June 25, 2014 7 min read

I have been a professor for 25 years – most of my professional life. Even when I had full-time corporate jobs, I always took salary cuts to be able to maintain my professor role … because teaching has given me about as much joy as anything in my life. Watching students learn, improve, and gain confidence is an amazing thing! But, last spring, for the first time in three decades – since I first imagined emulating my favorite high school teachers – I realized I have no compulsion to ever be in front of a classroom ever again. 

The morning after I realized the joy had gone out of my work, I saw a news article about suicides among 50-something men in the US going up by 50% … and I understood.

I now comprehend how others who have lost their passion for their jobs might lose their passion for life at the same time. If I had always defined myself and my worth by my teaching profession, the realization that teaching is no longer offering me any joy came as an awful discovery. 

Fortunately, I am not on the verge of sharpening straight razors and filling bathtubs. My whole life, I’ve been a bit of a…a…and I’m going to make up a word here: a polyopus. In other words, I’ve always had multiple jobs at any given time. Though I’m giving up on teaching, I’m not giving up on life. I still love writing and advisory work—I’m sure I’ll continue those. 

Still, leaving the classroom is heartbreaking; teaching has always been a big part of my life. As an adjunct, visiting, or full professor, I’ve taught in more than a dozen business schools around the world—all these job comings and goings because of one event twenty-five years ago.  

In my mid-20s I was among a group of Harvard MBA students who presented a petition to the school’s faculty, one that was almost unanimously supported by the students. It was rejected by the faculty without a single dissenting vote.  We weren’t asking for easier grades, or more days off, or better teachers.  We wanted more projects. We felt we learned more through hands-on application of concepts than we did in case study discussions.  After teaching for a couple decades, I’m more convinced than ever that this is the absolute best way for business students to learn and prepare for the real world. As for the petition, it was rejected “because the curriculum is for the faculty to decide.” We were scolded for our audacity…our nerve… to suggest to professors how education might be done! I decided then and there that I would never apply for a teaching position at Harvard Business School after completing my PhD at the school.  The tradition and tenure of the place meant that nothing would change anytime soon—maybe ever.

My career since then has been a constant search for an academic home that would allow for me to teach with a focus on relevance, flexibility, self-awareness, real learning, and wisdom. That home is as hard to find as Shangri-La. 

Fifteen years ago, I taught a “flipped classroom” before the term was de rigueur. I sat at the back of the room judging (in my best—what I learned years later was a—Simon Cowell impression) student teams who competed with each other to offer the best solution to business school cases. Their presentations were not based on my lectures or my guided discussions, but rather on their study and learning outside of class.  The institutional response was always the same: I needed to be more “professorial” by standing in front of the room, examining case studies in a standard manner. Never mind that the feedback I received from students – even years later – showed me that they had truly learned during the class.

When I joined another institution that emphasized course evaluations, I saw that as an excellent sign of a more student-focused organization. Promotion and pay were based on achieving the highest student satisfaction ratings. But, I soon learned that statistically insignificant differences in evaluation scores determined wildly divergent financial remuneration. Savvy colleagues whispered that the quickest path to money was to never give students frank feedback: “flatter and never find fault.” Or, better yet, don’t give any feedback at all until the student evaluations are turned in: “entertain them, then give one big final exam or final paper.” I was left to wonder: how can that lead to real learning about real business? It only ended up shortchanging both students and their future employers.

Having exhausted everything I could think of in the US and Europe, I took a job as dean of the top rated business school in Japan (“Shouldn’t Japan have a world class business school?” I thought). The Japanese school had a very different operating model: business practitioners were the teachers, and they trained feverishly for over a year—and within an inch of their lives—to lead a single course.  Each teaching session was timed to Japanese-style precision: ask this question at exactly eight minutes after the hour; offer this insight four minutes later, follow with a well-proven joke three minutes after that. This standardization led to surprisingly good student satisfaction, but there was little room for wisdom or new thinking. In fact, the case studies in use were well-trod: most were written in the late 1980s. This made it impossible to teach business students to hit the ground running upon graduation when they had been imbued only with knowledge of a corporate world that is no more.

Finally, I bailed out of business school altogether and took a post teaching public policy in Singapore.  There, I was free to do what I wanted to in the classroom; but the Associate Dean regularly reminded me that I should not be wearing jeans.

But business education had always felt like my mission.  So on my (inevitable) return to business school—and to the United States—I found the environment less inviting than ever: administrators sat in the back of the room during my sessions to make sure I was teaching in the same manner and with the same materials as other teachers. School executives who themselves had taught little (and, according to students, badly) designed a curriculum based on old, traditional thinking, rather than skills student can readily apply in the real world. They, and the curriculum, demand an insidiously smooth mediocrity, where uncontrolled variation and experimentation are unwelcome, no matter how much students learn from it.  When I gave more A- grades to one section of students versus another—sticking to my explicit contract with students that I will give them a grade based on an absolute, not a comparative standard—my “non-compliance” became a board of trustees level discussion. My degrees-of-freedom in the classroom have been whittled further away by increasingly powerful committees and risk-averse, less-experienced managers.

So where did the joy go?

I think it went where the joy of work goes for many people of my age. It wasn’t just one thing; it was an accumulation.  Perhaps the work itself—if it could be done in a vacuum—would continue to be attractive and even fun. But organizations, bosses, and coworkers impinge in ways that subtract more and more from the joyful (or good) parts until there is none left. I think there’s also less resilience toward all those interferences as I age. In the process, joy eventually became a casualty. 

It’s important to note two things: 1) I am one of the lucky teachers working in higher education where I could exercise a lot of autonomy compared to teachers in primary and secondary schools; and 2) that none of the interventions in the stories above had much to do with my real job of preparing young people to be leaders of tomorrow’s organizations.  But today’s organizations get in the way—impeding, what I believe is, my pretty damn hallowed calling of being a teacher. My obligation is to impart to students all the most important things that I’ve ever learned in my life—then challenge them to be better and smarter than I ever hoped to be. 

I’m actually not disenchanted with the act of teaching. I still love my former students and want them to learn and improve. But I’m sick and tired of the structures around teaching because they get in the way of truly helping students learn and improve—which is supposed to be the whole point, isn’t it?

Sadly, all of this happens at a time of life (in my 50s) when brain-science tells me that I may be at the peak of my cognitive functions. Granted, my brain is not the fastest it has ever been—sheer processing speed has been on a downhill trajectory since I turned 20. But in the next two decades, some pretty amazing things will happen in my head. Scientists tell me I’ll be using both hemispheres of my brain to solve problems that I was only solving with one half in the past. I’m going to get an extra myelin coating around my axons making important associations in my brain stronger than ever before. I’m going to connect disparate information in a way I’ve never been able. This, in turn, will unleash me into the most creative era of life. I’ll have the largest working vocabulary, best comprehension, and most knowledge of my existence. I will be a wise man.

But none of that brainpower is going to be devoted to teaching, because I just checked out.  And while I know that my decision to drop teaching will probably not have any great impact on the world, I do wonder what the aggregate effect of hundreds, or thousands, or millions of other minds—in their prime—will be when they’ve checked out of the global workforce. What are the consequences on humanity?

It’s almost enough to make me reconsider my decision. But then, I just can’t face another day at work. I’m done teaching. I won’t be going back to school. The joy is gone.

-       John Beck is President of North Star Leadership Group and is working on his next book,Old Brains; he used to be a professor. 

photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/emokr/