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Do the best teachers you know say this?

Shelly Blake-Plock wrote a post last week entitledI am not a great teacher.”  Now, I have never met Shelly, I don’t think we have ever crossed paths online… I did see him once from a distance at a conference a few years ago.  But here’s the deal…every one that I have met that knows him, has interacted with him online, or who reads his stuff online says he is a great teacher.  Yes, I have met people who have not stood up to their online persona.  Let’s face it, many people online are the teacher they want to be, not necessarily who they are in the classroom.  But after reading Shelly’s stuff, listening to people talk about him, and knowing other people who have talked so highly of his work, I have to believe he is the real deal.  In person he is, who he is online.  After reading his post I decided to go way back in my drafts to find something I wrote three years ago and never posted(see below).  It was a post about great teachers.  I think I wrote it in a moment in which maybe I thought I might just be a great teacher…no nO NO!  Can’t admit to that, right?…too conceited.  We can say we know what we are talking about because we are suppose to be constant learners.  We can’t brag or boost.  We can share a lesson but can’t really say this lesson was awesome!  Teachers have to post GREAT lessons and then write about what they learned, what they will change, and mistakes they have made.  What’s up with that?  Do you know any teacher who would publicly say “I’m great?”  I find it hard to find someone who will simply share the best thing they have ever done–just flat out share it, no commentary setting it up as a learning experience, or how it could be better, or if what could have been better if they have just done this or that.  Do we strive for perfection?  And only by achieving perfection will we consider ourselves great?  I know I find striving for perfection is demoralizing…it eats away at me sometimes…most of the time.  I for some reason cannot consider anything I do “great.”  Sometimes I can say it…but I don’t believe it.  I hate that.

Here is that draft from 3 years ago:

There are three people in my building whose opinions I treasure dearly.  As Ginger mentioned in a comment in a previous post, I trust each of their opinions on very different things.  Each person has shaped one aspect of my teaching, and their questions and comments push me to re-consider what I do with my kids in our classroom. Basically they rock, but they all won’t take student teachers.  They all say something along the lines of “I don’t think I know enough to teach someone else.”  Today I finally thought maybe that is what makes the best mentors, people who are constantly searching to become better, but never admit they are.  Every great teacher I know believes they are not great.

I wish more teachers shared what they did with utmost confidence.  Being great isn’t an end, in many ways it can be a beginning. Let’s face it, almost everyone you and I probably know who think that they are great, probably come across as some cocky, arrogant person.

A couple years ago while presenting at a conference, I was about to share what I think is the best thing I do.  I found that I spontaneously started off with “I’m sorry, but I think this next activity is just the greatest.”  That has always stuck with me.  Why did I apologize?

Baseball fans know that the Red Sox carried the Curse of the Bambino…I guess teachers carry the curse of Socrates with them…”As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”  I wonder if and when that curse will be lifted…or is it not a curse, is it a gift?

I don’t know Shelly…I know I want to be great, but the closer I get to it, the farther away it seems.  I just don’t know if I want to die believing that I know nothing.  I don’t know if I want to teach believing that.  I know I do…and it hurts.

10 comments

  1. This is a very “feminine” communication pattern: apologizing for presenting your own work as good, being embarrassed to claim expertise. Not that men don’t suffer from this, but it seems to be expected of women, and possibly anyone in a traditionally-female career like teaching.

  2. I’ve never been able to think of myself as a great teacher. I’ve had great moments, but never consistently great day in and day out. I doubt I’ll ever get there. I have too many glaring faults & flaws and too many people eager to draw attention to them.

    I think teachers strive for perfection, or at least the appearance of perfection. I strive to make a connection, to share what I know, and to encourage my students to reach deep within themselves to discover that they can do things they never imagined. I don’t believe you always need perfectly rehearsed lectures and lesson plans to accomplish this, because I believe the impartation of knowledge is really a secondary thing in teaching. I don’t have all of the answers, and am willing to admit this. That’s something a teacher isn’t normally expected to do. I do know, however, that answers can be found, and my main goal is to get students to have the self-confidence to go after the answers for themselves. This approach works wonderfully for some, but miserably for those who expect me to follow the “education script” wherein they can simply be passive participants. Sometimes the gripes of the latter make me second guess myself, my students, my peers and my superiors.

