A passion for teaching?

3 May

Recently a colleague emerged from a particularly trying cover class experience, having decided that all of the problems that were experienced in the lesson could be traced back to a single overriding fault – the teacher’s lack of passion for the teaching.  Vainly it was pointed out that (a) this particular class has a bit of a reputation for being tricksy (b) their regular teacher has huge amounts of experience as a young learner teacher and teacher trainer and still finds them a bit of a handful (c) what they really need is to to be suspended from the ceiling by their thumbs until they’re willing to behave.

Which got me wondering….  Which other professions require “passion” from their practitioners?  Is a passion for teaching a pre-requisite for the job?  Or just an optional extra?

I think if you look around at other careers, passion is possibly a nice thing to have but not necessarily a requirement in the same way that it is perceived to be in teaching.  Anyone who’s been anywhere near a hospital emergency room outside daylight hours will be able to confirm that while medical staff may treat you with practiced efficiency and considerate empathy – passion is not often in evidence.  Then there are those professions where passion could be a definite drawback:  a passionate accountant anyone?  Or a a passionate undertaker?

Curiously flattered by the number of students wishing to attend the class that day, the teacher rushed off to the copy room to make an extra set of handouts.

Alright – no matter how much it might sometimes feel like dealing with a bunch of corpses – teaching and undertaking require somewhat different skill sets.  But the point is still valid:  almost every job, profession or career requires competence and professionalism.  Why is it then that teaching also requires passion?

I have written before on the unreal expectations placed upon teachers and the nobility of purpose that pervades the profession.  I think perhaps that the requirement for teachers to display a passion for our profession is tied into that.  Essentially it comes out of good customer relations.  Students, or their parents, wish to entrust their education to someone who cares.  The teacher is therefore required, by convention if nothing else, to demonstrate that they care.  Hence the belief that passion is required to be a good teacher arises and consequently teachers are judged on whether they are good or not by whether they clearly demonstrate a passion for the cause.

Which is possibly unfair.  I suspect that if most of the people reading this take a moment to think their way around their staffroom, they could identify colleagues who are extremely able, experienced and professional – but for whom “passionate” is not an adjective that could be applied to their working lives.

If I think back over the academic year so far, I’m not sure that passion has applied very much.  Hopefully the experience, ability and professionalism have been in evidence – I’m fairly sure there have been occasional bursts of enthusiasm and creativity and with any luck everyone has taken something out of the lessons that they didn’t have before, but passion?  Maybe not.

The new DoS had spent some considerable time perfecting her “teacher’s look”.

Does that matter?  Also not sure.  I think this differs from teacher to teacher and different experiences and standards apply at different stages of a teaching career.  For some, the passion they have for the profession provides a guiding light, a light for them in the dark places when all other lights go out.  We all have moments in the dark places of teaching and if you have that light, so much the better.

For others however, the passion is like paint and plaster over the face of a wall seated on a shaky foundations.  It can cover up a multitude of pedagogical sins and ultimately if these problems are not addressed the whole edifice can come crashing down.

Personally, I don’t think I’m in a professional  place where a passion for teaching is that important to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I care about what I do and try to do the best I can with the time I have available – but, well, maybe I’m thinking too deeply about the word passion, but I’m not sure I can summon up much of it for the classroom these days and I’m not completely sure I need to either…


16 Responses to “A passion for teaching?”

  1. Paul Read Friday 3 May 2013 at 17:59 #

    Interesting post, interesting question!
    I think when I think of “passion” I imagine squealing enthusiasm for whatever the little dears say, and excited windmilling of arms when explaining something.
    When I think of passionlessness (?) I imagine dreary, heads-down, this-is-what-it-says-in-the-book-ism without creative thought. “Just get through it”.

    Perhaps the reason that passion is afforded such importance is that teachers generally feel the second way is not the best way to learn languages, but that nobody is very confident about what a good way is? So, energetic enthusiasm is the card that says “at least I am trying”.

    I guess medicine would be the same if nobody really knew which drug worked best. You’d tend to trust the doctor who looked like she cared what she was doing over the one who looked like they’d rather be somewhere else.

    Once people reach a certain level of experience, though, I guess they already know that what they do works as well as anything else they might do. Perhaps they feel they have nothing to prove to anyone else?

