I have a confession: I really don’t like teaching. Each September, when I hear that eager teacher say she can’t wait to get back in the classroom, I look at her with a little bit of suspicion. Even when my class conversations are on point and I am at the top of my pedagogical game, at the end of the day I trudge back to my car, throw my backpack on top of a crumbling hill of paper coffee cups, drop into the driver’s seat, and deflate.
As a high school English teacher, I feel a little ashamed about how teaching batters me. Maybe it’s because I haven’t figured out how to manage the daily grind of keeping 14- to 18-year-olds on task for hour-and-a-half blocks. Why do I sometimes dread the moment my students enter my classroom? Why does my stomach clench up on Sunday night? Why don’t students energize me as they do the eager teacher?
Seven years ago, I started teaching after a career as a newspaper reporter. Before that, I was a college student and a carpenter. My past jobs yielded a different type of weariness, but one satisfied by an end product. A carpenter has tiled bathrooms. A student receives grades. A reporter has the front-page story. A teacher has summer; everything else relies on faith.
Each lesson I teach is a tiny link in a lifelong chain of learning for students. It’s difficult to know what role, if any, my link plays. I have to trust I am “making” something—perhaps a difference—but that difference is hard to see.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, each day a small nation of 3.1 million U.S. public school teachers stands in front of a large nation of about 50.1 million students. We tinker with chemicals, create mathematical equations, make music, and analyze the nuances of language. We do this so each child has an equal shot at learning.
It’s no small task, and many teachers quit. According to a 2014 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education, nearly half a million U.S. teachers change schools or leave the profession each year. They do so because of a lack of administrative support, isolated working conditions, poor student discipline, and low salaries.
But what about the teachers who work in supportive environments with caring colleagues and administrators? I am one of those teachers, but I still feel burned out. Why?
I may not like my brain turning into a papier-mâché pulp after teaching, but I feel satisfied when I teach well.
Maybe it’s because teaching isn’t fun—and that’s OK. In his book Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman, a former president of the American Psychological Association and a pioneer in the field of positive psychology, says that many Americans conflate pleasure with gratification, a confusion that limits our definition—as well as our experience—of happiness. He gives an example: A mountain climber scaling a cliff may not like her cramped muscles, but she feels a satisfaction that transcends liking. I may not like my brain turning into a papier-mâché pulp after teaching, but I feel satisfied when I teach well.
So, the next time a student says, “I hate school,” I’ll agree. I hate school the way the writer hates working on a complicated plot for three hours, or the way the athlete hates getting up at 4 a.m. to run 10 miles. But when my students and I struggle through a long essay and find the perfect words to express ourselves, we feel accomplished in a way that is greater than painless joys. We feel gratified in a way that transcends “like” and “hate.”
“Great speech, Mr. O,” I can hear that student say. “But you didn’t say anything about why we go to school or why you teach.”
I imagine the entire class leaning in as I stare back and wish a greater purpose would fly through the window. I would tell my students that when we learn about the world, we grow. We better understand our lives and the lives of others. As we get a better sense of how things work, the world becomes a little less cloudy. We learn to become better people.
When I was in high school, my life was chaotic. My history teacher, Mr. Karpluk, would call my house in the morning to wake me up for school. When I arrived, he would walk me to the sports fields to ask how I was. He cared for me at a time when few people did. So I have another purpose: I want to be Mr. Karpluk for my students. I want them to feel like they matter, and I want them to remember that feeling.
At the end of the day, I still feel like a used piñata, but my students can’t fix that. I can’t expect them to inspire me. Isn’t it my job to inspire them? I try to do so 180 days a year, and it exhausts me.
Although this may sound too simple, taking a walk is the best antidote. When a stack of papers sits on my desk, I walk out of my classroom and clear my thoughts of writing assignments and literary passages. I explore the parts of the school I rarely see: the music rooms where students sing, the woodshop where the smell of cut wood fills the hallway, the cacophonous cafeteria. I feel uplifted seeing my students in the world outside my classroom. I return energized and ready to teach—whether I like it or not.
A version of this article appeared in the March 30, 2016 edition of Education Week as Why Good Teachers Don’t Have to ‘Like’ Teaching