December 4th, 2009

'A Teaching Life'


On a fairly regular basis, I reread what may well be my all time favorite essay on teaching—Christa L. Walck’s “A Teaching Life.” Walck’s essay draws heavily from one of my favorite books, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, in which Dillard describes how writing creates her life. Walck wonders if teaching does the same for her life. What makes the essay especially compelling for me is how Walck describes the tension between the ideals and realities of teaching. She says at one point that she is ambivalent about teaching. Here’s an excerpt that illustrates the dicotomies she and many of the rest of us struggle with.

“The teaching life is the life of the explorer, the creator, constructing the classroom for free exploration. It is about engagement. It takes courage. It is about ruthlessly excising what is flawed, what no longer fits, no matter how difficult it was to achieve. It is about recognizing teaching as a medium that can do some things exquisitely but cannot do everything.

“Unlike writing, however, teaching is not a solitary endeavor. Your audience is not imaginary, in your head: It is in your face every time you walk into a classroom, every time a student crosses the threshold of your office, every time you pass a student you know on the street. …

“When I am doing it well, I feel energized. I feel free. I want to experiement, to take ideas and actions where they lead me. … But I am often tired because it consumes energy rapaciously. It is an uphill journey; sometimes I fall down. Sometimes students follow me but sometimes they abandon me—they think I am crazy and they take me to the woodshed.”

Reference: Walck’s essay was first published in the Journal of Management Education, 1997, 21 (4), 473-482. It was republished in a collection of essays titled, Wise Women: Reflections of Teachers at Midlife edited by Phyllis R. Freeman and Jan Zlotnik Schmidt and published in 2000 by Routledge. Unfortunately this book is not longer in print.