A Theory About High School Teachers

My wife is studying for her doctorate in Clinical Psychology (PsyD), which means the theory I am about to posit–one that my wife has not heard nor examined for credibility–is totally valid.


The great psychologist, Erik “Turn over a new Leif” Erikson, has a famous (albeit controversial) theory about pscyhosocial development. In this theory of development, the growing human has “crises” between two forces that they must resolve at each stage. Though it is not required to master on stage before moving on to the next, I guess it’s probably healthier if one does successfully complete that task.

I dunno. I’m operating off  Psychology 101 in college, an article on Wikipedia, and my wife’s probably-excellent explanations that were lost as my brain fixated on bacon and pizza cravings.

Building from Erikson’s work, I hypothesize the following:  high school teachers find their calling from an unresolved identity crisis in their adolescent years.  Their success as a teacher comes from their ability to resolve that crisis as well as the one specific to early adulthood as soon and as healthily as possible.

Intriguing? I hope so.  Controversial? Probably.  Scientifically valid? You bet your bottom dollar it isn’t.  But maybe I can convince you there’s something worth considering after you read all this.

You will read all this, right?  Good.  Buckle up.

The Findings

High school is a cesspool we all have to swim in to some degree.  Even those people home-schooled had to toe the waters a little bit. It’s the time where everyone’s suffering from “identity confusion” and are surrounded by hundreds of other confused human-sized pimples.  To keep with the liquid metaphor, imagine trying to get a bowl full of water to shape itself into ice while mixing it with other water that is simmering from hormones, Netflix, and Starbucks. Yeah, good luck.

It’s a wonder any of us don’t spontaneously burst into a cloud of steam dissipating in time and space.

But many of us figure ourselves out. However, the teens that go on to be high school teachers often don’t discover themselves until they are thrust back into the petri-dish. It is there, in the halls of adolescence, they either resolve themselves and become the best teachers we’ve ever seen, or they melt back into crisis and infect the hallways and classrooms with their negativity until they dissolve or are washed out.  Put more succinctly: bad teachers are stuck in the same insecurities as they had in high school while good teachers have resolved their crises and are continuously correcting their weaknesses.

The teacher coaching football or cheerleading or running debate or directing plays…they thought they had figured out who they were until they left high school or maybe they made it to college and found out that the sport or skill on which they placed their entire identity had abandoned them.

The teacher who eat, sleeps, and breaths their content…they probably escaped from their insecurities by burying themselves into the subject they easily excelled at.

The teacher who is “cool” with every student…they were loners in high school, or they had it too good…so good they were never able to replicate it.

The teacher who is “harsh” with almost every student…they had it rough in high school.  Want to see how rough?  See which students they actually act positively toward.  Then you’ll know what they were like.  Or maybe it’s the students they act harsher toward.  Projection, displacement…I don’t know. Some defense mechanism that teacher is employing will illustrate the crisis they did not resolve in adolescence. They are the ones who needle students, criticize them, punish them, antagonizing the students that mirror the demons of their past.

One final teacher type for illustrating this theory:  the born and bred teacher.  They were the ones who lined up their teddy bears and taught them arithmetic when they were in second grade–going so far as to chastise Fluffy for talking out of turn.  Their crisis in high school came from skipping the crisis they were supposed to face in high school. They had already formed an identity long before it was time to form an identity.


All this postulating begs an example of identity getting resolved: let’s take the teacher who was picked on mercilessly in high school. As a result, they come into high school hopped up on power, looking to punish the vile Bradly Duckworth, who graduated five years ago.  Knowing there’s no B-Duck around anymore, the teacher settles for an teen showing a shred of his nemesis’s personality.

But this teacher realizes that developmentally, teenagers are products of environment, physiology, and society. They realize the adolescent brain isn’t fully developed, and that cause and effect is an underdeveloped cognitive skill.  So the teacher puts aside grudges and makes it a point to hold students accountable for “Duckworth-like” misbehavior, but in strong, warm, unbiased ways.  They find ways to build up the students being bullied while also patiently disciplining the bully with the goal of changing behavior rather than punishment.