Why do we teach?

By | November 8, 2014

The question of why teachers quit teaching has recently been posed in a LinkedIn discussion forum. I offered some thoughts there, but I thought that it might also be useful to expand some on this theme here. It’s a complicated issue, but one with considerable social urgency.

It’s easy to see the question of why teachers quit as simply the inverse of why teachers start to teach in the first place. But behavioral equilibria aren’t always symmetrical. Some behaviors are easy to enter into, much harder to exit from, rather like a lobster trap; drug addiction comes to mind. Others may be very hard to enter and/or sustain yet easy to exit – for example, championship-level athletics. Structural and environmental factors interact with individual perceptions in complex ways. Like any behavioral commitment, the decision to either enter into a teaching relationship or leave it involves balancing perceptions of costs and benefits. But calculating that balance is chaotic.

Entering into teaching entails a certain fundamental arrogance, or at least an assumption of superiority of sorts. The teacher must believe that s/he is in possession of more or better information than are the students, or perhaps of more or better analytical tools or ways of approaching the topic. This doesn’t imply that the teacher is in some existential way better than the students; only that with regard to the particular topic at hand s/he believes that s/he has some advantage that s/he would like to share with the students. This is easy to formulate in the case of pre-schoolers; not always so clear when teaching adults, particularly practicing professionals.

Teaching requires interpersonal engagement, although the degree may vary from intense to limited, and individuals must be convinced that investing their energy in that engagement is worthwhile, in terms of some multiple combination of material and hedonic (intangible) rewards. Partly, we teach because we can use our superiority in information and/or information processing skills as a source of return; i.e., we get paid to do so because others want what we have. Partly, we teach because we believe that sharing our superiority will make other people and the world around us better. And partly, we teach because demonstrating our superiority feeds our ego. It’s not necessary to attach any particular moral merit or demerit to a particular motive to acknowledge that the act of teaching (whatever that might involve) is fueled by complex and constantly shifting incentives.

The motives behind students’ engagement and that of their instructor may not align well. Students always bring their own information and information processing skills to engage those being shared by the instructor. Instructors usually believe that they have information to share that may be of dubious relevance to the students in light of their own; either may be correct. The same can be said of information processing tools such as analytical approaches or frames.

Since information≡power, teaching/learning relationships inevitably involve power exchanges of one form or another. The opportunity to exercise power of one sort or another is a powerful incentive for some people. But those eager to exercise power over others are not always equally comfortable submitting to the exercise of power over them. Power equilibria are inherently unstable.

Basically, teachers quit teaching when they perceive the costs of staying in the relationship exceed the benefits received. But since both costs and benefits consist of complex and shifting elements varying enormously across individuals and situations, the calculus is chaotic. Just when our own chaos model of incentives flips in value from “teach” to “not teach” or back again isn’t predictable even to ourselves, let alone anyone else.

The situation is more complicated, of course – teaching isn’t simply an on/off switch but more of a rheostat. It’s possible to remain nominally a teacher and yet effectively withdraw from actually doing it. We all know teachers who just “phone it in”. It’s frequently the case that we can be great teachers for some students; disastrous for others. And sometimes even if we withdraw from any formal teaching roles, we still have the urge to share our ideas and information – to remain intellectually engaged with the growth of others. Sometimes that leads us to blog.

And just to multiply the complexity, teaching usually is carried out in the context of an organization of some sort, with all that that entails. As Albert Hirschman described many years ago, entry and exit into organizations is usually mediated by the phenomenon of voice – our ability to shape the organization to our own desires and purposes. A simple idea, although as some colleagues and I found out when we tried to apply this idea to faculty behavior, its interpretations quickly become chaotic as well. In general, organizations are much better at creating obstacles and disincentives than they are at motivating behavior – a topic worth exploring in its own right at some point!

I started out this post thinking that it might be more helpful than it’s probably turned out to be. But like any teacher convinced of the value of his/her ideas, I’m offering it up here in the hope that it may convey some value to you. Let me know what you think.

  • http://bartholomew.stanford.edu R W

    Why do I teach? Well, at a minimum I can offer students who are not already capable of expressing their ideas clearly a way to improve their writing and speaking. For some students, I can also offer an introduction to thinkers who will shape their understanding of themselves and the world.
    There’s a young Syrian woman working with refugees, for instance, for whom Cicero’s concept of justice is enlightening — that is, the requirement that we do something positive if we become aware of an injustice that we can do something about. It’s rewarding to be able to hook Cicero up with such a reader, and I don’t mind that other students found him intolerably dry.
    Why am I happy to be free of teaching now for a year? It’s a takes a lot of time and effort which sometimes can be more profitably invested in less selfless pursuits.
    As you say, some students benefit and even are grateful; others are resentful of the effort required or of my assumption that I know better than they do how to express themselves effectively. Why would I quit? If the institution in which I teach made it very difficult to teach effectively — requiring that I grade papers very quickly or didn’t engage students in discussion.
    I found Indiana University’s institutions for helping teachers to gain and keep student attention were helpful. But I agree that much of what goes on is a disincentive — such as, the latest fad for new and different forms of assessments modeled on the commerical world. Grades won’t do; assessment must demonstrate value added.