The Therapy of Teaching

By Akil Parker

Therapy: treatment intended to heal or relieve a disorder; the treatment of mental or psychological disorders by psychological means


 I was a classroom teacher for 13 years and to put it bluntly, being a classroom teacher gave me life. Pontificating on different topics in front of a captive audience can be cool. Delivering instruction can be cool. Mastering your content area through teaching the content area is also cool. But to me, the coolest part of being a classroom teacher is developing the positive relationships with the students that you are responsible for. Often you will even develop relationships with students that you come in contact with regularly but are not even on your class roster. This is because certain teachers take responsibility for students regardless of whether they are on their roster or not. Some teachers are responsible elders and abide by the traditional African cultural practice of assuming responsibility for all children in the community because “it takes a village to raise a child.” The school is a community in and of itself.

 I still teach even though it is in a different capacity and with far less students. But when I did teach far more students, one of the reasons that I enjoyed the positive relationships I developed is because it was therapeutic for me. I do believe that a prerequisite for this circumstance is an innate belief in the humanity of your students. I am a Black man and my students (with few exceptions) were Black boys and girls that are generally dehumanized by the western society at large on a daily basis. If one embraces this belief in the absence of their humanity then the interaction would not be therapeutic and instead stressful and contentious.

 Working with your students enables one to be reflective on their own lives. Case in point, while I graduated from high school a little over 20 years ago, I remember  many of the issues I was confronted with years ago being visited upon my students in the classroom during their own growth and development.  As a teacher, I am more of an “Olehead with Content Knowledge” than a typical instructor so I often give my students relevant advice and guidance. Some is solicited and some unsolicited. But even the unsolicited advice is never abrasive nor is it unappreciated. This is part of the reason I developed the positive reputation among my numerous students throughout the years. Analyzing these familiar situations that were throwbacks to my own adolescence in all actuality provided me the opportunity on frequent occasion to work through and grapple with unresolved issues from my own past that my students were currently dealing with in their own lives. Some of these issues I did not even know were unresolved until I confronted them vicariously by offering aid to my students.

 Sometimes when appropriate, I would even disclose to my students the account of what I had been involved in relevant to their current circumstance and we would discuss the value of the student either duplicating my behavior or taking an alternate route. These discussions were not limited to my own youth, as I would often be transparent and share adult reflections with the youth so that they could learn from mistakes that they have yet to even be placed in position to make. My hope was that years later when possibly confronted with those situations they would have an idea of how they should navigate them. As an example, I have shared personal mistakes and failures in my relationships with the mothers of my children and how these errors have impacted my children and my relationships with their mothers. I have supplemented these anecdotes with alternative courses of action that I think would be beneficial to them and wish that I had been privy to earlier on. These conversations were also meant to help the students organically develop their own critical thinking skills via experiences relevant to their lives. This overall experience of sharing was therapeutic for me as well.

With all of the popular conversation surrounding trauma, self-care and the mental health issues of students and children in general, it should be noted that many teachers in classrooms have experienced similar and even identical trauma while they were in their own youth. Much of it may not have been processed in a healthy and productive manner. As mentioned above providing guidance to students as a means of processing these experiences can be invaluable to the teacher. This practice of exposing one’s past experiences can also serve to humanize the teacher in the view of the students while still maintaining appropriate boundaries between teacher and student. Perhaps more teachers should still seek out professional therapeutic services in addition to these classroom experiences.

Another therapeutic aspect of teaching is the collegial and wholesome relationships that some teachers are able to foster with their students resulting in your looking forward to entering the school building because you know you will see your “yung buls” and they will likewise anticipate seeing you, their “olehead.” This is healthy for your psyche and the psyche of the youth as you are often a fixture in their lives. Your daily presence in the classroom and hallways gives the youth an emotional stability and vice versa. If you disagree with this, investigate the reactions from students when a teacher is absent for even one day.

When my late brother was in his final days due to stage IV stomach cancer, which precipitated a three-week school absence on my part, I experienced additional emotional discomfort the entire time because of an instinctive feeling of abandonment toward my students. The circumstances of my brother coupled with missing the interaction with my students compounded personal stress for me. When I returned to my students after the three-week hiatus, I was invigorated and temporarily distracted from the reality of my recent loss. Being reunited with my students also helped me to put things in perspective and move closer toward my original emotional equilibrium.

For me teaching has also had a positive effect on my body’s physiology. When people become aware that I am in my late thirties after prejudging me as looking like I could be in my late twenties I attribute this to the trifecta of embracing Pan-Africanism, drinking plenty of water and teaching. This is somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek response but I am certain it has some truth to it. The specific aspect of teaching that I believe serves as my so-called “Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth” is the therapy I receive from having regular interactions with my students.

I would be disingenuous if I said that I did not miss being a traditional classroom teacher. I miss my students and the organic therapy that engaging with them provides among other things. I currently offer math tutoring services which provides engagement with students but at a much smaller scale than classroom teaching does. Even this smaller scale level of engagement is beneficial to one’s psyche and I highly recommend this. As teachers, we should seek out opportunities to develop positive relationships with our students for myriad reasons; one often overlooked reason is so we can receive much needed therapy within these interpersonal interactions.

 Aluta continua. Lasima tshinde mbilishaka.