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Teaching: The Single Most Important Profession

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

I’m not much for Hallmark holidays. But when I found out today that it’s Teacher Appreciation Week, well, this one got me. The work of a psychology professor is multi-faceted. People are often surprised at how many different things fall under the umbrella of the job. As a psychology professor and department chair, all the following fall under my job purview:

  • Schedule all the classes that are taught under Psychology for my university
  • Staff all these classes with the best possible teaching faculty
  • Advise students on their academics
  • Advise students on things beyond simple academics (e.g., careers in the field)
  • Write papers on all kinds of topics for all kinds of audiences
  • Design and implement research projects on questions related to the behavioral sciences
  • Collaborate with students in developing and implementing research projects
  • Oversee undergraduate and graduate research theses
  • Serve on committees (yawn!)
  • And a ton more

But I also teach—each and every semester—and usually in the summers and winters too. And I have to say that teaching my classes is, without question, the centerpiece of my work. More than 20 years deep into this career, I’ve become convinced that teaching is, without question, the most important career there is. No other career impacts so many people along so many dimensions than does teaching.

Why Is Teaching the Most Important Profession?

Teachers have the capacity to shape the minds and futures of many—and they do so at all kinds of critical life stages. Kindergarten teachers introduce young minds to the wonder of learning—and to the basic tools of learning that students will use their entire lives. Middle school teachers have the onerous challenge of instilling a passion for academics in large groups of teens and tweens, whose minds are so deeply focused on developmental issues and their idiosyncratic social worlds. High school teachers are charged with teaching detailed intellectual content to large groups of “near adults”—whose worlds are often tumultuous on the inside and on the outside. College professors are charged with inspiring young adults—teaching them the nuts and bolts of highly technical content areas while showing them how limitless their life possibilities are. And in combination, across an individual’s lifespan, it is an army of teachers who have ultimately shaped how that individual understands the world and his or her place in it.

The Most Important Attributes of a Great Teacher

There are few roles in society that rival the importance of a great teacher. Stars in any field—music, athletics, engineering, medicine, politics—have an army of teachers to thank for teaching them the skills and values that currently allow them to be successful. Teachers are the builders of society—we build people—we build and develop future generations. There is no more important profession.

Based on my experience (I’ve been teaching college since 1994), I’d say that here’s a decent short-list of qualities that characterize great teachers:

  • Inspiration. Sure, teachers need to master content, and get students to do the same, but getting students excited about the content and about their own abilities, that’s a step above.
  • Time and Effort. Want to hear someone laugh? Tell a teacher that you think their profession requires little time and effort relative to other professions. Laughter is nearly guaranteed. Good teaching takes a ton of time and effort. And as with anything, the more time that goes in, the more the payout. During my first year as an assistant professor of psychology back at Western Oregon, I decided to count my hours. Over 80 each week—all year long. Things have gotten a little easier since then, but I will say this—I will never forget those calculations—and what they taught me about what it takes to succeed in the classroom.
  • Compassion. If you’re a teacher, then you are building people. And each individual student is an individual human being. And this point must always be kept in mind. Sure, some students may have a hard time doing some kind of equation—or may have a hard time handing work in on time—and yeah, this stuff can be annoying, I’ll admit it. But you know, no one’s perfect—and perfection should never be an expectation. As a teacher, part of your job is to show compassion for all your students as individuals and do your best to bring them to a higher level.

Thank a Teacher This Week

In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week, I thank the following teachers. Without their patience, hard work, inspiration, and guidance, there’s no way I’d be where I am today. And I am so grateful for all they’ve done!

  • Becky Warner—my doctoral dissertation advisor at the University of New Hampshire. From Becky, I learned so much. I learned the details of statistics for the social sciences (like nobody’s business) and the details of research methods in psychology. But I also learned about compassion and teaching with genuine belief in your students. From Becky, I learned that if you model hard work, your students will not only respect you, but they will follow suit.
  • Ed Gibbons—my high school wrestling coach—perhaps the greatest wrestling coach New Jersey had ever seen. I got more out of Coach Gibbs’ well-run and inspirational practices than perhaps I got from any other teacher in high school. What did Coach Gibbs teach me (and countless other young males in Caldwell, NJ)? Adversity builds character—and effort is the key to all success. ‘Nuff said.
  • Gordon Gallup—within the field of evolutionary psychology, I have been fortunate to develop a close relationship with the great Gordon Gallup of Albany—who has helped guide my research and teaching in the field for years. From Gordon, I learned this: If you have a question that you care about, go ahead and design the research and answer it—there are no limits if you choose to believe that there are no limits. And I also learned that inspiring the next generation of scholars is really, ultimately, the central part of the job.

Teacher Appreciation—Not a Bad Thing!

If you know how to read and write, you should thank a teacher. If you’ve got some math skills, you should thank a teacher. If you can play an instrument, sing, or dance—then you should thank a teacher. If you can swing a bat and hit a ball, then you should thank a teacher. Each and every career depends importantly on the work of armies of teachers who ultimately are those in society who are charged with people building. And there is nothing more important than that.

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