5 Myths That Sabotage Our Love of Teaching
I think that one of the greatest challenges for teachers, including many of the best, is being frequently frustrated and self-critical because of personal expectations that they can never fully meet.
In his book Compassion and Self-Hate, the psychologist Theodore Rubin presents what he describes as indirect forms of self-hate. These are illusions we have about who we are supposed to be and unrealistic expectations of what we can accomplish. He includes, as one example, the illusion that if you have enough money, you'll be happy. Another is the illusion that physical beauty insures relational happiness. Each illusion he describes results in unrealistic expectations that make us self-critical and unhappy.
While characterizing these ways of thinking as forms of "indirect self-hate" seems a bit extreme and arguable, there is no question that they are counterproductive and emotionally destructive.
If Only . . .
Some years ago I began to think about what a teacher's variation on this problem would be, and came up with the following five illusions. Think about whether you buy into any or all of them.
1. You Can and Should Reach Every Adolescent
Of course you should aspire to reach and effectively teach every student. But to expect that you'll actually accomplish this sets you up for frustration and negative self-judgment. You have to remember that even if you have a class of only 20-25 students (a luxury in most schools), there are multiple complex reasons why one or more students will resist your efforts to reach them. These may be a function of external problems, long-standing dislike of the subject, or even mental limitations. Think about the craziness of the illusion: two dozen or more complex human beings leading complex lives, and your job is to reach them all. Good luck!
You may continue to become increasingly effective in motivating students, as you should, but you should also let go of any illusions you have about reaching all of them.
2. You Can and Should Totally Control What Happens in your Classes
You can of course establish the illusion of control in your classes and, through exercising your skills, charisma and approach to classroom management, have a class that is quiet, in which no students act out, and all appear to be paying attention. But you can't possibly know what is going on internally for each student. A quiet, well behaved and apparently attentive student may be miles away, or playing some paper-and-pencil game, or a mental game, or dreaming of what he or she will do that afternoon, or worrying about his or her relational problems. You can't control it all. And you also can't control what they say about your class after they leave.
3. If You're Good and Caring, All Students Will Like You, Always
I think here about my response to students' anonymous evaluations of my class at San Francisco State. I received mostly positive reviews, but I'd often fixate on one or two that were highly critical. I would mentally try to figure out who those students might be, sitting there all semester and disliking my class without me knowing it. Maybe it was one who felt competitive with me. Maybe it was some student that I'd slighted without ever realizing it. Maybe it was just someone who hated my style, my New York accent, or my wise-guy ironic jokes. It was dysfunctional for me to fixate on these few students when most of the others enjoyed my class. But on a pure ego level, and totally irrationally because I knew there would always be some students who didn't like me, I still felt frustrated and disappointed when reminded of it.
I had the illusion that as long as I was an accessible, likeable, competent teacher, every student would like me. I continually needed to remind myself this was unattainable.
4. You Can and Should Compensate for Students' Lives Outside of Class
I think of the powerful scene in the film Dangerous Minds in which a very troubled student asks LouAnne Johnson, "How are you going to save me from my life?" She can't and doesn't -- he's killed in a gang shooting. The fact is that in a 50-minute period once a day, there is no way you can compensate for or protect all students from what they are dealing with outside of school in their homes and neighborhoods.
5. You Can and Should Always Make All the Right Moves
Good teaching involves continually experimenting, trying new things. And when you do that, you're going to make mistakes. Even the best teachers have bad days, or talk too much, or use the wrong exercise for that class. Lessons will bomb. You will have off days. You may lose your temper, come up with a great motivational exercise that falls flat, or show some video that you think is great but just bewilders everyone. I sometimes had my sequence incorrect. I sometimes lectured too long on a Friday afternoon and put all my students to sleep. And of course, the best teachers keep experimenting, with the natural outcome that some experiments fail. Remind yourself that instructional perfection is an illusion.
Letting Go of Illusions is Critical
The bottom line is that, while we should always be working to improve within each of these categories, we will never attain anything approaching perfection. Believing that we can be perfect only insures our continual dissatisfaction and unhappiness as teachers. That's no way to live one's teaching life.