The Five Stages of Teaching, Or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned To Love Learning.

If you are lucky or unlucky enough to teach, you know: it is a unique experience. There is nothing quite like trying to help someone else learn something that you presume to know.

If you don't presume to know what you're teaching, that's something else: finding out together. And that's fine, too. It's not usually what we call teaching, though maybe it should be.

Teaching can actually be a form of 'finding out together'--once you recognize that you do not already know the best way to help another person learn.

Getting to that point--caring enough about another person to help her learn, rather than just telling her stuff--is a journey. In what follows, I'll describe that journey (as I experienced it) in the first person and in five stages. These are like Kubler-Ross's stages of grief--with a few differences.

One difference is: not everyone goes through these stages, and not everyone goes all the way to the end. Different people inhabit different stops along this road, though I find most teachers I know inhabit one such position, and most move at some point along this pathway.

Unlike Kubler-Ross, I don't have the chutzpah (or the research data) to claim these stages are universal. But I bet a lot of folks will recognize in themselves or their teachers at least one of these stages.

1. Coolness

"I'm so lucky: I get to teach. Now I will share with my students all the neat things I know. They will be excited to learn--just like I was."

Note the narcissism here: the learner is just like me. That's one of the first illusions to fall.

I should also point out: Many people never get here. You never get here if:

  • you think teaching is simply a chore that you can do by rote--like washing the dishes.
  • You never try to see things from the learner's point-of-view.
  • You presume that if you show up, say a few words, grade the papers, that you are done. Zero moral responsibility for the other's experience.

If you know some cool stuff and are excited to share it, this is a fine start.

The trouble begins when the first tests and papers come in.


It's everything you told them about the topic--but garbled beyond recognition. Like seeing yourself in a funhouse mirror, only uglier and not fun.

When this happens, you have two options.

Option A. Decide the student is the problem. Keep grading. Soldier on. Develop a sense of humor about how your students don't 'get' you.

Some people stay at 1.A.


Option B. You still love the discipline. You want them to understand. You need them to understand. (Because, of course it's still about you and not the student.) You decide to try a new tack.

2. Brute Force

"I will make them understand. Clarity. Order. I will find The Perfect Way to explain every topic and sub-topic."

You are no longer naive. There is some improvement in the results--but at a cost.

You become a maniac. Strict repetition. Narrowness. No original thinking permitted.

You have made the students parrots. You are a martinet at best, a drill sargent at worst.

Your enthusiasm is gone. Replacing it? Creepy pleasure in domination, control.

3. The Game

You begin to be irked. You are irked by the few students who do not fall under your control. They refuse to learn. They are backwards. They must be shown The Way.

You are bound and determined. So begins Stage #3.

"I will prevent them from escaping my grasp. I will find every exit, every loophole, every way of avoiding learning. I will block all the exits. No one gets outta here uninformed."

Teaching becomes a strategic interaction. Everything is now a contest. It's you vs. the student.

Now you're not just a martinet or a drill sargeant: now you really are an asshole.

You still think your discipline is the most important thing. But you have confused a discipline and a religion.

You will succeed in convincing your students of this: you are a jerk, and learning is no fun. Big win for you: none of your students will go on to graduate school in your discipline. More space in the journals for you.

4. The Awakening

You realize something. "This is no fun. I am an asshole."

You recognize what you've done. Antagonism has edged out joy. You have killed joy. The whole reason you thought teaching was fun? It's gone. God is dead: you have killed Him. The funhouse mirror is no longer your students: it's you.

You clean the slate, start fresh.

"I will change things up. I will focus on questions, not answers. I will aim to inspire, not control; to attract, not to dominate."

You recognize that statements can be misunderstood. So you forego statements. You switch to questions. You pose riddles. You offer puzzles. The battle is over, because there are no sides. You are trying to arouse curiosity: there are no sides to curiosity.

You try to interest students in what is interesting in your discipline. Your discipline sheds light on puzzles, clarifies mysteries. The beginning of every initiation ritual is the recognition of a mystery, something larger than yourself.

It's finally here: humility. It was a long time in coming.

This is the beginning. You might teach this way for a very long time: question-driven, inspiring. People talk about your classes. Students seek you out. They wrongly believe you have more answers than you do. Posing questions sometimes makes people think you have the answers--but are hiding them. You are hiding nothing. You are only showing how to ask.

This is a fine place to be.

You might, however, continue down the path just a bit further.

5. Permanent Revolution

The turn has been taken. There is no going back.

Rigidity is gone.

You tried one new thing. The floodgates are open. You try something else. It is no longer a question of finding The Way: there are many ways. Pluralism--but not 'anything goes.'

It is no longer a question of the best approach: it is a question of being responsive. You no longer want the learner to come to you: you want to go to the learner.

You try new things. Constantly.

"My syllabus used to be a work of art: now it is a work-in-progress. My only rule is: when in doubt, I will let the students decide. Let the students write the assignments. Let the students write the syllabus. Don't 'make' them: invite them."

Some of your colleagues believe you have lost your mind; some students do too; you don't care.

You will do anything, anything to improve the students' learning experience.

You say "yes" more than "no." Or like the actor improvising, you say "yes--AND...."

Your only yardstick is: success. And that means: the learner's success, not yours. You don't care about rules. You only care about results.

There is no going back.


--Edward R. O'Neill


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