“Good teaching is as much about passion as it is about reason. … It’s about caring for your craft, having a passion for it, and conveying that passion to everyone, most importantly to your students.” —Richard LeBlanc, York University
If you work anywhere near a school, you’re probably accustomed hearing people praised for, or urged to “rekindle” their passion for education. You may also cringe every time an administrator or consultant or parent mentions the word “passion,” because you understand it to be a platitude in the service of a larger pattern of condescension toward teachers. Practitioners of few other professions are so regularly praised for their emotional enthusiasm toward their jobs.
Part of the problem with talking about teaching is that Dr. LeBlanc has it partly correct: teaching is a craft in that teachers constantly design and revise learning experiences. But teaching is a craft that requires a great deal of academic preparation and training as well, and to put that under the heading of “passion “ is disdainful and patronizing.
Praising teachers for their emotional enthusiasm rather than their academic preparation, classroom experience, or talent and success with students can also implicitly justify low pay and a lack of respect. After all, teachers are “pursuing their passions” so it’s just…unseemly… even ungrateful of them to demand better pay and benefits, or a more meaningful voice in curricular decisions.
I get it, sort of…
Certainly, part of being a good history teacher (and my primary focus here is on my own subject, history) is having experience with the developmental stages and level of preparation of your students, of knowing what works for them, what they’re capable of, and how to get them there. That differs from school to school, between age groups, and sometimes from class period to class period. Often, the presence of one or two personalities in the room changes the way a teacher interacts with that particular group.
Some of what makes good teachers good is simply experience combined with personality and instinct; knowing how to “be” with your students so that you can do meaningful work with them, and so that they know what to expect from you. It’s also important that they know that you like them, that you care about them, and that you understand them.
So quite a bit of what makes an effective teacher effective is not necessarily easy to train for, nor is it easy to define and articulate, because the skills and how they’re deployed can vary widely between people and contexts. So, I can sort of see why all of this gets translated as “passion” because it’s about human relationships and it requires a great deal of emotional and physical energy and effort.
But I also have a master’s degree and thirty additional hours of graduate work in history as well as nearly twenty years of experience in the classroom. And without a solid base of academic training in the field, all of those class-management techniques and instincts honed from years of experience would be marshaled in the service of nothing, or worse.
It is not enough to be enthusiastic about history, it’s also important to be trained in historiography and historical methodology, and to keep current with the field as it develops. History is interpretation, and a solid background in how we have understood and interpreted events, and what factors influence the way we ourselves encounter history is crucial.
Edward Hallett Carr famously said that “the belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy, but one which it is very hard to eradicate” (What is History, 1961). This is going to sound insufferably sententious, but I believe that any history teacher for whom some version of that statement is not the starting point and driving pedagogical force for the work they do with students shouldn’t be teaching college-preparatory history. I know, I know, I sound like that op-ed writer who just. Won’t. Retire. But it’s true. The interpretive nature of the subject demands a kind of expertise that most people outside the profession simply do not, or don’t fully, understand.
I’ve seen very passionate teachers do things in the classroom that strain the limits of my collegiality and severely test the staying power of my poker face. Here are a few examples:
- Assigning superficial work that remains mired at the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy and reinforces a simplistic view of human history (“Humans simply became smarter in a linear chronological fashion, discovering fire, inventing the wheel, blah, blah, blah, iPhone 6.”)
- Assigning “cool” projects that produce no meaningful learning. (I once spent weeks watching a sugar-cube Great Wall of China attract ants and gradually disintegrate in the hallway outside my classroom.)
- Taking a “costumes and cuisine” approach to history and assuming that if we have students dress up in togas, somehow that will help them understand the significance of Roman history.
- Assuming that “cultural appreciation” is the same thing as history.
- Reading primary and secondary texts with no consideration of authorial point of view, and failing to understand that our own perspectives and worldviews shape how we understand history.
- Requiring only superficial, opinion-based writing that receives minimal constructive feedback. (I want to say “journaling” as a kind of shorthand for what I mean here, but that is unfair. It’s not the context, but the content of such writing that I oppose, and journaling can be very effective).
More often than not, the teachers who deploy these methods get very powerful praise and encouragement from their administrators, who themselves usually lack rigorous history backgrounds. So the B-period toga party makes it on to the school website, the puppet show gets its own assembly, and the sugary Great Wall rots proudly in the hall, because the people running the school don’t know any better. Absent an understanding of what meaningful history involves, we praise the photogenic, the most “engaging” projects, however superficial. An AP calculus class all dressed as Gottfried Leibniz would, I hope, raise some eyebrows in the main office. But somehow the wig-and-toga approach is seen as perfectly valid in history class.
There are many professions that traditionally garner sincere respect in our society, and I think it’s telling that we don’t use the word “passion” to describe what doctors, engineers, airline pilots, university professors, or hedge fund managers do. (I suspect that most hedge fund managers are probably scoundrels, but even I respect that the job requires a solid business background and a savvy intelligence about the marketplace and how to exploit it).
There are good, bad, and mediocre teachers. But the best are not just creative and enthusiastic, they are solidly grounded in their academic fields. The enthusiasm for their subjects that the best teachers encourage in their students doesn’t derive from emotional passion, at least not in any sustained, meaningful way. It derives from the understanding that the study of, say, history is a specific, unique, and rigorous way of looking at the past. It requires close reading and deep thinking, but done well it can reward students with a rich understanding of themselves and their place in the world. But that understanding comes from hard work and the guidance of a well-trained and talented historian, not from buying a wig at Party City.
So please, stop calling me passionate.