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On Valuing Teaching as a Helping Profession

I had to wait 20 years until I finally understood how teaching at the university level can be a helping profession.

Teacher female college student by JerryKimbrell10 via Pixabay

My fourteen year-old came home from school recently having taken one of those personality tests that assigns you a type. (Yes, I’m afraid it runs in the family…) She proudly announced that although she had been given the label “campaigner,” she didn’t see herself as a cause-oriented person. Rather, she felt that it was the skills involved in campaigning – public speaking, persuasiveness, etc. – that made her a good fit for this type.

I could relate. Some of my closest friends do noble things like counselling victims of domestic violence and teaching acting to jail inmates. But I never imagined that I would end up in a “helping profession.” To me, helping professions were things like social work or nursing: careers defined – first and foremost – by an emphasis on addressing someone’s physical, psychological, or spiritual well-being.

Until I started teaching again. And now I’ve changed my mind.

I’m sure a lot of teachers out there feel like they’re doing God’s work. And they are. But when you teach at the university level, you can quickly lose the feeling that you’re there primarily to help people. Because you’re not. When you train for a PhD, teaching is often an afterthought. You’re there to do cutting-edge research, make a name for yourself, and advance knowledge and understanding. If you keep at it long enough, you might eventually influence policy. But teaching – as one of my own graduate profs once explained it to me cynically – “is about collecting a paycheck.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t any college professors out there who care about teaching or who invest in it. I know of plenty personally – starting with my husband. I simply mean that it’s not usually the reason people get PhDs.

In my own case, I’m still not entirely sure why I chose to get a PhD in political science. But I do know that it had absolutely zero to do with wanting to help anyone better themselves.

What a difference 20 years makes. I see my role utterly differently now. That’s partly because I’m not on a research track anymore (or any track, for that matter; I’m a paid consultant who’s brought in on to teach at assorted universities on an ad hoc basis.) But I think my change of mind is mostly down to the fact that, unlike my first jobs out of graduate school when I was teaching political science, I’m now teaching something I really believe in passionately – how to communicate better. This also an area where I feel I can bring some added value – a “special sauce” – as it were.

I know that I’m helping people as I pore over materials at my desk, homing in on the most important lessons to impart about how to do a successful job interview, for example. Or when I stumble across an exercise that can help people demystify the process of writing blog. Or when I’m in the classroom and witness the “aha” moment when someone is finally able to distil her 300-page thesis down to 50 words.

Turns out, all those things people say about teaching elementary and secondary school children really are true: It is rewarding. It is meaningful. It is inspiring. I’m aware that this might sound cheesy. “Tis’ better to give than to receive,” and all that good stuff. But sometimes clichés are true.

Shame it only took me 20 years to figure that out…

Originally published at realdelia.com

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