Teachers who care too much

For the past 30+ years, I have been a teacher. I've taught writing, career development, English literature, conversational English, human resources, sociology, grammar, psychology, communications, history, journalism and economics. I've coached people for standardized tests (TOEFL, SAT, ACT), helped people write resumes, and taught people at church schools as a volunteer.

Czech students enjoying English lessons at Bily Potok
Thousands of people, ages one to 76, have been my students over the years, and I have cared about the future of each one of them. That's a lot of caring, maybe too much.

Career Seminar session in Prague
All good teachers have this in common: they become very involved in their students' development, far beyond whatever the subject being taught. That is, the relationship between student and teacher extends past the simple exchange of information that most people (those who aren't teachers) imagine is the purpose of teaching.

American, Japanese and Chinese students working in career development in Prague
Here are three truths for committed teachers:

1. Teaching begins hours before the class and goes on hours (maybe years) afterwards. 
To prepare for an hour's worth of teaching takes at least three hours of planning, trying out scenarios, and putting the lesson in order. Then there's the lesson itself, with its unexpected difficulties (some students don't grasp the lesson quickly, are distracted by personal issues, are ill, or just don't want to listen) and triumphs (some students ask such insightful questions that the teacher is pleasantly shocked).
High school Journalism class
The lesson ends. Then what? Teachers hope that the new information will be cumulative for their students, adding to their understanding of the subject being taught and their repertoire of learning styles. More than that, the most caring teachers hope they have enlarged their students' perception of the world and ignited a spark of curiosity that will lead the students to new worlds of knowledge in many areas. That's a big hope!

ILI Executive Education Program graduates in Florida
2. Teachers think about their students far more than their students think about them.
Many students have a "quid pro quo" view of their teachers, putting the teacher in the role of grade-giver and themselves in the role of grade-taker. These students calculate precisely how little effort they can make to get the grade they want. When the teacher doesn't play the game that way, the students get mad and say "It's not fair I failed. I tried,"confusing effort with success.

Alpha class in Florida
Experienced teachers recognize this kind of student and act as they consider best in their relationships with them. But teaching these students is not, for most teachers, rewarding. What's rewarding is teaching the student who soaks up knowledge like a sponge and wants more. This type of student may not make an "A," but will learn and will gladden his or her teachers' heart.

Czech executives at ILI program at Stetson University in Florida
Unfortunately, teachers would love to think about the students who crave knowledge but often have to think about the ones who underestimate the minimum effort needed to pass and end up in trouble--the ones who turn in their assignments late, who don't take enough care to make the assignment acceptable, and who have constant excuses ("My computer crashed" and so on), many of which they try to put back on the teacher ("You told me I didn't need any citations in my research paper!")

All these complications, both pleasant and not-pleasant, mean that teachers spend all kinds of time figuring out how best to deal with each student. If the teacher has many students, the time adds up.

Career Seminar graduation in Prague
3. Teachers are very adept at reading people and know much more about their students that the students imagine. Even years later, good teachers can give a quick character sketch of their most prominent students.

Students rarely consider how much attention their teachers are paying to them. Each interaction and every assignment give the teacher data that is fed into the teacher's mental computer. An experienced teacher can recognize attitudes, personalities, and quirks in students that the teacher had encountered before; although good teachers try to keep an open mind, the ghosts of students past may materialize near a current student whose behavior is eerily reminiscent of that past student.

Korean student in Prague
Too often people imagine that teachers are primarily distributors of knowledge, something like friendly robots or on-line talking heads that recite information when needed. But this is not the truth.

Teachers, at least good teachers, know that teaching is a relationship above all. Without taking the time and effort (on both sides) to make a functional relationship, teachers and students will not be able to work together in a way that produces anything meaningful.

ILI US English Language Program graduate with husband and son
For the best teachers, these relationships never die. That's why a good teacher has a storehouse of experiences, conversations, assignments done well or done poorly, and moments of anger, sorrow, and great joy as a result of being a teacher. I imagine that sincere religious leaders have a similar storehouse, that the best nurses and doctors  have one, and that all responsible counselors have an even bigger one.
ILI Travel-and-Learn graduates, reminiscing in Prague
The best teachers care too much. They neglect their own mental and physical health, their own professional development, and their families when their students need attention. The best relationships they build with students become the benchmark for all their relationships: based on mutual respect, the desire to communicate openly and often, and an agreement, sometimes unspoken, that life is full of new ideas and things to learn about. Great teachers change the way the entire world perceives reality by guiding people's hearts and minds into different ways of seeing life. I don't truly think it's possible to care too much, when the future of humanity is at stake.

ILI Travel-and-Learn participants in Wyoming


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