Let me get this out of the way: Happy Valentine’s Day, a day that strikes fear into the hearts of teachers everywhere, particularly middle school teachers, whose students are operating on mismanaged expectations and a lot of sugar. A “white flag” kind of day, as Two Writing Teachers wrote.
On Friday, I planned to have the students read their “Whose Revolution Is It, Anyway?” historical fiction pieces, and for one reason or another, it didn’t happen quite as planned for the first block. For second block, it did– and thank goodness, too–because my principal brought a group in to observe. Second block as a classroom culture, loves to perform and read their writing out loud. In fact, for third block, I asked my teammate if two of the girls could come in and model, which he thankfully allowed. Ultimately, for one lesson, many results–and does this make me a ‘bad’ teacher, or a ‘great’ teacher? It’s not a zero-sum game. Overall–what did the students walk away with?
Recently read a article by Ben Orlin, published in the Atlantic Monthly, “I lie about my teaching.” It struck a deep chord in me, and I’m not clear as to why. Perhaps it’s because I’m naturally ambitious, thought not really competitive (competition, in my connotative dictionary, means someone else has to lose in order for someone else to win, and that has never sat right with me). If you are a competitive person by nature, and excellent at self-promotion, good on you. Most days I think ‘healthy competition’ is simply an oxymoron. Being ambitious and not being competitive can be mutually exclusive. Ambition, on my terms, means I am striving to participate in creative, collaborative ways so I plan what little time the students actually have for instruction to its greatest benefit.
Teachers self-promote. In that, we’re no different than everyone else: proudly framing our breakthroughs, hiding our blunders in locked drawers, forever perfecting our oral résumés. This isn’t all bad. My colleagues probably have more to learn from my good habits (like the way I use pair work) than my bad ones (like my sloppy system of homework corrections), so I might as well share what’s useful. In an often-frustrating profession, we’re nourished by tales of triumph. A little positivity is healthy.
However, Orlin goes on to say too much self-deprecating behavior isn’t beneficial either, in fact it’s an unnecessary obstacle. Too much bragging or self-promotion and folks see through the facade. A balance of honesty and self-awareness holds the key.
But what if others seems to have a different idea about your professional work? What if their memories or reflection causes a small cognitive dissonance in your own memory book? Lately I have been getting the message about how I’ve hit my stride–and it’s been challenging for me to reconcile others points of view with my own. Yes, stride — I feel it. This year is great. But other years were pretty great, too, for reasons that they may not see, including a hefty helping of memory loss/nostalgia. To be fair, I’ve always been fairly diligent about journaling my teaching life: blogging since 2007 or so means I’ve kept a fairly accurate reflection. And for the record, my record, here’s what I recall:
- The seeping, encroaching tide of ‘walk-throughs’ uncovered sides of me I didn’t know existed: anxiety and depression. It happened slowly, and then the amount of quick ‘drive-by’ observations with little or no useful feedback or discussion left me without oxygen. I was a drowning fish in a cracked fishbowl.
- During that time, somehow I managed to create great units, get my National Boards, and create long-lasting relationships and supports for many students, students who are young men and women today, and I value being allowed to continue to support them.
- Layered and positive, I began multiple personal professional pathways, mainly including the Puget Sound Writing Project. I am ready for the next steps with this, not as a student but as a mentor, and have been ready for quite some time. Not sure what others see, though, but I am concerned it’s not the same image of my skills I have.
- This anxiety and depression hit its zenith with mishandling of the teacher evaluation system, and loss of colleagues/mentors. The judgment and unsafe professional conditions grew, and went unchecked. But now it’s much, much better. Integrity is back. I learned a lot from last year, including that I myself can cause anxiety in others.
- The tide has changed, and now there’s responsive, collaborative, respectful leadership, but moreover, the understanding that we’re flawed human beings. And some of those flaws can be tempered into strengths.
For both established and newer teachers, I strongly recommend blogging. Memories are tricky things, and writing/reflecting activates learning and growth.
“One type of memory error that we make — a memory bug — is really a product of the fact that in human memory, there’s no distinction between storage and retrieval. So when a computer writes something down, it has one laser that’s used to store the memory and another laser to retrieve the memory, and those are very distinct processes. In human memory, the distinction between storage and retrieval is not very clear, and this can have very dramatic consequences. … The act of retrieving a memory can affect the storage.”
Perhaps in teaching and mentorship, there is only one golden rule (that’s not the actual golden rule):
This applies to ourselves, too: it’s okay to promote good teaching but not for its own sake: promote what your students are doing/learning, and reflect on what could be improved. I write copious notes on units, both created and in production, because there is also something to add, take away, revise and alter. Take criticism for what it’s worth: see when it might be personal versus objective. Attune hearing. The best conversations I have are when I offer both a positive/negative from a moment of instruction, and present a dilemma, and I trust the colleague(s) to help me brainstorm.
As Orlin says,
It’s no easy task for teachers. But I think we owe it, to ourselves if to no one else, to tell the most honest stories that we can. I’ll only advance as a teacher, and offer something of value to those around me, if I’m able to say what I do.