Next to being with my wife and family, I can’t think of anything that makes me happier than teaching. The feeling I get can rightfully be described as euphoric and, to be honest, a little high. I pondered choosing the word euphoria to describe the effect that teaching has on me and considered finding a different word. “Euphoria” can have negative connotations, such as when a feeling that is created is not based in reality. Hence, it is only temporal and will pass when reality sets in!
I chose to stay with the word “euphoria” for two reasons. First, despite sometime negative connotations, one can feel euphoric for quite legitimate, reality-based, reasons. Physical exercise, for instance, can produce feelings of euphoria immediately afterward. Achieving some important and hard-won lifegoal can create euphoric elation and deep satisfaction. Such can feel almost unreal as it may have come only after a long and arduous journey in life. Euphoria simply means happiness and can come from either valid or invalid sources.
Another reason I chose this word is its etymology. It comes from a Greek word that means “healthy” and that word comes from another Greek word, which means “to bear.” In medicine in times past it can refer to the successful administration of a treatment, so when a patient who was ill recovers, the treatment is said to be “well-bearing.” Happiness and good health are often thought of together. All things constant, a healthy person is typically a happy person. Unhappiness of any kind can have a deleterious effect on the body. The body and the mind are intimately connected and interwoven. The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Vessel Van der Kolk, M.D (2015), is a profound and scholarly, yet eminently readable, study that demonstrates this connection.
So, I chose to relate euphoria to teaching because, for me, teaching is “well-bearing.” Teaching is a cause of happiness and well-being for me. It is not unusual that, following a class, I frequently tend to feel euphoric—that is, a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction. I would also describe the feeling I have as calming and grounding. Sure, sometimes I am simultaneously physically drained. Unless you teach, you don’t know how teaching can really take it out of you. But it can! Even amid the tiring effect of teaching, the euphoria is present, nonetheless.
Why does teaching create euphoria in me? I don’t really know for certain. I enjoy teaching, of course, but I enjoy lots of things that don’t make me euphoric. So, I don’t really know but I will speculate. One possible source of the euphoria I experience is that teaching is performative. When you teach you must know your audience and know what response you want to draw out of them. To teach is not to merely transmit knowledge from my mind to the minds of my students. Teaching is not listing out all the points or facts for the students to memorize that they will later regurgitate on a test. When you teach, you want your students to learn, which also means you want their lives to be transformed for the better (hint: learning is more than coming to know things, it shapes character). Especially when teaching philosophy, as I do, or any of the humanities, seeing students “light up” or “get it” and knowing that it is going to stick with them throughout their lives is what you are aiming for.
It is true, very true, that to teach is in some sense to perform. I want my students leaving class thinking about wanting to come back to the next class. When I teach it is necessary for me and my style of teaching to interact with my “audience.” When there is a connection made between a teacher and students, a connection rooted in the content of the class, an environment is created that facilitates learning. So, I suspect that one source of euphoria in teaching for me follows a “performance,” especially when I perform well, and the “audience” responds well.
Another source of the euphoria, I am sure, is that my life has been forever transformed by teachers I have had. Knowing that I am now in that position and something I say or do, even small, will stay with a student the rest of their life, making a positive difference for them, is at once a trepidatious and deeply satisfying part of teaching. As with the performative aspect of teaching, a teacher is giving something of themselves to a student along with the knowledge and wisdom they seek to impart. My teachers did that for me, and it is elating to me that I can honor them by giving of myself for my students.
Finally, I think my teaching euphoria comes from the fact that my students also give something to me. They may not know what they give to me, but sometimes I have no doubt that they benefit me far more than I do them. They give me many things, truth be told, but one thing is hope. Students in the world today have so many things to struggle with and against. The world they are being given can be ominously bleak in many ways. Sure, we can find things to complain about with “those damn millennials” or “those Gen-Z kids and their attitude.” But don’t let stereotypes make your perception of reality become misshapen.
Interacting with my students, I see people who care about things that need caring. Despite all the struggles in the world and their personal or internal struggles, they have mettle. I always finish a semester with a hopeful sense that knowing this group is growing and going out into the world is a good thing. That is a flame I want to fan, not extinguish. And when I know that simply by being present to my students, I gave them a little more juice to go be good in the world, I am content.
That, my friends, is the euphoria of teaching.