Teachers Who Hate to Teach

Undergraduate teachers have a much wider impact on the future well-being of the professions and, through them, society as a whole.


When I was a professor at Columbia University, I overheard a conversation between two famous senior professors. They were talking about the fact that they did not like teaching undergraduates and preferred to teach graduate students, and to do research. They were exchanging pointers on how to get out of undergraduate teaching. One of them was saying that he taught them badly: he reused his lecture notes and didn’t try to put anything into it. And so the dean didn’t make him teach that course very often.

I found myself getting very angry at hearing this, but I couldn’t quite understand why it mattered to me. And then I realized that I had formed a conviction that pedagogy was fundamentally important, especially at the undergraduate level. At that moment, something in me said, ‘I don’t want to be like them.’ It was then that I decided I would think about teaching at a small college. This event, described as a graduate school epiphany by an engineer who went on to become an outstanding teacher at an outstanding college, illustrates the lack of support for taking undergraduate teaching seriously and aspiring to excellence in it.

Yet isn’t it worrisome that few college teachers would find the vignette surprising? Unfortunately it is not only university teaching where the central purpose of the profession appears to be compromised. Physicians find themselves increasingly in the role of administrators rather than healers, and lawyers complain about not being able to serve clients with the personal attention they expected to be able to give when starting their careers. In most professions, practitioners rarely spend more than a quarter of the time on the job doing what they see as their main task. For instance, physicians treat and talk to patients about 23 percent of their working time; the rest is spent talking to coworkers, reading, writing, filing, and doing a host of other activities that are less and less related to their training and purpose. What makes this state of affairs difficult to understand is that the professions are supposed to be the most free and most satisfying ways to make a living. If doctors, teachers, lawyers, and engineers all have trouble doing the work they are meant to do, what about the great majority of people who work in even more constrained settings?

There are basically two threats to the professions. One is subjective, involving a loss of motivation and commitment. As long as workers experienced their job as a calling, they were motivated to listen to the voice that pressed them to do their best. But who is calling them now? That voice has become a barely audible whisper, obscured by stentorian calls to do what’s best for one’s comfort, bank account, or social influence. Members of a profession can be compelled or intimidated into doing work that meets standards of quality and codes of ethics. But they cannot be forced into feeling engaged. It is when they enjoy and care deeply about the work they do, and wholeheartedly value the people and the ends it is meant to serve, that they are most likely to aspire to excellence and principled conduct.

The second threat to professional conduct involves more objective factors. For example, it has been argued that the diffusion of the automobile, which resulted in suburban sprawl, has made it uneconomical for physicians to make home visits. This has moved the interaction between doctor and patient from domestic to more impersonal settings contributing to the compartmentalization and bureaucratization of medicine. For each profession, dozens of similar factors have transformed how the work is done. Some of the time, the resulting change in practice is sensible, even inevitable. Other times it is not – and professionals and the public they serve are the worse for it.

Consider the case of just one class of modern professionals: those who teach undergraduates. Undergraduate teaching is a profession that influences all others. Medical schools shape future doctors; law schools shape tomorrow’s attorneys. Those responsible for undergraduate education touch the lives of students who go on to enter all the professions. As a result, undergraduate teachers potentially have a much wider impact on the future well-being of the professions and, through them, society as a whole. The point is not that undergraduate education lays the groundwork for absorbing a body of professional knowledge, or that it initiates students into a field’s distinctive code of ethics. Rather, at its best, undergraduate education plays a special role in encouraging each student’s engagement with a discipline, and in this respect, in preparing all students to do work that is ‘good’.

Yale University recently interviewed about a hundred leading teachers and administrators at ten highly regarded schools, including liberal arts and community colleges, research universities, and a major for-profit institution. The picture of the profession that emerges from these interviews is an ideal that hardly represents what the job of teaching is like at most of the nation’s colleges.

Unrepresentative though they may be, these engaged teachers and administrators illustrate how it is possible to derive satisfaction from a profession today. One professor told us, “If I won the lottery, I would still be coming back here to do my job. There is nothing else I can imagine I would rather be doing.” Such deep absorption is most likely to occur when the work holds clear challenges that fully utilize capacities without overwhelming them, when the rules of engagement are unambiguous, when actions receive timely feedback, and when it is possible to shape the process as it unfolds. A teacher who can still vividly recall her own teachers’ infectious enthusiasm explained, “They put things in manageable pieces for you so you could understand it. And then as you gained some skill with it, you started to become passionate about it, to get excited about it, and it became fun.” When the work’s challenges are not only well defined and demanding, but also aligned with what the individual values, the profession becomes a source of meaning as well as enjoyment.

Like any profession, undergraduate teaching offers several ways to become engaged in the job. For undergraduate teachers, four areas of possible engagement are key: educating students, preserving and advancing a specific domain of knowledge, serving the needs of the institution, and responding to the need of the broader society. Teachers become engaged in their work to the extent that they find enjoyable challenges in one or more of these areas, and to the extent that they find that those challenges are in line with their values. In what follows, we will explore the experience of teachers at outstanding colleges in each of these areas.

