The Joys of Teaching

July 10, 2024 22:41

There are days when I’d find myself giving lectures for over six hours to a combination of students, friends, peers, and folks who’d find my musings sufficiently interesting to last them for the better half of a working day. If two hours are tiring, one could only imagine what six hours would feel like.
Truth be told, to stand and speak continuously on subjects where conscious, deliberate thought and reflection are needed – is not just psychologically or intellectually demanding (as much as they may be stimulating); is also physically draining. Exhaustion is hence par for the course for academics who must regularly teach, even despite the distinct freedom that is afforded by the occupation.

Yet upon further reflection and consideration, I would quickly arrive at the conclusion such exhaustion does not amount to a detrimental experience. Indeed, there are many an experience in life that can be physically challenging, cognitively daunting, and emotionally taxing – yet these experiences are not net bads, or harmful on net, in a substantive sense. This is because the woes and strain they pose are easily offset and outweighed by the deep, profound satisfaction that comes with them – the sense of achievement, accomplishment, and transformative change associated with a distinct level of agency exercised and possessed by the individual subject in question. In short, the joys more than compensate for the “pains” and tribulations.

Hiking is one such activity, with the splendour of the vista and the freshness of the air, as well as sound, enriching conversations with friends making up for the laboriousness of the uphill climbs. Composing mellifluous music is another, as one mobilises notes and rhythm in an agonising process, to produce some of the most soothing and therapeutical works of art known to man. Teaching, especially for educators, is an innately joyous exercise – especially on subjects that one enjoys reflecting upon and contemplating in full.

The joys of teaching are multi-fold, and it would be impossible for me to exhaustively delineate and explore them in full here. With that said, the first and foremost source of joy stems from the transformation that you can see – sometimes visibly, at times less palpably – in one’s students. To be able to unlock the potential, to nourish the knowledge, and to expand the frontiers of thinking in the minds of one’s fellow companions is a privilege. To transform them into willing, proactive thinkers who are capable of and devoted to taking on orthodoxy and conservative, ossified doctrines, is a task that all teachers must take to heart – not just because of the increasing relevance and salience of such values, in view of the surge in closed-minded and myopic dogmatic thinking across the world, but also because such processes of awakening are often collectively cathartic for both teacher and pupil. In liberating the minds of those whom they teach, the teacher is also liberating themselves from the shackles of adhering to odious orthodoxy that is neither relevant nor factually reflective of the truth.

And then there’s the human interactions that render teaching scintillating and invigorating. Good students ask reasonable questions. Great students ask imaginative, bold, and intellectually disruptive questions. The real pleasure of the experience lies in answering questions – often probing, often challenging, and often without filter – from students who are as excited and fascinated by the subject of study as you are. To read out lecture notes and follow dry slides to a dull crowd is a monotonous and dreary exercise.

What’s much funner, is to engage and grapple with what is thrown at one by an animated audience – as challenges, as asks, and as impromptu inquiries. Indeed, such probing questions not only push one to venture beyond familiar territory, but also to involve students on a collective enterprise, anchored in the uncovering of hitherto unfamiliar territory. In short, the interactive nature of lessons and classes makes for a highly enjoyable mutual learning process – somewhat akin to the expedition. If each course is akin to an expedition into the unknown, then the teacher must serve as the expedition leader and guide – responsible in equal parts for shepherding and facilitating, as well as providing pastoral care and support to one’s students.

I have had the pleasure and fortune of working with many talented youths in public speaking, debating, critical thinking, and applied philosophy. Many amongst them have gone onto doing incredible things, shaping and contributing to public discourse whilst harnessing fiercely their independent thinking – in a free and undeterred manner – across campuses, non-profits, and other professional pursuits of theirs. In many ways, the impacts of teaching are both latent and mercurial – there is no guarantee that your students will turn out to be socially conscientious, devoted, and committed citizens (though you should certainly try to ensure that is the case). Yet in cases where one’s pedagogical transformation does – in fact – reap its fruits, one should take pride and comfort in the fact that each change-maker one nurtures, shall go onto inspiring and changing the lives of many more in the future. It is this positive spiral, this benign ripple effect, that makes teaching so fundamentally fulfilling – despite the apparent costs.

Within large bureaucratic systems, teachers could well see themselves as mere cogs in the machine – but that needn’t be the case. Indeed, even if they were but small parts of a much bigger whole, they are in the unique position to shape and mold the whole through influencing other, equally small parts. For a city is not built by a person alone, but by the collective efforts of thousands – if not millions.

Assistant Professor, HKU