You ever get those moments when it's Summer 2020 and you kind of don't want to teach anymore? Like you used to love teaching, be all about teaching, but then you experienced four months of turmoil and uncertainty and change and toxicity and pain and inequity and inefficiency and you're like, “You know, I'm good. It's been a good career. What's next?” You ever get that?
I haven't quite fancied a career change, but I have known that weight. It is not something new to the COVID days, but the disruption of COVID has made it heavier. It is like a rock on the will, and it has been communicated to me by more colleagues than I can count. And I am thankful for it because it has brought me to rigorously re-examine a fundamental and timeless question: How do we sustain the will to teach?
Just as this question is as old as teaching, so too are its answers. Today I'd like to start sharing some of the things I have discovered on this topic.
As with my post on “How to Build Strong Relationships with Students if You’re Starting the Year Online: Principles and Practices,” I'm going to begin with principles. I will say it a million times: great teachers are great understanders. Before we need practices, we need clarity.
Principle 1: The will is trainable…
Just as the body can be trained to walk or bench press, and the mind can be trained to speak French or do calculus, the heart can be trained to will a thing that it previously could not. (That sentence was so easy to type, but it took me four months of research and experimentation to arrive at its veracity.)
Principle 2: …but the will is not perfectible.
Just as the body cannot be perfected — there is always more weight to lift than we are capable of, faster running times that we cannot attain — and the mind cannot learn all that is learnable, so too the will cannot be perfected. There will always be times when we don't want to teach, don't want to do what is right as a teacher, don't want to bring our full selves to the work.
These first two principles must be held simultaneously. Our wills, like our minds and bodies, are both limited and potential-filled.
Principle 3: The training of the will is influenced by the training of the mind and of the body.
If all I eat is junk and I only sleep four hours per night and I spend ten hours sedentary per day, it is no surprise that my will to teach is weakened.
So too, if I spend hours per day on the news or on social media or running through the things that are wrong with other people, it is no surprised that my will to teach is weakened.
Principle 4: You can achieve significant transformation of your will through the consistent, thoughtful application of effective practices.
If you told me today that I had to squat 300 pounds or else you'd take all my money, I'd have to hand you the money no matter how badly I wanted to keep it. My body is not currently capable of doing that. But if you told me that I had six months to be able to squat 300 pounds, and you give me the time, the equipment, and a good trainer or book, then I could train my body to be able to squat 300 pounds.
Or if you told me today that I had to speak conversational Japanese, right now, or else you'd take all my money, same deal — I'm broke. But if you give me six months and a teacher or program, then I could become conversational in Japanese (at least at a basic level).
This is one of the most exciting things about being a person: we come with the built-in ability to learn and grow (potential). But it's also one the most limiting things about being a person: we can't just will ourselves to learn and grow, but rather we must submit to practice (limitation).
And not just any practice if our aim is efficiency — effective practice. There are smart, evidence-rich ways to increase your squat capacity, and there are dumb, faddish, evidence-poor ways to do so. (So too with teaching — not all methods, strategies, or practices are equal. This seems a silly thing to type, but it's amazing how frequently I hear comments to its contrary.)
With the time we have left, let's move into a first practice.
Practice 1: Decide.
Before we get any more specific, first things first. Do you intend to improve your will to teach? Do you want to want to teach again? Do you wish the fires of passion were burning brighter in you? Do you miss the earnestness you once felt?
Before you rush to answer so you can move on to the next thing, do this:
- Go outside.
- Take a brief walk.
- Think on these questions.
If you come back from the walk and the answer is yes, then stay tuned for my next post in the series. (Please forgive me if that seems cute or teasing — this is just all the time I have right now. More next time.)
Note: This summer I am writing along two threads:
- How can we sustain the will to teach, even amidst hard circumstances? This post was the start of that thread.
- What does good, focused teaching look like from a distance? Here's the first post in that thread.
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