Teaching and Mental IllnessPrint
By Paula Marantz Cohen
One of the dirty little secrets of good teaching is that it is often fueled by dubious psychological factors. I won’t go so far as to say that most teachers are mentally ill, but I will say that many of us come close. But is this really surprising? Many actors are driven by mental demons, so why not teachers? In teaching, the audience is more intimate, the performances more frequent, and the material more associated with the performer (no one writes our scripts). Moreover, feedback is both more continual and more vocal than in a theatrical performance. Actor friends have described what it feels like to bomb on stage, but can this really compare with the animus that we teachers receive when students unite against us? Heckling is not considered good manners in the theater, but it is par for the course in the classroom.
But the reason we persevere is that the positive reinforcement that comes with a good class is headier than a standing ovation—though it can include that too. Students cluster around our desks, come to our office hours, hang on our words. These are our fans, and they are not just supporters of our work. They are individuals whose emerging worldview we help shape. Parenting might be compared to teaching, but as a parent, constant proximity to our progeny dulls the positive effects of influence. With our students, being “seldom seen,” we can be more “wonder’d at.”
I often speak with my colleague Albert DiBartolomeo, a philosopher of the classroom, about how teaching derives from a psychic wound that we seek to fill and never can. We are trying to prove that we are worthy—to project who we are more precisely, more interestingly, and more coherently each time we teach. Our sense of self is constantly being bolstered and shredded as we succeed and fail. Those of us who are most susceptible to this dynamic might just be the best teachers, if also the most damaged human beings: vain, vulnerable, insatiable for recognition. We feel the vocation as a visceral experience, life and death for our fragile egos. We can excite students with the vitality and urgency of learning because we feel that so much is at stake for ourselves.
Paula Marantz Cohen is a distinguished professor of English at Drexel University and the author of the novels Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death and the SATs and the recent What Alice Knew: A Most Curious Tale of Henry James and Jack the Ripper.
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