August 19th, 2009

The Pietas of Teaching

By:

Recently, I encountered a snag in my teaching. Unlike past difficulties connected to particular classroom challenges, this one was more pervasive. For several months I contemplated the cause of this “bigger” dilemma. Upon reflection it became evident that my off-balance feeling was linked to the pietas of teaching.

In Vergil’s Aeneid, a major theme is pietas—a Latin word that means both “duty” and “devotion.” In founding what would become Rome, Aeneas struggled with his own sense of duty to his country and devotion to his family. In teaching, both duty and devotion matter.

There are some aspects of teaching that involve duty, e.g., grading papers, keeping records, and preparing a syllabus. Other aspects of teaching require devotion, such as getting to know one’s students, making class sessions meaningful for them, and continuing to grow and learn oneself. Some faculty experience entire careers only from the duty side of teaching. However, fulfillment comes from a commitment to duty and devotion. In my case a snag occurred because my devotion had diminished. I was going through the motions and teaching had become merely a duty.

When duty starts to outweigh devotion, it’s time for an adjustment. To restore the balance in my own teaching, here are some approaches I used.

  • Embrace a service perspective. Teaching is a profession of service. Devotion is restored by remembering that teaching is mainly about giving to others rather than getting for self.
  • Go on a retreat. The giving entailed in teaching can lead to a need for time alone. I found a convent nearby which allows visitors to stay overnight. The solitude and reflection helped me to refocus my energies.
  • Talk with teachers. My best friend is a high school teacher who understands the exhaustion that comes from teaching. Sharing stories and feelings with a colleague (not as a gripe session) is a way to recover one’s devotion to the profession.
  • Recall one’s initial motivation. What originally attracted me to teaching was a chance to make an impact and to be with young people. This reminder helped free the snag. I even prepared a six-slide PowerPoint presentation about why I teach, which I will share on the first day of class this fall. It includes a 1977 photo of me wearing a big smile as I arrive at my new school as a beginning teacher.
  • Read a book on teaching. There are several possible choices: Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do, Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, and Stephen Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher are just a few. Such books can assist in achieving a greater sense of balance.
  • Attend a teaching conference. The Teaching Professor Conference is held late each spring. Campus faculty development centers also offer workshops.
  • Ask for a new course or revise a current one. Engaging in curriculum development activities can increase devotion toward the planning (i.e., creative) dimension of teaching.

After implementing these strategies, I was able to untangle the snag that was holding back my teaching satisfaction. Duty is now balanced with devotion as a new teaching year begins!

Patty H. Phelps, Ed.D. is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Central Arkansas.