A Bittersweet Endeavor

With the end of this challenging academic year approaching, I thought I’d replay a blog post from December 2018. While it echoes back to a time and place before the pandemic, some of the sentiments still apply today.

The semester ended last week and my Facebook feed has been filled with colleagues who are posting requests from students who are asking for grade adjustments, deadline leniency and emotional support. Finals week is always an interesting and challenging time of the semester and I see my colleagues expressing their frustrations, stresses and joys online. Since I know these colleagues offline too, I know that many share posts that don’t really reflect their inner philosophies about teaching. For example, one colleague presents himself as a hardened curmudgeon but I know his students see him as being much warmer and supportive than his online persona would suggest. It’s a stressful time of the year for teachers and students and I’m learning that we all handle that stress differently. Some use social media to work through their emotions by sharing snarky retorts. I guess it’s the 21st Century way of letting off some steam.

Interestingly, it’s also a time of celebration. In addition to being the holiday season, this is the time of year when many college campuses hold their fall commencement ceremonies. After years of support and advisement, college faculty get to see their students walk across the stage, receive their diplomas and move on to their next phase of life. I’m sure every educator has a story of some student who faced adversity and persevered. Commencement ceremonies offer a distinct endpoint for that journey and an opportunity for all of us to celebrate our work. Not surprisingly, some of the same colleagues who are sharing their teaching frustrations online are also posting photos of themselves standing proudly with students in commencement robes. It’s a curious mix.

In the midst of the stress of finals week and the joys of commencement, however, I received an email from The Chronicle of Higher Education publicizing a research brief that examined how faculty view their work, their profession and the leadership at their institutions. I won’t dig into the leadership part here but I’m excited about the findings with regard to teaching. After surveying nearly 1,000 collegiate faculty from across the country, the Chronicle found that almost 91% report “being satisfied with teaching students” and over 98% believe that their teaching “benefits students and their lives.” The data also show that 68% of faculty see teaching as being harder work than it used to be.

In a lot of ways, I see the Chronicle research represented in my colleagues’ posts. Teaching is hard. And stressful. And time consuming. And emotionally draining. And I see all of that captured on my Facebook feed.

But teaching is also satisfying. And rewarding. And impactful. And I see that conveyed through my colleagues’ posts, too.

Teaching can be a bittersweet endeavor. I think Parker Palmer captures this the best in his book Courage to Teach. Citing a Hasidic tale, Palmer writes:

We need a coat with two pockets. In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold. We need a coat with two pockets to remind us who we are.”

I’m sure there are lots of ways to interpret this quote, but Palmer wisely connects it to our work as teachers. In my mind, I see the “dust and gold” as reminders of the difficult and joyful duality of our roles. But maybe you don’t need a coat with two pockets to visualize this. Maybe you just need a Facebook account.

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