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5 Myths That Sabotage Our Love of Teaching

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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.

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Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Eman Elhosiny's picture
Eman Elhosiny
Science Education Curriculum Specialist

I think we can summery tese effective tips by Action Research on our class-room ...EFFECTIVE article ...Super like

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

this is a great post. The myth that really hurt me in my early years of teaching is that I had to love every student and I felt very guilty when I didn't.

I eventually got over it and now teach my students that they do not have to love them all, just teach them.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Thanks Rick!

What a good one to add!
I held on to that myth too as a young teacher.
But, it just took one or two impossible students to help me to no longer feel guilty.

Gina's picture

Great post! I'm currently studying to become a teacher, and I sometimes feel that the expectations in our textbooks are a bit too idealistic. I'm thinking in particular of the concept that good teachers should be able to reach every student. The lives of students today can be so complicated and difficult, that such a task feels impossible and certainly creates anxiety. So thank you, we should all learn to let go of our illusions. It will make us better educators in the end.

Ashley Bailey's picture
Ashley Bailey
First grade teacher from Tremonton, Utah

I love this article! I am a first year teacher and have been struggling with a lot of these same issues. I can become frustrated if I feel like I am not reaching all of my students. I have a very diverse class that ranges from having resource students to very bright. I loved your advice of doing by best, but not expecting everyone to love me.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Thanks Ashley. I'm so glad that this has been of value to you and others. I think one of the reasons is that most of us who teach have felt some or all of this at times.
Maybe I should also do one for bloggers! I mean, I do expect everyone to love everything I write! Okay, bad joke, but with some small element of truth. :-)

For all its challenges, teaching should be fun, and not being burdened by these expectations can help that to happen.

Juan's picture
Pre-service teacher in Houston, TX. Music education EC-12

Hello! I am a pre-service teacher majoring in music education. This is a very good article with great information. I want to eventually teach in an inner-city school and I know that one of my concerns will be my ability to reach every student in my classroom. This article gives me a lot of inspiration and has given me a few new ideas to try out once I hit the floor running. Thank you so much!

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