Zen of teaching

21 October 2015, 1706 EDT

There are a lot of really great aspects of professorial teaching. It at the core of education, and thus at the core of universities as institutions of higher education. Professors have the opportunity to watch students grow through discovery and skill building. Professors and students through the practice of teaching build a shared connection of knowledge and inquiry. For many faculty and (hopefully) students, teaching raises new perspectives and forces reconsideration of established ideas. Teaching has economic benefits for students, notwithstanding recent debates. All of this and more is well known, particularly to colleagues outside major research universities, where teaching is sometimes seen as a task to be endured rather than embraced.

Having just seen a TedX talk on the link between happiness and living in the moment, another benefit of teaching occurs to me that I have not see discussed. It turns out that when our minds wander, we report being substantially unhappier than when we remain focused and in the moment.

That makes a lot of sense. Some of the most satisfying moments in life are when I am in the zone, focused on what I am doing at that moment. That is possible to achieve when writing, but it is tough, as proliferation of focusing techniques suggests. Almost uniquely among the activities faculty undertake, teaching regularly forces us to live in the moment. Whether lecturing or using a more interactive pedagogy, during that hour or so of teaching and learning, we cannot afford to let our minds wander. If we do, we run the risk of forgetting the point we are trying to make, or missing the question a student is raising, or losing track of the lesson’s agenda. If we do it well, teaching also pushes our students to live in the moment as they take notes (handwritten preferably), or participate in an exercise, or look for an opportunity to ask a question. Thus the distilled nature of the classroom experience focuses the minds of all concerned on the moment.

This in turn might provide valuable psychological wellbeing. By allowing us to ignore pressing deadlines, administrative obligations, and other concerns that have a tendency to intrude into our thoughts and those of our students, teaching prevents our minds from wandering and in the process makes us…happy. And the same for our students, even if they may not realize it. Teaching, then, is good for our collective psycho-emotional health.