Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Why Teach (Private School)?

Why teach at all? Why teach when it takes so much time and pays so little money (even taking into account the two months off)? Why teach when the people you manage are held hostage there, not by income, but by law? Why teach when your students may have little to no respect for you or your profession?

There are some standard answers. To pass on knowledge. To engage intellect. To challenge. To inspire. As if those things were exclusive to teaching.

If you teach at certain public schools, you can say even more. To ensure a basic human right. To mitigate the existence of institutional barriers. To provide a safe and nurturing environment.

But why teach at the private school level? Sure, the money's better, but not that good (it's still teaching). There isn't necessarily a guarantee of a better home environment, though the behavioral issues will be different. A higher standard of intellect is expected, usually (or a higher rate of grade inflation).

Why teach with the knowledge that some students hate your guts, simply because you've done your job?

There are ways to console yourself. You can engage in some form of mudslinging. You can say that you're better than them, and say that they'll get theirs, when they get into college or the real world and can't perform. Unfortunately, poetic justice is just that--poetic. It is symptomatic of literature not because it reflects real life, but real desires. The truth is, a mediocre or failing student of mine will live a more comfortable life than me, simply because he or she was born into a family with more money than mine (just look at George W. Bush).

It's not just the greater opportunity my students were born with that will aid them, it is also their willingness to take what they don't deserve. Despite Aristotle's attempted conflation of goodness and happiness, it just isn't true. Nice guys often do finish last. It seems so unfair that while I am trapped in a cage of my insecurities, my own harshest judge, they are in a bubble sustained by the idea that they can do no wrong.

But happiness is overrated. When I was studying Aristotle in college, I did take issue with happiness being the highest possible good. I tried to think of an alternative, but the best my aspiring intellectual self could come up with was wisdom. I wasn't sure why wisdom should be a higher goal than happiness, but it appealed more to me. It was something I would be willing to suffer for. After all, isn't ignorance bliss? Wasn't I actually toiling through the readings for class while others partied not just so I could get better grades and a better job, but because I wanted to understand the material? (The truth is I enjoyed most of the readings, so it was still about my personal happiness.)

Happiness studies have really flourished. I, too, am suspect to the craze. I want to be happy (or happier, or happy on a more consistent basis). A lot of happiness research was covered by Penelope Trunk, who ultimately decided that happiness lost to being interesting. So maybe I am teaching not because it will lead to a more comfortable, stress-free life, but because it is intellectually stimulating and creatively challenging. That's a good argument. Except that I could get a job that is intellectually stimulating, creatively challenging, pays more, and makes a more perceivable impact.

Emily Esfahani Smith really hit on it.* We don't do things to be happy. We procrastinate to be happy. We go on vacation to be happy. But happiness is not most people's primary motivation. We all want fulfillment, which for most humans means meaning. Meaning for a a large section of the population (I hope) is integrity, even in the face of overwhelming odds.

Public school teachers go to work hoping to catch kids, to raise them up. Sometimes all they can be is a stepping stone. Private school teachers go to work to try and prevent kids from being corrupt. Maybe the best we can hope for is to be a stumbling block on their way to asshattery.

*or her source, Roy Baumeister, did