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In Caring There is Hope: A Response to “I Don’t Like Teaching”

posted: 6.17.13 by Susan Naomi Bernstein

Making the rounds on Facebook recently was, “I Don’t Like Teaching. There, I Said It,” a blog post from the Chronicle of Higher Education, written by a pseudonymous college professor who admits that he/she does not like to teach.  Most succinctly, the writer states: “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.”

At first I felt puzzled by the oppositions of “liking” and “caring,” which seemed sharply disconnected from the passion that many of us experience as teachers of Basic Writing. But then I reconsidered.  My experiences with schooling, both frustrated by endless constraints and inspired by new experiences of learning, did not initially provoke a desire to teach.  My mother had returned to college for a teaching certificate in the early 1970s, and I would avoid my own homework by reading her textbooks, with titles as intriguing as “Crisis in the Classroom,” about the failure of public education, and “Summerhill,” about the open school movement. I dreamed of attending an open school where I could study what I liked instead of the algebra that tied me up in knots in junior high with its endless proofs and formulas.

Fortunately, I had an algebra teacher who read my poetry and encouraged my writing, and who did manage to teach me enough to pass sixth grade algebra, though I retained very little of it after the year was over. And the older I grew, the more I heard: “You are not living up to your potential. You need to try harder.” I swallowed my rage, or rather, sublimated it by biting my lips. At twelve years old and at twenty-two, teaching was certainly the last profession I would have considered for a career.

And yet—I loved learning. I especially loved learning with others in a non-competitive environment. I loved that learning could open up unknown worlds: Louisa May Alcott’s Concord, Massachusetts. Maya Angelou’s Stamps, Arkansas. Antoine de Sainte Exupery’s North African Sahara Desert. Their worlds helped me envision that a life outside the monochromatic suburbs of the Midwest was both possible and desirable. My childhood ambition, sown in these imaginative works, had been quite simple: I would have interesting adventures and then I would write about my adventures.

Teaching as a career choice would not appear on the radar screen until much later. Yet teaching did not supersede my desire to write. Instead, the subject matter of writing would transform. Rather than writing poetry about sunsets on the Pacific coast, I would write about sea changes in learning that I observed in the classrooms.  I would write about possibilities for learning when we discarded labels like “remedial” or “at risk” or “underachiever” or “learning disabled.” Indeed, the more we could challenge ourselves to dispose of the labels, the greater the potential for learning became. When we remained stuck in those labels, we faced the same constraints that had stymied schooling for so many of us.

Our students accrue debt as they sit in our classes or behind their screens. Perhaps, not unlike us, they have become disembodied from their educational labors. Yet, they have absorbed the message that education is important for finding a job, even as the jobs that await them may offer only part-time work at less-than-sustainable wages.  We can hold these constraints against our students and ourselves and wallow in our misery. We can bite our lips until blood becomes visible through the thin skin. Or we can find a place to begin again, no matter where we are and no matter what we are doing. As one of my students wrote: “In caring there is hope.  When you care about other people you give them hope and with hope comes happiness in the middle of your miserable futile hard work.” This student was writing in response to “The Myth of Sisyphus,” but these words echo the sentiments of  “I Don’t Like Teaching.”

Even as our teaching alone seems insubstantial and our wages prove insufficient for our labors, we offer hope for our students—and for ourselves. Yet the hope I speak of does not exist in the passive voice. Instead, hope becomes an active verb, a motion we must create ourselves to break through the inertia. With such hope, we begin each journey with an extra layer of courage against the deeply imperfect conditions of our classrooms and the instabilities of everyday life. Although our classrooms may not resemble Summerhill, the crises in education addressed forty years ago have only exacerbated. Those crises must be engaged, whether or not we love teaching. With courage and with concern, we take on the inevitable challenge of moving forward, whether through lightning speed, or by imperceptible inch, toward the work of the future.

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