    I don’t know.. just thinking aloud… Cheers! 🙂

    • David Petrie Thursday 9 May 2013 at 19:06 #

      Hi Paul,
      I think the definition of “passion” might well be one of the key issues here – it means different things to different people. A friend pointed out the other day that it’s been slightly devalued by being absorbed into management speak with adverts requiring respondents to have “demonstrated a passion for delivering excellence across key variables” or some such twaddle….
      But you’re right – people like and trust people who at the very least appear to care…

      All the best

  2. Lucia de Corona Friday 3 May 2013 at 18:58 #

    Thank you I am a passionate teacher And have always been passionate all thru my career as a Global Strategist-Innovator & Growth Planner

    In my personal opinion, YES Passion is the key to success in any thing or work you do

    And know that I am an English Teacher for Business Executives I have experience that my Passion for teaching has enhanced my students confidence in themselves and results in their learning path

    Cordially, Lucia De Corona

    PD: Please keep sending your emails

    Enviado desde mi iPhone

    El 03/05/2013, a las 09:31, teflgeek escribió:

    > >

    • David Petrie Thursday 9 May 2013 at 19:08 #

      Hi Lucia,
      Thanks for the comment and I’m glad you enjoy reading the posts! So I guess the next question has to be what do all those teachers who have given up on the passion they used to have for the profession, or who have had that passion eroded over the years by increasing amounts of paperwork and management oversight, reductions and cutbacks in budgets and the general assault on their emotions that comes from working with difficult classes, what do they do?
      All the best,

  3. GingerLewman Saturday 4 May 2013 at 12:43 #

    My husband scoops cow and other animal poo as a large part of his job. He also supervises inmates in this job as well. And while he may not be squealing with joy at every turn (seriously, who does that regardless of their joy in their work?), he has found a passion in that he’s helping to care for some of the last Commons ground in the US.
    Similarly, I’d say that having deep pride and care in the quality of work you do in the ER or as a mortician in how loved ones are cared for…I’d certainly call that a level of passion, especially in jobs that are quite emotionally and physically demanding.

    Is passion a must-have? No. You can face your daily work like you’re on an assembly line. But passion? Having a deeper meaning for what you do? Yeah, I think that’s the secret to sustained happiness, whether you’re working with kids, bodies, or scooping cow poo.
    Squealing is not required.

    • David Petrie Thursday 9 May 2013 at 19:14 #

      Hi Ginger,
      thanks for commenting – I’ll be honest, I don’t envy your husband! But I suppose there’s something to be said for actually being knee deep in poo all the time as opposed to just feeling as though you are…!

      I guess part of my problem with the requirement for passion in the job is that it isolates and excludes all those people who don’t feel this overwhelming joy and passion, which it appears we are all meant to have. There is an edge of evangelist’s zeal to some in the profession which I think is just as unhealthy as not having any passion for the job at all – but quite what the right level of passion you need to have? I’m not so sure about that!

      Thanks again,

      • SJR Tuesday 8 November 2016 at 09:20 #

        “I guess part of my problem with the requirement for passion in the job is that it isolates and excludes all those people who don’t feel this overwhelming joy and passion, which it appears we are all meant to have”

        YES! This.

  4. stevebrown70 Sunday 5 May 2013 at 06:58 #

    This is an interesting thought. Maybe the importance of passion in teaching comes from the need to motivate. We don’t just have to be enthusiastic about what we are doing, we have to instil a certain level of enthusiasm in our students in order to make them do things.
    I would suggest that any job that requires getting other people to do things they might not necessarily want to do requires a certain level of passion, or perceived passion at least. People need to be able to trust that what they are being made to do is worthwhile, and they are more likely to do this if the person making them do it is passionate about it.

    • David Petrie Thursday 9 May 2013 at 19:18 #

      Hi Steve,
      that’s a very valid point and I hadn’t really thought about the degree of passion needed to motivate people to perform – particularly in a classroom setting. There’s quite an interesting TED talk by Dan Ariely on how people respond better to work they perceive as having greater meaning, regardless of the actual benefits (financial or otherwise) they gain from performing the work. I was planning to blog about it’s relevance to the language classroom at some point, so watch this space!

