What Makes Teaching Sustainable Is the Same Thing That Makes It Unsustainable

Recently, I’ve witnessed several beautiful teachers walk away from teaching. I felt very sad and also a little jealous. Imagine how free I might feel without teaching! And then there are the teachers who do not walk away from teaching but become more embittered with every year. I always swore I would never be like that. But I don’t blame any of these teachers. Teaching is hard on the soul. And it’s especially hard in our culture of achievement, where so often learning is confused with performance.

I confused those two concepts for the first ten years of my teaching. I had expectations of how I thought my students should act and what they should do to be considered a “good student.” Such expectations only led me to overwhelming stress and exhaustion. There was a time about ten years ago when the stress of teaching actually made me physically ill, and during this time I remember a particular moment. I was teaching a class on Banned Books, and we were reading Lolita. The students hated the book, and I could not get them to engage about it. I tried everything I could to coax them into discussion. Nothing was working. It was 8pm on a Tuesday night, and I looked out into my class and saw that only a few students even had their books open. I felt a mixture of rage and defeat, and there was nothing to do but dismiss the class. I left the room in utter shame, my brain confused and my body consumed by its mysterious pains.

I started meditating then, because I knew that otherwise I could not continue teaching. And meditation revealed to me the ways my own expectations caused my students to suffer and caused me to suffer. Teaching does not need to be punitive. It does not need to be an endless battle over grades. That we feel it should exposes something really damaged in our culture. Teaching, I came to find, is a gift offered freely without expectation. For me to thrive as a teacher, I had to stop teaching from my head and instead use my heart.

It was one of my own teachers, a yoga teacher and healer named Meisha, who opened my eyes to what teaching could be. In one of our private sessions, I was complaining to her about a student who had missed too many classes, and who strode into class one day after I had already dropped her. The student wanted to talk, but from my perspective, there was nothing to talk about. I had already dropped her, so she wasn’t even my student anymore. And I had too many students to begin with! When I shared this Meisha looked confused, and later I realized that she was embarrassed for me. She asked me, quite simply, why I wouldn’t hear what the student had to say.

Months passed before I could benefit from this conversation. But eventually, I started talking more to my students. More importantly, I started listening. I would listen to anyone who wanted to talk, even students whom I had dropped, or students who were failing. I even listened to those students who talked and talked and talked and said nothing. I learned that it was these troubled students who perhaps needed me most, and listening could be a gift I could give without expectation.

Being able to teach with love is what makes teaching worthwhile to me. Any situation I am in, I can choose to act with kindness and to listen. I have the opportunity every day to make my students feel valued and heard. If I could go back to the class reading Lolita, I would have asked them why they were resistant to the book, which maybe should have been obvious to me. I would listen to their responses instead of planning my defense. These days, I would probably even ask whether they would rather not read it. Maybe we would choose another book together.

I’m not going to be perfect as a teacher. I’m not going to even try to fight that battle. I’ve stopped with all of what is to me the nonsense of teaching: the grading, the scoldings and warnings, the rubrics, the assessments, the comparisons. Students read and write for me, and when they know that I love them, they try hard. They want to be better, not just for me, but for themselves.

Learning could be filled with joy and wonder, but is it? Not every day in my class is, although there is much more than there used to be. Part of what blocks joy is how freaking tired I am. And this is why what makes teaching sustainable—teaching wholeheartedly, with love—is what makes it unsustainable. It requires a lot of energy to listen. It requires a lot of energy to be fully present. To love. Our energy quickly becomes depleted when we engage deeply. It’s why, I think, that so many of us want to lose ourselves in our phones and computers. It’s way to escape, to disengage.

But I would rather be a tired teacher who loves than a tired teacher who scolds and laments. So I made a choice about five years ago to do this job with 100 percent of my whole heart and to form true relationships with my students, even though they will always leave me. It’s the right choice for me. When I see my students through the eyes of love, I see how utterly young and scared they are, and how much they need love, hope, and inspiration. That gives me the spark I need to keep going, for now at least.

2 thoughts on “What Makes Teaching Sustainable Is the Same Thing That Makes It Unsustainable”

  • There is so much here that I love. I am switching colleges this fall, and from the newness of the transition emerges an opportunity for me to be brave by working WITH my students instead of working ON my students. Teaching English composition courses at a community college can be one of the most draining, soul-sucking jobs around, but reading your posts really feels like taking a cognitive breath. I step back and ask myself “What do my students need right now?”
    Thank you for your self-awareness and willingness to share.

  • Jennifer, I loved your inclusion here of “those students who talked and talked and talked and said nothing.” It took me way to long as a teacher (of middle/high school students) to figure out that all those students usually want is for someone to give them the gift of listening. I don’t need to solve their problems, nor (usually) can I. But I can certainly take the time to listen.

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