Why I don’t teach

Karen Hellekson's picture

In a June 5, 2013, Chronicle article entitled I Don’t Like Teaching. There, I Said It., the pseudonymous Sidney Perth notes, “So if you don’t like teaching, don’t worry about it. You don’t have to like it; you just have to care about it.” Naturally Perth gets some pushback in the comments, which range from “then please do something else” to “teaching is just one part of the job of being an academic.” However, reading Perth’s post, I conclude that Perth’s reasons for not liking teaching are not my reasons. Unmotivated students, boring essays that you have to grade on deadline—we pretty much all hate that stuff.

Here’s why I don’t teach: it makes me physically ill.

I was a GTA for 4 years at the university where I got my PhD, and I won a teaching award. (I like to think that means I didn’t suck at the job.) You know that feeling of slightly sick excitement that occurs when you do something novel? Some teachers feel it before the first day of class. Some people feel it so acutely that they vomit. But then they feel better and the experience normalizes.

I never normalized. I felt ill every day before I taught, and then I felt ill on the days I taught.

I could not sleep the night before I taught because I was so stressed out. During class, I was acutely aware of students looking at me. I had trouble winging it; I had to be absolutely, positively completely prepared. I wrote out 10 things to cover in each class, just to ensure I’d fill the time allotted. If I didn’t have these things, I could barely breathe during class. On off days, when I wasn’t teaching, I was busy prepping. On on days, when I had to teach, I was busy freaking out. I felt nervously ill all the time.

It was utterly exhausting.

I went to counseling to learn relaxation techniques. I compulsively researched teaching methods, pedagogy, and excellence. Because I felt terrible about every aspect of teaching, I couldn’t tell what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong; it all felt wrong. I thought all my students hated me because I felt like I hated them—because it was all so stressful. I had completely normal student evaluations, but I focused on the two students who despised me while utterly discounting all other feedback, thus creating a self-fulfilling loop of despair.

There’s a difference between Perth’s not liking teaching and my not liking teaching: Perth can tolerate it, and I cannot. My very body will not let me teach.

My biggest fear is that something will happen and I will be forced to teach for a living. I realize this is irrational: I have a deep skill set in other fields, notably publishing, and I could easily find a job in that field if I was willing to move. My PhD is now too old for me to get work as anything other than an adjunct. Plus, what if the MA program in science fiction at Liverpool phones me up and asks me to teach a module in, say, the alternate history? Because that sounds really cool. (Although I’d be better at administration. I’m just saying. In case Liverpool reads this.)

I fully understand that this physical dislike of teaching seems irrational in light of things that I do that seem similar but that do not generate the same anxiety. For example, I can get up in front of people at an academic conference and deliver a paper. And I can wear skimpy clothing and jump around teaching aerobics. Maybe it’s because these activities feel like one-off performances to me, rather than consistent pedagogical engagement.

I do know this: students deserve an instructor who rolls out of bed thinking something other than, “Oh, please, god, NO. NO.”

Filed under: essay

Karen Hellekson

Publication date (from feed): 

Sun, 18 Aug 2013 12:35:38 +0000