    So, I doubt I’ll ever consider myself great unless I do a better job of projecting an image of perfection. But I’m with you Paul- perfection is over-rated. I’d rather be imperfect, but still genuinely caring about the learning and progress of each of my students.

  3. So…do you think teachers equate being great with being perfect?

    Which means they subliminally teach their kids the same thing…

    Which means being great is impossible…

    Which means the kids learn to settle for pretty good…

  4. I don’t think it’s about “being perfect” as much as “appearing perfect.” And yes, we teach our students to minimize faults and to amplify strengths. Sometimes it seems that the worst thing that can happen in school (or in life) is to make a mistake. But learning is built upon making mistakes and correcting them. I sometimes think that school is less about learning than managing appearances.

  5. “I sometimes think that school is less about learning than managing appearances.”

    I think that sentiment is especially prevalent in schools and classes that say to kids things like “School is your job.”

    1. Sorry, I disagree here. I always told my students that school is their job. My parents said that to me, I said that to my daughter, and again to my students. It is their job, for the moment, to become well educated and to do the best possible work they can do.

      1. Could just be semantics…it is their job to learn, and my wife and I both support the mentality that it is my kid’s responsibility. But when schools take on a “job” mentality they usually reduce themselves to shuffling the kids through, the kids do the minimum, they only do things for the grade, nothing is authentic, etc…
        Most people today treat their “job” as simply a way to get money…I don’t want kids “learning” for the same reason. Having read a lot of what you have written on your blog, I tend to think that when you tell the kids it is “their job,” it is not in the way it is used by other educators.

  6. Hi Paul,
    Thanks for your prompt to think about this. I wonder if the dynamic nature of teaching prevents us from achieving the satisfaction of knowing you are a truly great teacher? A great lesson or unit of work one day, may not necessarily work so well with a different class, or the same class at a different time. Ideally, a great teacher predicts the responses of students and caters their lessons to take into account individual differences in ability, experience and interests. In practise, complex inter-relationships between students and the unpredictable nature of teenagers make this very difficult in my classroom.
    I think a great teacher is passionate about their subject, enthusiastic, well prepared, flexible, firm but friendly, listens to a respects their students and offers varied opportunities for learning.

  7. I always say I was good at what I did. The way I knew I was good was by the results I got. Students who were a bunch of wild kids when they came to me as sophomores left three years later as successful graduates with skills to go to college and/or get a job. That could not be said for other kids who went through the same high school but never took a class from me. I often had seniors who were friends of my seniors say they wish they could have been in my class. Too late, then, though. So, yes, I was very good at what I did.

  8. Hi, Paul,
    This post of yours is one that I can relate to. I followed your link to the post by Shelly, and I left this comment there:
    Thanks for this great post. I have struggled with feeling of inadequacy all my years of teaching, even when my students and other teachers have said otherwise. However, I am passionate about learning, and I try to model that passion for my students. I try to help them see how being excited about learning is “cool”. I also appreciate how technology gives me to opportunity to connect with other impassioned learners (and teachers) all over the world. I spent many years isolated in my classroom – with “MY” students and had little time with all the lesson planning and correction, etc. to connect with other teachers outside my classroom. Sadly, this is still the case for many teachers. Finding the time to read blogs, follow great educators on twitter, and participate in webinars around the topic of education, has opened the world for me. We need to make these resources available for our students -help them to find a passion for learning. Am I a great teacher -No, but I am an evolving teacher, trying to find ways to be better every day. This fall I enter my last year of teaching, and I have one overwhelming goal -to shut up and listen more to what my students have to say and to continue to be a better teacher by being a better learner with my students as teachers.
    It is for you, too! Thanks for continuing to push me to my limits.

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