      Thanks for the comment,

  5. Sophia Sunday 5 May 2013 at 12:52 #

    Hi David. I read this post a couple of days ago and am still thinking about it ☺ Sometimes I get so tired of froth-at-the-mouth enthusiasm from teachers for a job that often doesn’t treat them very well, and to be perfectly honest, is often taken for granted by great swathes of students. But I’m with Ginger – if we replace “passion” by “caring” then I think it’s an essential part of absolutely any job. I believe – possibly like a complete and total sucker – that everyone should care about what they do, should take pride in their work, and should try to do it to the best of their ability. I’m infuriated by people who don’t care about what they do – especially when I am paying them to do something for me! You seem to be someone who does work hard, who is being paid to do a job and who does that job well, and in a professional fashion. So if I were your student, that would be great. I don’t need squealing or slavering or intruding into my personal life – I just want people to do what they are supposed to do and do it properly. However, there is something else – not quite “passion”, something more like “vocation” – but that’s another froth-at-the-mouth word…anyway, basically I absolutely believe that someone should only become a a teacher, or a nurse or a doctor if they care about *people*. The whole raison d’etre of these jobs is the person you are doing it for – so why is it that so many doctors, nurses and teachers treat the people they are supposed to be helping as invisible or unworthy of respect, empathy, kindness, or attention? I really hate this – and the fact that it so often just luck of the draw – and yet at times they literally hold someone’s life in their hands. In the case of teachers, I’m thinking of that teacher in a child’s life who can make or break their attitude to education, their self-image, the way they are perceived by others, even their future career path. For most EFL teachers perhaps the moment of having that sort of significance is passed, but I wouldn’t completely abandon the idea that a caring teacher can still have a great impact on the right person at the right time.

    • David Petrie Thursday 9 May 2013 at 23:40 #

      Hi Sophia,

      You describe me as someone who appears to work hard, do my job well and professionally and I would say that I try to do all these things to the best of my ability as often as I can (isn’t that all anyone can do?) – and I hope my students are happy with the way I work. But whether passion plays a part in this I’m not so sure.

      As I said in answer to Paul’s comment (above), part of the problem here is that these terms are almost entirely subjective and what one person characterizes as passion, another might see as amused indifference. Culturally and linguistically, I think these things mean different things in different contexts.

      I also think that almost without exception people become teacher with the best of intentions and because they see an opportunity to make a differences in the lives of their students and to help those students achieve their goals – in short, as you say, because they care. How long though, does that feeling last? And what does someone who may have been in education for 20 years or so do? Especially in these uncertain times and when a job in education (in many state sectors at least) is a guarantee of employment?

      Something else to think about! 😉


  6. tomtesol Sunday 5 May 2013 at 14:25 #

    No evidence, of course, but I suspect that among certifiably happy professionals 30 years into a career, a passion for what they are doing is one of the things they all have in common. I doubt the kids who are seeing the world while paying off student loans are as concerned about being passionate about their profession. So, to layer your question, “Is having a passion for it important to remain happy in your career?” I would say yes, and assuming it’s full-time and primary, it’s probably important for happiness with life.

    • geoffjordan Thursday 9 May 2013 at 02:39 #

      Passion’s a very strong word, which certainly suits your very engaging style, if I may say so.

      There are lots of studies about burnout among EFL/ /ESL teachers (the most recent I’ve seen is Burnout Among English Language Teachers In Malaysia by Mukundan and Khandehroo, In Education Research, 2010 Volume 3, 1, 71) and I think it’s right to recognise that there are hundreds of thousands of people doing badly-paid, badly-supervised jobs in our field for whom “passion” would hardly be the first term they’d think of if asked to describe how they felt about their job. When you read reports about what’s going on in China, Malaysia,Japan, not to mention here in Spain where thousands of EFL teachers are working for 12 euros an hour with no proper contracts, you realise that your own existential doubts are something of a luxury. This goes for everything, of course, and I’m in no position to throw stones.

      • David Petrie Thursday 9 May 2013 at 23:58 #

        Hi Geoff,

        Passion is a strong word and I think that’s part of the problem – despite the strength of such a word, the poll on this blog post seems to indicate most people see it as a necessary part of the job, though whether they all see passion as being a strong word isn’t known.

        And I’m fully aware that having the time and space to even enter into a debate on this topic is a luxury – but this is partly why I think the debate is worthwhile. I wonder whether many teachers, like those surveyed in Mukundan, have their feelings of “reduced personal accomplishment” or “emotional exhaustion” exacerbated simply because in addition to feeling bad about the job they do, they are bombarded with messages that say they should always be feeling amazing, passionate and enthusiastic in order to be a “good teacher”?

        I know when I’m feeling crappy and dangerously close to throwing students through the window that encountering the remorselessly positive does little to improve my mood….


        PS – for those wanting to look at the article Geoff mentions, the link here goes directly to a pdf download:


    • David Petrie Friday 10 May 2013 at 00:16 #

      Hi Tom,
      I’m only ten years into my tefl career, so I’ll get back to you in another 20 and let you know how it goes….!
      I don’t disagree with your premise, but I still take issue with that word passion…. it just seems to require a greater depth of feeling and commitment than I think any job should be allowed to ask for.
      Thanks for the comment,


  7. Debra Flynn Tuesday 21 May 2013 at 11:08 #

    More Info: Hobbs, L. (2012). Examining the aesthetic dimensions of teaching: Relationships between teacher knowledge, identity and passion. Teaching and Teacher Education, 28(5), 718–727.

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