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Reading and Writing and Dancing as Long as the Music Plays

Why Teachers Teach

I have recently been reading Jane McGonigal’s book Reality is Broken. Dr. McGonigal’s very popular book helps us understand the draw and the power of gaming in our society and in the cyberworld. In doing so, she highlights the work of a number of psychologists exploring the realm of pleasure and satisfaction in our lives. Reading it, I think I have discovered what may be the single most powerful force that keeps teachers teaching despite the exhausting stress of the job itself.

Although many decry “computer games” as a sign that we are no longer socially engaged as a society, McGonigal takes issue with that stance and provides a great deal of evidence to support her position. As a part of that evidence she cites something she calls “vicarious pride.” This concept is based on the work of psychologist and game design expert Christopher Bateman, who coined the Yiddish term naches to describe the concept as it applied to the gaming world.

Naches was originally identified by a researcher on emotions, Paul Ekman, who explained it as the feeling of pride we feel when someone we have mentored or coached succeeds. Ekman saw this attribute as a vestige of the evolutionary process of survival mechanisms, since teaching the young the tricks of survival was critical to survival of the group as a whole. Those of us who are parents recognize this well and experienced it almost daily when our children were small. Think back to your baby’s first babbling when you talked to him or the sense of accomplishment that swelled your chest when she finally mastered riding a bicycle without training wheels. Naches is a highly pleasurable and satisfying emotion.

But, as McGonigal points out, most of us quickly lose that daily sense of naches as we focus on the “real” world, where most of what we do is highly individualistic. Very little mentoring is experienced or offered there and we typically lose that sense of social satisfaction, until and unless we become engaged in teaching someone else to play a computer game that we ourselves have mastered. Even if you’re not a player in a massive multiplayer online game, perhaps you’ve been addicted to Farmville or Words with Friends and loved enticing your friends to play and show them the tricks you’ve learned.

That’s when I made the connection. Teachers are never forced to give up naches! Day in and day out, despite the 60-hour weeks (I know most people don’t believe that) and the pressures of testing and teaching to the test (which goes against our professionalism) and the impossible task of bringing students up to speed who have little or no support at home, we keep on teaching. We do it for naches, for vicarious pride, for the feeling we get when we see the sparkle in the eye of the student who finally “gets it,” for the excitement we experience when students make out-of-the-box connections in a class discussion, for the relief and joy when the struggler finally passes his multiplication facts test after weeks of continued encouragement and practice. And for the catch in our hearts reading the handwritten notes at the end of the year that say in a child’s third-grade scrawl “Thank you for being the best teacher I ever had,” and the phone call that you get years later from a mom who says, “My son just graduated from high school and he says he never would have if you hadn’t taught him to read in eighth grade.” Yes, I think these instances qualify as “vicarious pride.”

So maybe it’s a teacher’s selfishness in craving that kind of satisfaction. Maybe it’s just a vestige of evolution. Whatever it is, I think we’re the lucky ones.

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