What Do You Have To Teach?

The act of teaching — the art of teaching — could not be more crucial for the maintenance of our culture

Cai Emmons
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readApr 20, 2022


The author with students at a table
Photo courtesy of the author

A few years ago, not long before the pandemic began, I made the decision to stop teaching and become a full-time writer. I was a little hesitant to give up my affiliation with the university and its creative writing program, but I also knew I was done. I had reached the point where many teachers arrive, the burned-out feeling that I was repeating myself and not enjoying the students and the classroom as I once had. I had been teaching in some form or other since I was 23. It was time to stop.

The past few years have been very productive writing years for me, so I don’t regret my decision. And yet, I’ve recently been missing teaching. Missing the stimulating interchanges about writing with the students. Missing the challenge of generating exercises to charge their creative thinking. Missing the performative moments of holding forth in the classroom when I had something important to tell them. Missing their visits to my office hours where I talked with them one-on-one about their writing challenges or their personal problems. I’m remembering how much I loved teaching various subjects — all writing and film-related and always about storytelling — at different institutions.

I wish I could still teach easily, but not having a speaking voice makes that challenging. The last class I taught was a one-off when an ALS researcher, a neuroscientist I met on Twitter, asked me to speak to her PhD students in a class called “Finding Your Voice as a Scientist.” My speech was already seriously compromised then, but the students were prepared for that, and I knew I had things to tell them that they would find useful. We all hung in there, and I am grateful to those students for making the effort to understand my speech, for appreciating what I had to say, and for making me feel that I belonged there. I don’t know exactly what they took away from that class, but I learned about the importance of showing up and trying, no matter what.

The teaching profession is not highly valued in our culture. Perhaps full professors at esteemed universities who are called upon to pontificate on TV news shows are accorded some esteem, but the multitude of teachers at lower grade levels, and even those at the university, are often regarded with the adage in mind, If you can’t do, teach.

And yet, the act of teaching — the art of teaching — could not be more crucial for the maintenance of our culture. Almost everyone teaches in one way or another. We teach our children. We teach our colleagues and employees. We teach our friends and our neighbors and ourselves. If you have any doubt about the centrality of teaching, just go to YouTube and you will find videos of people teaching everything you can possibly imagine, from how to make sourdough bread to turning roses blue while they’re growing. Why do people do this, create teaching videos for public consumption when there is rarely much financial reward? Because there is something deeply human about sharing the skills and knowledge we have acquired with other human beings. It plays an essential role in gluing together our “tribe” and allows us to pass on what we know from one generation to the next so everyone doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.

I have been an observer of many different teaching styles. My former colleagues and I differed greatly in our approaches. Some of them were very harsh in their critiques of student writing, so harsh that some of their students were reduced to tears. I found this horrifying, knowing how such a teaching style would have shut me down entirely. I cannot write in an atmosphere of fear. That approach always seemed more appropriate to me for students of law, not creative writing. And yet a few students reported that they loved this harsh approach; it stimulated them to strive to produce better work. Hearing this, I have had to reassess my own ideas. Clearly there is more than one right approach to teaching.

Just before I graduated from college, when I was panicking about arriving on the job market with no saleable skills, I decided, as a stopgap measure, to get certified as a high school teacher. One of the classes I was required to take was called Philosophy of Education. The semester-long class was taught by two professors, and in each class session, no matter what the day’s topic was, they returned to the question: What is it you have to teach? It was apparent to us that they were not satisfied with answers like, English, history, math. They wanted answers that came from some place we didn’t understand. We floundered in our search for responses, all of us good students and eager to please, but nothing we said was ever “right.” And it soon became clear that there would never be a right answer. The question was like a koan. What is the sound of one hand clapping?

I have returned to that mystifying question again and again over the years. Always without a satisfying answer — or one that I thought would satisfy those philosophy professors. But in thinking about my days of formal teaching being over, something has occurred to me: In all those years of teaching writing, writing was never the primary thing I had to teach, even when that was my designated task. I understood, subliminally, that I was there to show my students how to listen to one another, to respect each other and cooperate, how to be good — and satisfied — human beings in a world that isn’t easy to live in. I think this was where my gift lay as a teacher, and I think that is what those philosophy professors hoped I would see. Other members of the class had other different, but similar, gifts to offer.

It’s surprising that it took me decades to discover this, that teaching without any ethical underpinnings is not worth doing. Knowledge can be easily obtained from books and the internet, but learning how to be a decent human being can only be taught in the presence of other human beings, face-to-face, eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart.



Cai Emmons
Human Parts

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.