What keeps a teacher going?

Last month, at the modest event organized by Teacher Plus to mark our 25th anniversary, Kamala Mukunda, teacher and author of the book What did you ask at school today? spoke – sorry, wondered–among other things, about how teachers could sustain themselves. For teaching is exhausting, physically, intellectually, and emotionally.

Each day, from one class to the next, we pour our hearts and minds into the act of engaging young minds. No matter what our teaching approach, whether didactic or dialogic, demonstrative or facilitative, we spend huge amounts of energy in preparing and delivering lessons. For some of us, the bulk of the energy is spent ahead of the class, reading and making notes, thinking through lesson plans and exercises. For others, the preparatory phase consists largely of making materials and planning activities. And for many of us, preparation is a continuous process, seeping into every part of life, because to be a teacher is to see everything in terms of how it can be harnessed for learning.

And then there is the energy expended in the actual classroom work: standing for long hours in front of what is often an unruly or distracted or bored group; walking up and down the length of the room trying to get everyone within your ambit of attention; bending over notebooks and stretching to write on the farthest reaches of the board; turning your head this way and that to make sure you’ve noticed every single voice and face; watching for the ones who fall out because they don’t understand anything and the ones who fall out because they understand too much.

How does one then get through this, day after day, term after term, and yet show up to class at 8 a.m. and do the same thing all over again? How does one cultivate the ability to stay fresh, energetic and focused?

Clearly, we each have our ways of regenerating our will, day after day. As I thought about Kamala’s question, I began to understand how it happens for me. Each classroom interaction takes a lot of energy from me, but it usually ends up being a true exchange, and I leave a class feeling tired, but curiously, mentally energized. It is the process of classroom engagement which serves as its own fuel.

Of course, there are times when we feel overwhelmed, or exhausted, when we come close to shutting down. Those moments are unavoidable and when they happen, we can do nothing but wait it out.

And sooner or later, we walk into our classroom, look at those young faces, get a little exasperated, a little anxious, a little hopeful…and that’s a mixture that usually turns into the energy that keeps us going!