Not for them — for me!
I have actually noticed this often over my teaching career, but it has been particularly evident to me this week, when I have been feeling quite frustrated, angry, and disheartened by things that need to stay off this blog (at least for now): teaching is good for my mental health. However glum or grim I feel as I head over to my classroom, by the time I come out I almost always feel better: more energetic, more focused, happier about my job and even, usually, happier about my life in general. Why do you suppose that is? Fellow teachers, do you also experience this effect?
I think for me at least one reason it happens is that I always inhabit a persona when I’m teaching: class is always a bit of a performance, with me playing the role of “Myself, Only More So, And More Positive.” Though I am always sincerely enthusiastic about our readings and topics of discussion, I make a point of showing that enthusiasm and being as upbeat and energetic as I can manage about our work. My hope, of course, is that this enthusiasm is contagious, or at least that it gets and maybe even keeps people’s attention, if only in the spirit of “What is this strange woman so excited about?” Even when I’m depressed or cranky otherwise, I try to get into this role once class begins, and after a while, especially if participation is good and the discussion is interesting, I usually forget I’m in a bad mood and just carry on as usual. Advice to “fake it till you make it” has always sounded shallow, even a bit creepy, to me, but in this context, there’s definitely something to it.
Another reason teaching is a tonic for me, though, is precisely that I am not faking my interest in the course materials, and time spent really focusing on them brings me back in touch with the things that brought me into this profession in the first place. I loved being an English student myself (well, I loved being an undergraduate student – I mostly hated being a graduate student), and it’s in the classroom that the reasons for that are most present to me: the books themselves, of course, but also the open-minded engagement with them — teasing out what is most interesting, looking at the details and trying to put them into patterns that illuminate the whole, thinking and talking about the ideas that animate them, and all this, best of all, in conversation with other keen readers who bring their own questions and ideas to the process. This week’s readings are very purposeful, too, which gives our work on them extra urgency: in Mystery & Detective Fiction, we’ve just wrapped up Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s The Terrorists, and in 19th-Century Fiction we’ve just started Gaskell’s Mary Barton, so in addition to their literary particulars, they raise lots of questions about art and politics, about class conflict, about women and economics and law and justice and equality … about values, in other words, and how novels can serve them. That’s good stuff! I have spent a fair amount of time in recent months dealing with the aspects of academia that I like the least. Time in the classroom reminds me that all the rest of it is, ultimately, in service of something I really do cherish.
It’s also just a good thing in general to be forcibly distracted from the source of one’s stress. I am something of a brooder, and when things are giving me trouble they go round and round in my mind, interfering with my concentration during the day, keeping me up at night, and generally infecting my consciousness. At these times, it’s not ideal to have reading as my chief hobby and pleasure, as it is a relatively passive activity and does not necessarily keep the troubled mind from wandering. Writing, too, can become pretty compromised by stress. If I do get caught up in either reading or writing, it can be wonderfully transporting and restorative, but sometimes that turns out to be a big “if.” Teaching, however, absolutely demands my full attention — which is why it can be so exhausting, but also, I think, why it can be so therapeutic. If for an hour or more you simply can’t get on that mental hamster wheel of doubt or anxiety or confusion, you may be a little slower clambering back on it when you return, and who knows, eventually you may even bypass it entirely and find a clear, positive path forward.