The Importance of a Healthy Teacher Ego
Rather than trying to be the star performer in the classroom, teachers should strive to maintain faith in their ability to help students learn.
I have two primary messages for secondary school teacher training candidates. If you don't love adolescents and don't have a healthy ego, you should seriously consider finding another profession. You'll be living with these kids for 6-8 hours every day, and if you don't love them, the days will be long and difficult. And if you don't have good ego strength (or if your ego is strong in a less-than-ideal way), you'll find it difficult to deal with a multitude of challenges.
I want to focus here on the latter message.
There are very few professions in which success is usually less obvious. In her classic ethnographic study, Smalltown Teacher, Gertrude McPherson pointed this out clearly. There are continual challenges to feeling successful. Test results may provide a clue but may also be misleading. Are there kids who've really learned, whose lives you've affected positively, who will, sometimes years later, realize how much they learned? If you don't know, at your core, that you're teaching well, you will continually doubt yourself.
Here are some of the major challenges.
Teacher Invisibility vs. Being the Center of Attention
Do you thrive on being the center of attention? I did. I played out all of my ego needs to be the star lecturer, performer, comedian, actor, and conductor. I brought all of these sub-selves into my classroom. This wasn't bad for me, and I don't recall it being bad for my students. It met my ego needs and often seemed successful. But eventually I learned that there were many times when my class was better served by activities in which I more or less disappeared. When students worked successfully in small groups, I found myself feeling a void and struggled not to intervene or in some way be a strong, active presence. I knew that the minute I stepped into a group, I'd disturb its equilibrium and diminish its effectiveness in peer interaction. I had to struggle with my ego's need to be the star at center stage.
The Limits of Teacher Self-Disclosure
Closely related to this is the question of how much about ourselves we choose to share with students. I think some self-disclosure can be helpful in establishing close connections, but knowing the limits is critical. And here again, an unhealthy ego can step in. Talking a lot about "me" becomes a bore and shifts the focus to the teacher, not to student learning. Sharing a story about one of your own children might be a good anecdote and help your students connect to you as a person -- if it's appropriate to a classroom discussion. On the other hand, disclosing too much about your personal life is inappropriate and will make most students feel uncomfortable. For example, I walked into class one day and told students that if I seemed a little tight or negative, it might be related to the car accident I'd witnessed that morning. But if I'd told them that the reason was a fight with my wife the night before, I would have been stepping quite a bit across the line of appropriate self-disclosure.
Teacher Ego and the Connection to Students
Here's a really tricky one. How do we maintain our own boundaries when we feel a deep connection with a student? Most often, this is a student who clearly feels close to us or would like to be. At one end of the spectrum is unprofessional behavior in forming an intimate emotional relationship (or more) with a student that we're attracted to. But this is the extreme. More often, the challenge is to avoid connecting with a student so closely that we lose our objectivity.
As anthropologist Angeles Arrien described in her book The Four-Fold Way, "Detachment is the ability to care deeply from an objective place." We can feel intimate with students and still maintain our objectivity if our own need for adoration doesn't get in the way. Arrien's whole book is a wonderful guide to help teachers gain insight into the interface between ego and teaching.
Negative Student Feedback as a Challenge
On the other end of the ego challenge is working effectively with students who don't like us -- and there will always be some who don't. That's just as natural in the classroom as it is in life. I remember getting anonymous feedback from students and sometimes obsessing about the negative ones that were critical of me and/or my class, almost forgetting about the positive ones! This was my problem, not my students'. The feedback challenged my self-worth.
I think it's this ego-driven fear that keeps some teachers from seeking feedback from students. And that's always a bad decision.
Balancing Ego Health With Effective Teaching
Our mission as teachers is transcending our own ego satisfaction, needs, and stories to focus on our students and what's good for them.
Doing something that we must do but that we know will cause a student to feel bad can challenge our need to be the nice guy.
Using our authority can feed our need to be in control and feel powerful.
For me, something as subtle as creating an environment in which I became almost invisible while students helped each other was the best challenge that I overcame.
A core of healthy ego strength makes it much easier to focus more on what's best for our students and less on making ourselves feel important. And in terms of overall teacher well-being, the more that our daily life outside of the classroom meets our needs, the less likely that we'll need our teaching and our students to feed our ego.