I just read a book called “Flourish” by Martin Seligman, which is about the field of positive psychology. He writes about how we are all actively seeking to flourish as human beings and the way we do that is by achieving well-being. Well-being is comprised of five components: positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning, and accomplishment. Go here if you are interested in reading more.
It’s interesting to consider how Seligman’s ideas apply to education. If you ask any random teacher why they teach, there’s a good chance that they will say they want to make a difference. While this is for many educators the most rewarding thing about teaching, when we go through a tough period it isn’t something we can fall back on for comfort because in most cases feeling like we aren’t making a difference is what caused us to feel lousy in the first place. Thus it’s important to keep in mind the other aspects of teaching that promote well-being that are a little more self centered.
For one thing, we get the opportunity to become experts in our field. I have taught Othello for years and know it so well that I don’t have to reread it and can quote several passages from memory. And every year I get a great deal of satisfaction while teaching it knowing that this is something I have down pat. However, there’s always something more to explore out there if I want to (this year it was looking up words from the play in the OED to see if they meant something different during Shakepeare’s day. Look up the word “nature” for some surprising antiquated meanings.) As much as I know about it, there is always a little bit more to discover.
Working towards mastery of something, even if we never get there, is very satisfying and ranks very high as an activity that gives our lives satisfaction. In fact, a colleague of mine, who gets a little depressed over the summer when she isn’t teaching, thinks that the problem is that she doesn’t get a daily chance to talk about her area of expertise.
Another place teachers can look to for well-being is the state of flow – when you are so engrossed in an activity that time passes without you knowing. As a new teacher it’s harder to achieve – you have to spend a lot of time managing all the parts of teaching you don’t have down yet. But the more I teach the more I find myself in a state of flow in the class. When this happens, I feel completely energized by the day as only being completely engrossed in something can do.
Even if we don’t feel like we are making a difference (and it would be unreasonable to assume that we do that every day) we can still take satisfaction from participating in something much larger than ourselves. There were teachers before us and teachers after us. Our students will continue to learn – in some fashion – after they leave our classroom in another grade or in post-graduate studies. When we retire, we are finished with our job, but our job isn’t finished.