Teaching Confessions

I hate teaching, and this year I’m celebrating a quarter century of not doing it. It’s time to come clean.

Women in my family (like women in so many families around the world) have made our living as teachers for three generations. That’s as long as women in my family have been making a living at anything outside the home. My grandmother, Margaret, taught primary school in Nebraska. Lucky for me, she married the superintendent of schools and left to have babies. All three of Margaret’s daughters became teachers. After her children went to school, my mom enjoyed a short, passionate career teaching PE in our rural high school. Her older sister taught English in a community college, and her younger sister taught sixth grade in a neighborhood school. Half of my female cousins are teachers.

Fulfilling a promise to a beloved teacher I became a social work professor. With my PhD starched and pressed I entered the classroom at the ripe age of 30. The mean age of my students was 35. So I worked my tail off trying to get ahead of them, and by the end of the first month the dean who hired me got a petition demanding that she fire me. That’s when I realized that I hated teaching. Those ingrates! What did they know? Lucky for me, this dean wasn’t swayed by student opinion.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was part of a vanguard of non-Mormon women hired to teach (mostly) Mormon women how to be social workers. They didn’t like us, and we didn’t like them. They found us arrogant and we thought them backward. They were used to taking shit from men, and didn’t see what right we had to dish it out. We had taken a good deal of the same shit, and felt it was our turn to dish it out. Besides, we stood in the way of their getting a piece of paper that would license them as official doers of good. I learned to be extra nice and tone down my inner cynic in order to survive.

Survive I did. Some might say I flourished. I’ve won teaching awards and I’ve written textbooks. But I still can’t sleep before the first day of class. The Associate Dean who saw me through those first years once told me she threw up every year before her first class.

The night before my first class I face once again the sure knowledge that I’m doomed. For all that book learning, I don’t have the answers my students are seeking. (Now that I’m older, I sometimes claim that I did have them, but have forgotten.) So on the day of, I stride into the classroom with a pile of books and reams of notes, grinning bravely in the faces of the students I will disappoint. They’re paying my salary with money that didn’t come easy. They’ve left their families and/or their jobs to spend time with me. And I will not give them answers. I don’t even have sure facts for them to memorize! What kind of rip off is that? The only reason they don’t want to fire me now is I’m less irritating than I used to be.

That, and while I do hate teaching, the only thing I love more than learning is my students. They get better every year – brighter, younger, prettier. I’m never quite done at the end of class. (I’ve learned to appoint a timekeeper to tell me when it’s time to go.) And the end of term always comes way too soon. I’m so glad when they come back for more!

Soon, I’ll revise this term’s syllabus. I’ll satisfy the demands of accreditation and university authorities. I’ll slip in new readings and some nifty jargon. I’ll spell out expectations and accommodations. I’ll create a plan that will inevitably fall apart. Then I’ll script that first day. All in hope of creating a sacred space where I can watch my students learn. I mayhate teaching, but I love being part of their learning. Some day, I’ll admit to the world that I don’t teach. Never have. I just show up and hope there’s no vomit on my shoes.

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