Teaching that squeezes you dry

Christian_Krohg_-_Tired_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg
“Tired” – Christian Krohg (1885)

Teaching fills me with joy. Teaching drains me. Teaching excites me like a child hopped up on candy. Teaching squeezes me dry to the point of being psychologically parched and mentally worn out.

Today, on day one of the Fall semester after the summer, this truth hits me harder than ever. Maybe this is more intense now, as my health has taken a few sharp turns lately.

I find myself scrambling in panic, seeking a cocoon of stillness after the over-being of teaching.

I’ve written about how teaching is life-giving to me as a teacher. I’ve mentioned how I am similar to a vampire, feeding on my students’ enthusiasm and energy. But that nothing about this life-giving connection is mechanical:

I kept thinking, I should cut this discussion short and pop in the video. But I knew, too, that the students were thinking, thinking hard and eagerly, creatively, on the topic (relativism and neutrality). Students aren’t a mechanical puzzle: you don’t put in all in the ingredients, do your job, and walk out. Teaching is more organic than that – and more unpredictable. I teach three sections of the same course, and often I tell myself I will reduce my workload by doing the same prep and the same tricks for each section. But I can’t. It doesn’t work that way. Each group is different. Each group responds to a different kind of magic. There is nothing uniform about it.

Why am I a vampire? “We harvest energy from our students because teaching – good teaching – drains enormous quantities of energy.”

Augustine_and_donatists.jpgWhen I am in the classroom, and those hopeful eyes are turned to me, I give of myself without question, effortlessly. It is a moment when my energies are poured into the process of learning. Not to be too bombastic, but that moment of intense giving reminds me of Calphurnia’s dream in Julius Caesar where Caesar’s statue ran blood “like a fountain with an hundred spouts” while Romans smiled and “did bathe their hands in it.” (Maybe that is plenty bombastic). Students have often told me they find me intensely energetic, that I fully wake them up with my teaching; I talk, I laugh, I joke, I connect dots, I walk, I interact with individuals, I pour my excitement about the topic into my classroom, and, without bragging, I can claim that I am, usually, a fiery ball of energy.

Once I am finished, I find myself utterly drained. Teaching drains me like an adrenaline high. I’m worn out. Today, as the schools have not yet opened, my daughter is with me, and requires answers to many questions. She has sat in the back of the classroom, and now she looks to me to continue my pattern of pouring my energies out all day long. But I am finished. My mind is now dull and parched. I have nothing left for now. Until Wednesday’s class.

I have among my friends those who imagine that teaching is a mechanical task, similar to entering data into a word-processor. They don’t understand why there are breaks for academics, why there is a summer break, why teachers can’t keep going day after day, class after class.

Teaching, done well, is much more, and far, far more demanding than what these people imagine. There is absolutely nothing mechanical or straightforward about teaching. People who don’t get that are the kind that try to standardize teaching and learning. People who don’t get the powerful connection that happens in teaching are the ones who imagine teachers as assembly-line workers conveying bits of information on a conveyor belt. These are the kind of people who are poison to the magic of learning. They bring their capitalist alienation and detachment to the classroom, and kill everything in sight.

Teaching is life-giving. Teaching is a killer. Teaching fills with joy and cleans you out.

Teaching is the beast that reaches deep into your mind, your heart, and your soul, and takes absolutely everything.

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