There is no question that educating students is the core challenge of the teaching profession. An engaged teacher enjoys and finds meaning in this central task, mediating between the students whose learning is the goal and the set of questions that animate the domain of knowledge. Effective teachers choose pedagogies that allow them to enjoy the process and get their students involved. A teacher at a research university explained, “It’s fun. In all my courses I try to do these sort of hands-on, more inquiry-based things. It keeps (the students) engaged.”  As a teacher at a community college told us, “Education is supposed to be inspiring. It’s supposed to be exciting. It’s supposed to change your life. If education can’t enrich, why bother?” The challenges of teaching are infused with meaning when the teacher cares about the students, and about helping them meet their educational goals. “I don’t know of anything that really gets my engine going more than watching the light come on for a student,” one professor told us. Many teachers -particularly those working with disadvantaged students – are profoundly moved to see their students receive their diplomas, and speak with pride about students who return years after graduation to share their accomplishments and express their gratitude.

The challenge of preserving and advancing knowledge provides a second form of engagement for college teachers. In this case, they are rewarded by knowing that through them something of value survives as a living part of the culture. “I just always loved learning. I loved school,” a professor told us. “It was the place in my life where I always felt most at home. The university just seemed to me a wonderful place to be and a wonderful way to live, constantly reading and asking complicated, deep, unanswerable questions.”

True, the two most basic roles of college professors – teaching and research -often clash. One professor at a liberal arts college recalled that during graduate school at a leading public university, “I had to sort of hide under a rug, in a way, my desire to teach. I got a terrific graduate education there, but the down side was it was clear they didn’t care one bit about teaching.” A study conducted in the 1990s showed that in all types of four-year institutions, the proportion of time dedicated to research rose and the time dedicated to teaching declined. Yet over two-thirds of the faculty at the universities claimed they were more interested in teaching than research. It is obviously not the case that devotion to one’s discipline has to conflict with doing good work as a teacher. Indeed, a teacher indifferent to his area of study is unlikely to engage students.

Serving the needs of the institution is an important element in any profession; doctors may become devoted to their hospitals, lawyers to their firms, journalists to their newspapers, and professors to their colleges or universities. A distinguished scientist assumed the presidency of her research university to a large extent because of “a deep love of this institution.” She explained that “it would not have occurred to me to think about this job at any other institution. You have to fundamentally care about a university that you lead because it’s too much work if there isn’t a real passion.” She traced her own passion to “the respect with which (the institution) treats ideas, treats excellence, treats people. I deeply admired the way in which my predecessor ran the university based on a core set of values and principles that we were going to try and live up to. I think it made me always proud to be a member of the community.” When professionals find a place in an organization that shares their values, a sense of vocation is more likely to flourish. A clearly defined institutional mission provides a compelling compass for action and a basis for judging if one is doing good work. The presence of such a mission is a sign that an ethos genuinely exists within the institution – an ethic that expresses the defining spirit and values of the community.

Enhancing the well-being of an institution one loves can of course become an end in itself; and efforts to burnish  its reputation, build its coffers, or otherwise enhance it can come to be an enjoyable way of using one’s skills as a leader, fundraiser, or strategist. Service to the institution acquires meaning because of the values the institution represents. Good work gets done when serving the institution advances the profession’s core purpose of educating students.

The fourth area of engagement for teachers involves serving the broader needs of society. Many teachers hold values that shape their educational goals. When, for example, a faculty member describes the challenges and rewards of fostering diversity and openness to the perspectives of others, he or she is seeing beyond the classroom or institution to the society as a whole. An environmental studies professor we interviewed counts preserving the natural environment among her overarching goals. As she put it, “I realized that if I was worried about the trends in the environment. . . and if I was going to make a difference, it would be that I need to be back in the classroom and talk to people about what was happening with the environment.” Many teachers engaged by social and cultural issues such as war and peace, globalization, and poverty share this belief that the classroom constitutes one front in a larger battle. This kind of engagement can be consistent with one’s professional commitments, but lie outside one’s daily job – as when doctors volunteer in such organizations as Doctors Without Borders, or when lawyers do pro bono work.

A sense of vocation is critical to teachers’ own well-being and to the continued vitality of higher education. When college teachers are uninspired, they may dishearten future professionals of all kinds. Conversely, when undergraduate teachers experience their work as a vocation, they may have a positive impact on the next generation of workers in all the professions. To inspire passion, one must feel it oneself.

Teachers heighten student engagement when they can show their students that what they are learning might make a difference outside the domain of knowledge and the field of scholarship. Good schools set ambitious goals for their students: to become community leaders, champions of the oppressed, protectors of the environment. When teachers care deeply about such goals and can provide credible solutions, the aim of serving social ends through knowledge becomes compelling to students.

In addition to being typical of professions in this general sense, undergraduate teaching has a special, underappreciated relationship to all the professions: if work is enhanced or compromised there, it will cause ripples throughout the professions for which an undergraduate education is a prerequisite, and affect all the workers on whom the future of society depends. If good work is threatened in the colleges, it is at risk everywhere.


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