand of why that situation requires that specific action, and what it is about those elements that allows them to work together in such a profitable way. The old adage goes, “if you can’t do, teach” but I would reject that in favor of “If you’re not teaching, you’re not doing.” True mastery is not just the ability to perform, it is the ability to bring others up to your level, to have a deep and constantly evolving understanding of performance that you can pass on to future generations.

Finally, I teach because I’m not spiritual. You’d never get me to call myself an exi-staaaahn-tialist, but I feel the gnawing pressure of the void as much as the next 20th century French novelist. Teaching is a way of finding meaning and purpose in a world that can just as easily be empty and meaningless. I may not have a spiritual overlord to give my life purpose, but I can find some meaning in doing whatever small things I can to make the world a better place for those that will walk its surface when I am gone. I am not saying that being taught by me makes someone’s life better (although of course it must), but I do hope that I can have some small impact in developing a students sensitivity and awareness, perhaps effecting a sort of grass roots movement of change by doing so. That last sentence is incredibly pompous, but I do believe that the only way to change the world is to change the way people think about the world. You can occupy wall street until the cows come home, but until people decide of their own volition that some things are more important than net profits, there will be no change. Hopefully through providing a space and an opportunity to think, to develop awareness and sensitivity to the world, I can also provide a space to encourage a change in individual thought that might, eventually help move our society towards a change in values. And hey, it beats going to church.