Lately, I’ve started to feel as though my friends have outpaced me in a career.
My cousin and sister have been promoted.
A close friend is halfway through her graduate program.
A (different) cousin just earned her doctorate degree.
And here I am, plugging away at the same job I’ve been at for the past six years, still living in my apartment, with not much hope for advancement in the near future. (I’m exploring a few ideas, but I don’t have any strong plan yet.)
Don’t get me wrong; I’m good at what I do, and I enjoy it. (At least, I do when I’m not grading the nineteenth paper in a row!) But the fact remains that when I was growing up, I thought I’d be changing the world.
There’s an expectation, I think, that in our work we need to go big, as big as possible, as soon as possible. All those “30 before 30” lists only feed this mindsets, as does every article about yet another high school student who is changing the world or starting a business or feeding refugees.
But not everybody achieves big things, in big, visible, immediate ways.
One of my former students, Aaron, texted me a month ago, asking for the title of the essay we read about censorship in Intro to Literature. (It was Milton’s Areopagitica.) I knew he’d enjoyed the essay when we read it in class, but not until he reached out to me did I realize how deeply it impressed him and shaped his views on cultural engagement.
The thing is, before Areopagitica impressed Aaron, it impressed me. I teach it because when I read it for the first time ten years ago, it changed my life. Now, I’ve asked more than a hundred Introduction to Literature students to read it too. I’ve asked them to memorize the same passage from Areopagitica that I was asked to memorize. I hope it will bear fruit in their lives as it did in mine, and I think my recent conversation with Aaron shows that sometimes it does.
Yet the professor who taught me Areopagitica does not, as far as I know, know about any of this. She knows, I believe, that I enjoyed reading Areopagitica and that I thought about it after leaving school; she doesn’t know that I teach it; she certainly doesn’t know what kind of impact it has in my students’ lives!
Teaching, especially teaching in the humanities, is not a job with big, immediate, visible results. I know that it’s cliche to say that teaching is like planting seeds, but I’ve been thinking lately how true that is. What I teach my students may germinate for months and years; when it finally bears fruit, there’s a good chance that I won’t get to see that happen, as my teachers don’t see their work coming to fruition in the lives of my own students.
I mentioned at the beginning of my post my discouragement, my feeling that the world was racing on without me. Yet I’ve also been feeling that I cannot let this discouragement define my work. I need to be comfortable with uncertainty, and not let the lack of visible results distract us from our work. I need to be willing to play the long game.
Teaching does not have an immediate, visible payoff. It does not result in yearly promotions and (if you work at a tiny institution like mine) yearly raises, like in the business world.
But if I’m patient, I’m confident that it will pay off richly.
*Student names have been changed to protect privacy.