Before my wife and I were full-time academics, we were in business; she ran a computer-training company, and I was a freelance writer and photographer. Whenever one of our academic friends complained about the hardships of teaching, we would look at each other and smile knowingly. How could teaching — a few hours of classroom time followed by endless months of vacation — compare with the challenges of the corporate world?
Boy, were we wrong! Anyone considering teaching as a profession — whether full- or part-time — should think long and hard about its rigors in addition to its rewards. I was reflecting on this recently as we prepared to begin the academic year at the University of South Carolina. Here, then, are five reasons why teaching is not for everyone (but may be right for you).
1. You need to believe in the mission of education. Although it may seem a simplistic question, what do you believe is the function of education in our society? Is it simply to impart knowledge, or is it to create citizens capable of making the choices necessary to create a better world? Does everyone deserve the opportunity to learn — is it a right or a privilege? Should education be viewed as a product, a package of information and ideas delivered to a customer, i.e., the student? Or is education a process, a way to help students develop the ability to think critically about important issues and problems? Many nonacademic professionals who teach speak of “giving back” something to their profession, helping to train a new generation. Whatever the reason, it will be hard to devote the time and energy required to become a good teacher (and one who is involved with the intellectual and day-to-day life of your institution) unless you understand and believe in the importance and significance of what you are doing.
2. You need to appreciate the value that teachers create. If you think of information as raw material, teachers add value by shaping and molding the information into a form that has the best chance of engendering learning in the student. After all, we are awash in a sea of information — that’s not what is in short supply, especially for our students. They have myriad ways of accessing information — some of it reliable, some of it not. Good teachers do so much more than just present information; it’s not just a matter of covering all the topics on the syllabus. In one formulation used by the University of South Carolina, learning involves the student’s ability to remember, understand, apply, analyze, evaluate, and create. That’s a far cry from a student merely looking something up on Wikipedia — and that’s the value teachers bring to the table.
3. You need to be able to set goals and evaluate outcomes. What do you expect your students to learn during the semester? Is this consistent with what other instructors teaching the same course expect? How will you determine if, in fact, learning has occurred? If you are teaching visual communications, as I do, this may involve both objective and subjective measures. In other words, you can use written tests to determine whether students have understood and remembered important concepts. You can use skill-based tests to see if students are able to apply those concepts to practical situations — for example, adjusting levels in Photoshop. And finally, you can use the critique process to analyze and evaluate the results of their creative efforts. This means giving a lot of feedback, some of it in the form of grades. Although students may seem excessively focused on grades, you need to realize that grades are not the same as learning outcomes — they merely reflect how well (or how poorly) each student fared in a particular course during a particular semester.
4. You need to put your personal life aside while in the classroom. Teaching is a performance, and the students are your audience. Every time you step into the classroom, you are on stage. And like in the theater, the show must go on. Having problems at home? Forget about them — at least for the next hour or so. Running late and feeling unprepared? Step on the gas and think of some provocative questions to stimulate discussion. Technology woes? Make backups of your backups, and hope that one of your students will be able to get the LCD projector working if the IT person isn’t around. Look at it this way: Your students are probably taking more courses than you are teaching, plus many of them may also work part- or full-time. They live in a swirl of activity, with parents, friends, and sometimes spouses and children. Yet we expect them to show up for each class session, on time, prepared, and ready to get to work. They deserve no less from you. In short, you need to command their attention with an interactive performance.
5. You need to become a lifelong learner. As the great pitcher Satchel Paige said, “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” The only way to become an effective teacher is to stay at least one step ahead of your students. Scott Farrand, one of my colleagues at the University of South Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, spent nearly a month of his summer restructuring one of our introductory courses in the Visual Communications sequence, shifting all the assignments from QuarkXPress to InDesign. I spent a week of 10- and 12-hour days at the Maine Media Workshops learning about the challenges and rewards of teaching video. Poke your head into any professor’s office. Chances are — if she’s not meeting with a student, preparing an assignment, grading student work, or updating her syllabus for next semester — she’ll be reading a scholarly or professional journal, looking something up on the Internet, or trying to grab a bite to eat before rushing off to her next class.
So, is teaching right for you? I’ve tried not to be discouraging, but instead to dispel some of the same illusions I had before entering the profession. Make no mistake: teaching is hard, demanding, sometimes stressful work. But whether you believe in the right to an education, in giving back to your profession, in finding innovative ways to stimulate learning, and/or in personal growth, teaching may be right for you.