Partly it has to do with acknowledging that fear plays a large part in life, and with wanting to do something that conquers fear. Trying to put trust, even love, in place of fear. Teaching is about relationships for me, and I want it to be a service to others as well as to myself. I want to teach because I want to create, in a classroom, a place where people try to bring their best selves and where they can tell their truths and be taken seriously and accepted; therefore a place where they can trust each other, where they can, most of the time, not be afraid of each other. I want to create something which is – I know this sounds grandiose — something like the way I would like a family to be, or the way I would like society to be. I would like both family and society to be a place where truths can be told and accepted and where an assumption of trust prevails. But family and society are not necessarily this way. It’s more possible to achieve such a situation in a classroom because relationships there are narrower, more specialized, more deliberately channeled. They are not all-purpose relationships like those you have with a friend or partner; they have a very specific purpose and are somewhat ritualized. As part of this, in a successful class some of the students, and I, may come to value our time together in a personal way, to be open to each other in ways we’re not always open to others, to appreciate each other in ways we’re not always ready to appreciate others. We take some sort of joy in each other’s uniqueness, accord each other a kind of acceptance we don’t extend to everyone. I don’t seem to have the exactly right word for this relationship, but I know it’s a recognizable one that recurs from time to time in my teaching life.
Luckily, most people tend to be willing to play the game of education in a certain way, which includes leaving the most awful parts of themselves outside the room most of the time. In a classroom people don’t feel entitled to make all the demands on each other that people make in families or in hierarchical workplace situations. Though a classroom can be emotionally intense, we usually ask the very most gut-wrenching stuff from people elsewhere, not in class. So this makes us more free to tell the truth in class. Some of our truths are terribly threatening to those we’re really intimate with – which is hard to avoid. Those same truths are not so threatening to people who don’t have to live with us.
To go back to conquering fear, the opposite of fear is creativity. I want to teach in a way that will increase the amount of creativity in the world, because that makes it more like the world I want to live in, and I think many other people want the same.
Possibly the most extravagant or grandiose version of this is to say that teaching can create a miniature glimpse of a better society or a better way of living, and thus a tiny beginning of a better world.
Even if this doesn’t happen, teaching can do something else I believe in: it can show students that they know more than they realize, that they are more creative than they realized, it can open up powers they didn’t know they had. People write better than they know they can write. That’s satisfying.
Teaching happens to fit my personality, and there are many personalities different from mine that teaching also fits, each in its own way. The difficult parts of your own personality can be exactly those that work to your advantage as a teacher – for example, my desire to be liked and my sense that I should adapt myself to what others want. The unnamable parts of yourself, like whatever lets me function as a sort of glue that helps a group cohere, may be the crucial ones. There is nothing as satisfying as the full use of what your own particular self is peculiarly capable of.
There are many kinds of teaching. Mine is really not so much about knowledge as it is about capability and the hope of intersubjectivity. My answer to “why teach?” has a lot to do with human aloneness and the eternal effort to overcome it. I believe that a truly successful class is a collective intelligence, like an ecosystem: it is made up of autonomous beings simultaneously influencing each other in such a way that they thrive better together than they could separately. It is one more manifestation of the amazing phenomenon of life that surrounds us. The class is a complex temporary life-form that comes into being, grows, flourishes, and then suddenly goes back to the universe when the last class ends. No one makes this happen unilaterally. When it works, I’m part of a self-organizing system that is bigger than me and includes me. This is the relationship I want to be in with the world around me, and it extends to the classroom.
You can download this document here: Why Teach