The Sweet Ego Boost of Teaching

If you ask college professors what they love about their work, they’ll likely wax on about the vibrant intellectual discussion, the synergy of mind meeting mind, and the joy of seeing the lights go on in students’ eyes. What only a handful will cop to is that the performative aspect of owning the room, of being the focus of all of those captive, attentive eyes can be a powerful, addictive ego boost.

Having spent some decades as a quietly performative teacher with a presence that attracted and held student attention, I’m speaking first hand. Although I’m essentially an introvert and even a little shy, I quickly discovered the heady satisfaction of helping my students learn, sure, but also of getting to strut my (hard-earned) stuff.

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For all I know, some ego element might just be endemic to performative activities, whether in sports, theater, politics or teaching. It might even be that some capacity to feel this satisfaction is part of what makes some people great teachers. Perhaps they are who they are, in part, because they derive this ego satisfaction, which does not rule out, of course, the existence of more altruistic motives as well.

What seems clear enough to me, though, is that an online teacher will suffer in  proportion to her or his addiction to this classroom attention. If what you most dig about teaching is the adoration-fest — and it’s good to be ruthlessly honest about this — say, some version of the dead poets society, then you’re out of luck in the virtual world. Here there’s little reward for one’s charisma or spontaneous wit. And those looks we cultivate? The horn-rimmed glasses, elbow patches, or whatever visual markers we have used to cultivate authority and presence? Gone, gone, gone.

And so cutting loose from the physical classroom can be eye opening to the point of burning one’s retinas. If you fall into a full-bodied embrace of online teaching, at least for a little while, you will be dragged out of the cave and forced to notice the degree to which your love of teaching has been grounded in the attention of students who think you’re awesome. It’s an opportunity born of loss, then, as so many are, a stripping away of some of the most addictive, self-serving, trappings of the teaching endeavor.

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None of this is to say that there are not lots and lots of intrinsically good things about a spontaneous, dynamic physical classroom or that enjoying student attention is bad. When done well, in-person dialogue creates a magic that cannot be replicated in online discussions (which, as it turns out, are very hard to do well). But I think we are fools if we fail to explore what the minimalism of online teaching can reveal about how we have relied on teaching to satisfy cravings for acceptance and approval.

Of course, this post may really just be a description of my own experience. For me, the shift to online precipitated a gentle, not entirely unpleasant, upheaval in my own sense of identity and self-worth. In fat, this was how I learned that my sense of self had been, without my really knowing it, anchored partly in the mild student adulation I had enjoyed. How liberating to discover that the power and alchemy of teaching is so much more deeply rooted than the shallow pond of my own ego!

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