I teach American history at a state university. I like the job, for many reasons, not all of them noble. But I walk out of nearly every class with a feeling of having failed. Nearly every class. I suspect that’s true of most teachers.
This could just be neurosis, because according to the standard metrics we use to measure teaching quality (peer reviews and student evaluations) I show up as quite a good teacher.
It’s true those measures are suspect–students fill them out in haste, and especially with undergraduates, it’s not always clear that they understand “good teacher” in the same way we do. That is, on the aggregate undergraduates tend to reward an entertaining teacher rather than a demanding teacher.
I also enjoy a range of unearned advantages–I’m very tall, I have gray hair, I’m middle aged, and a male, which is pretty much the jackpot of assumed, unearned credibility with first year students, and probably inflates my scores.
But I think the recurring sense of failure–and fellow teachers, check me if I’m wrong–is a problem of scale, the feeling that however well you did, there’s so much more to it. And the more you know, the more you care, the worse the problem gets. The more you know, the less likely you are to be able to convey it effectively: it’s too complicated and there’s too much of it.
One argument to this would be “it’s not about conveying your knowledge, you egotist; it’s about teaching the process of making knowledge available.” That’s very true, but even there, as a teacher your sense of/experience of the process of making knowledge available is so much deeper/broader than the students. I have a lot more “ways of reading” available to me and what’s more I’m comfortable with them and reasonably fluid, the way everybody gets with practice. It takes years.
So the the argument becomes “you aren’t teaching actual knowledge and you aren’t teaching actual methods, you’re opening a door students can walk through.” That is, to paraphrase the old cliche, you aren’t actually teaching a man to fish, you’re just teaching him that there’s such a thing as fishing and here’s a way to do it, which probably won’t actually work because it’s much too simple.
There are probably fields where experience doesn’t work against you. General contracting, for example, or skilled trades generally. But I’m willing to bet that in most fields there’s a balance point, after which experience and knowledge become a double edged sword. Imagine you are a professional musician. The longer you play, the more the weight of what you’ve already played before bears on the present.
This may seem like whining, or worse like fishing for compliments. I don’t mean it as either. I like my job and in the spectrum of jobs, it’s a good one and I’m lucky to have it, and I’m not bad at it. But I doubt I’m alone in this feeling.