We like a good story.
No, not just me (which could very well be the case in some situations for this former English teacher). We all do. Stories drive us to do more, want more, and achieve more. They’re how we relax, how we inspire, and often, they’re how we find our place.
Sometimes, though, I worry we buy in to some stories that aren’t true as educators. They sound true, and if we’re not careful, we’ll use them as excuses or they can even become ways we beat ourselves up about our performance (or seeming lack thereof). Within each of them, I think there’s a kernel of truth, but when that warps into fiction, it has the power to bring guilt and shame onto us.
This semester, I’ve been reassured of this power held within stories; unfortunately, that reassurance has been brought to light as I’ve caught myself believing three particular stories about myself as an educator.
Like many educators this year, I’ve put plans in place that have failed, I’ve made missteps with students and teachers, and I’ve had to ask for help. Not all the time. Not even each week. But more than I’d like.
Like you’d assume, this has not been really fun for me.
I like to have things together for myself (because I’ve told myself I can help others better if I’m together–or if I can at least make it look like I’m together–I’ll leave that for another post though). But with each step, I’ve come closer to telling myself a story that’s true. One that’s a more accurate reflection of where I’m growing and where I need to grow.
I’m hopeful you’re able to recognize those places in you, and I’m hopeful that we can walk along the path toward growth together.
THE “I CAN MAKE EVERY STUDENT SUCCESSFUL” STORY
Investing in each student’s success is a great way to spend our time and effort. Even with good intentions, we could do far, far worse. Still, I think we sometimes fall into the trap of taking the blame when students choose to walk away from our best efforts.
Do I believe that great educators put every opportunity in place for students to be successful? Yes. Do I believe that great educators are invested in the relationships they maintain with their students? Yes. Do I believe that too often, educators take is too personally when students don’t take every opportunity that’s put in front of them? Yes.
I think you’d be hard pressed to find great educators who are satisfied with just helping most (but not all) of the students in their classes, but I do think that at times, educators begin to think that they can make every student be successful. This isn’t limited to academic success either.
THE “GOOD EDUCATORS MAKE THEIR STUDENTS BEHAVE” STORY
I also think that great educators inadvertently begin to believe that with the right experience, the educators who have this down (you know, those who have arrived, those who are pros at this) can make their students to behave.
Great educators certainly have more than a basic handle on classroom management. Their skills are extensive, they’re not easily rattled, they never escalate with students, and they can deescalate students with ease.
Still, their best laid plans can and do fail.
When they do, my worry is that others in the building start to look at a educator’s interactions with a student (nearly always a situation where the onlooker does not know what’s led up to that moment) and make a judgment on the educator based on the student’s behavior. I also worry that educators in this situation start to feel like a failure because he or she can’t make change happen as fast or to as great an extent as preferred.
I don’t believe that it’s the educator’s responsibility to make his or her students behave. You just can’t force them to if they’re bent on not doing it.
Here’s what I do believe: it’s a educator’s job to teach expectations for student behavior and reteach in response to gaps in student achievement. I see great educators putting innovative plans in place all the time to do everything they can do draw students toward the best choice. But even the best plans can’t make students comply (if they do force compliance, then while you feel you’ve won the short game, you’ve only demanded compliance; no transformation has happened). As much as we want it for our students, students have the great privilege and responsibility of stepping in the right direction with any given choice.
Still, at times, all of our tricks seem to fail, and we’re left wondering what to do now that we’ve tried everything.
THE “GREAT EDUCATORS DON’T NEED ANY HELP” STORY
When the plans we put in place don’t work, educators need to know when to call in extra support.
We tend to value those who are self sufficient and those who seem to not need the help of others. I don’t think this is unique to education, but somehow, despite what we know about the value of creativity and the help that is derived from connecting, collaborating, and interacting with others, the person who doesn’t seem to need any help often seems to be the one who is doing it right.
But teaching is messier than that. We need help to work through the toughest parts of the job (especially those that deal with the complexities of relationships). After all, we are pretty complicated.
I can’t think of a stage of an educator’s career where this gets easy. A new teacher wants to get in and prove he can do this job. A teacher with a few year’s experience wants to show he’s learned from the missteps of the past few years. Teachers with more experience might wonder how others would react to an experienced teacher who can’t handle a particular situation. And teachers who are already in coaching roles, no matter the level of formality involved, are the ones who are supposed to have figured this out, right?
Here, my worry is that in an effort to save face, we miss opportunities to serve each other and grow together as professionals.
The reality is that we don’t often love talking through mistakes and shortcomings, but we end up growing through that process in marked and impactful ways. Ways that tie directly to improving our work with students. Ways that make deep impact on the already fantastic work that educators are constantly invested in.
SO, HOW DO WE WRITE THE RIGHT STORY?
With so many potholes in the streets we’re traveling, I’d like to end with a few suggestions about how to make quick changes to make sure you are telling yourself the right story.
First, I think we have to acknowledge that recognizing that we need growth is not a flashing red light that should alert others that something is wrong. Recognizing our weak spots should be part of our professional process of improvement, but that’s easier said than done.
I’ve seen teachers use a “favorite no” or a “favorite mistake” as a point of departure for helping students overcome common mistakes. (Here’s a great video on the topic.) I wonder what the impact would be if we had a teacher version of this practice. What questions would it open up? What common ground would people establish? What solutions could come from those collaborative conversations?
I think finding unity in those things that we collectively need growth in could make a huge impact on developing a culture where risks are embraced and where a community of professionals can try on new ideas in a safe environment.
Where risk is welcomed and vulnerability is embraces, the right story writes itself.
One quick caveat: I’ve presented this as an antidote of sorts for the educators who work hard to serve students well but might still be overly critical of themselves or others. The concessions I’m offering in response to the worries mentioned here are not at all licence to do things half way or give up before doing your very best for the students you serve.