This year was my fourth serving as a mentor for the ACRL Instruction Section Mentoring Program. If you’ve never heard of the program, it’s a great way for newer instruction librarians to make connections with more experienced ones. Monthly prompts help to facilitate the conversation but the most valuable interactions I’ve had through the program have often been when we stray a little off topic.
One such valuable interaction this year came up when my mentee commented that they weren’t sure if they would ever feel excited about teaching. This made me stop to think about my own feelings when it comes to teaching.
The thing is, when it comes to teaching, I love to make plans. I enjoy the process that goes into taking a topic that I think is worth sharing with my students and planning a lesson that introduces them to that topic and then creating an activity where they get to react to and apply this new knowledge. This aspect of teaching really taps into my creative energy and I get excited about whatever approach I’ve dreamed up. This is probably why I change what I teach so often: to keep the party going.
But when it comes to the actual act of teaching, especially standing in front of a classroom full of students, the feeling I get is something other than excitement.
It used to be that I actively dreaded teaching. I would overplan and overpractice every detail and then be unable to sleep the night before because I was still convinced that I wasn’t prepared enough and that something would go wrong. By the time I got to the actual classroom, my stomach would be churning and my hands would be shaking.
The students noticed, too. At the end of one credit-bearing course I taught, one student evaluation read, “Stop being so nervous.”
These days, that feeling of dread is mostly absent and teaching just feels like another, everyday part of the job. I could probably deliver the entire 50-minute spiel I give in a one-shot session in my sleep. And when things go wrong, experience has taught me that I can pretty much handle it, thanks in part to an improv class I took that helped me learn how to think on my feet and use mistakes rather than fear them.
Still. While I don’t actively dread teaching anymore, I can’t say that I feel excited about it or particularly energized by it, even when it’s going reasonably well.
Considering that teaching is a big part of my job, this might seem like a problem.
That’s because there’s a tendency to believe that in order to be a good teacher, you have to love teaching. You have to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society or Sydney Poitier in To Sir, With Love, otherwise you’re inevitably Ben Stein from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the principal from The Breakfast Club.
Incidentally, I do find that I identify with that guy from The Breakfast Club a lot more now that I’m adult than I did when I first saw the movie as a kid. You know, minus the part where he shames a student and locks him the closet. But, really. The guy had to come into work on a Saturday just to deal with the shenanigans of a bunch of detention-bound students. I’m sure he had better things to do with his day, too.
The point is, when I’m teaching, if I feel excitement at all, it’s not so much for the act of teaching itself as it is for what I’m teaching. I can’t muster a lot of excitement about teaching databases because I find it personally boring to do so but if you ask me to teach students about the importance and inevitability of being wrong, the role of curiosity in research, or something else I have a lot of enthusiasm for, then that enthusiasm infuses the lesson and the presentation of the lesson.
And if students are responding well to that enthusiasm, then teaching starts to feel almost like a flow state. Flow states are basically magic. I live for flow states.
But getting to that state is a lot more rare than I’d like it to be. Partly this is because I’m obligated to teach about the boring stuff more often than I have the opportunity to teach about things I’m passionate about. Partly it’s because even when I’m not personally bored, students often are and it can be hard to maintain enthusiasm in the face of such intractable boredom. The balloon deflates pretty quickly. Unless you come to class pretending to be a world-famous magician.
I shared some of this thinking with my mentee. Surprisingly, they did not run away screaming. Hopefully this is because I was able to convey that excitement for teaching is not a requirement of the job and you shouldn’t feel guilty or put pressure on yourself to muster that excitement if you genuinely don’t feel it. Because you can still be a good teacher without it. And even the best teachers who do feel a lot of excitement about what they do probably have days where that excitement is hard to conjure.
Which is to say, if teaching was an absolute miserable slog for me and that dread I felt at first never went away, I might have been smart to take that as a sign that I should find a different specialization for myself. But even when there’s no magic flow state to my teaching, I feel like I do just fine.