“I’m not self-actualized on all these myself,” said Dr. Caryn Huber, Dean of Students, to a faculty of 200 teachers during our opening day professional development. She was introducing a powerpoint that featured the prescribed behavioral qualities we would like our students to master to achieve social, emotional, and academic success.
It was a surprising admission. So surprising, in fact, that I wrote it down. It’s the first time I’d ever heard an administrator (or any one in front of a PD) say this out loud: that every day we ask kids to act in ways that we ourselves as adults haven’t mastered yet.
We ask kids to set SMART goals, manage their time well, bounce back in the face of failure, interact with peers not of their social group, be compassionate, be responsive, be engaged and curious, be driven and goal-oriented. But the truth of the adult world is very few of us have that list in the bag. How many of us have our anger truly in check? How many of us respond with compassion every single time? How many of us sit with new people at faculty meetings?
Dr. Huber’s admission was a rarity, yet it shouldn’t be. Admitting our humanness should be on center stage in every classroom and every PD. Our shortcomings or weak spots or unevolved selves are some of the most powerful things we could share with our students. That our own struggle to learn is not on display every day in every classroom is a waste of a powerful demonstration on the notion of growth mindset.
I’m not suggesting you talk to your students about your addiction, your divorce, or your abysmal financial situation. I’m suggesting you share the hills and valleys of your own intellectual journey, the one you’re still on. My colleague Vickie Moriarity wrote a blog recently about failing her Google test, and the empathy she developed for those students who try and try again to learn content they just can’t master. Vickie’s own failure and her continued journey to gain Google certification will be a powerful model of resilience for her students.
Teachers sometimes present themselves as having arrived at guru status. Perhaps I have presented myself as a master of things of which I am not because pretending to have all the answers is reassuring to me. If kids can figure out things on their own, why am I even in the room? But isn’t that the key consideration in all project-based learning, namely, what is my role in an educational landscape where the answers are not solid, objective realities, but fluid, in-progress creations?
We often speak through our ego, which manifests itself as dictatorial control when we’re in front of our students. We have the answers. We have mastered this content. Really though, when was the last time I have participated in the kinds of thinking I am demanding of my students?
Am I asking students to write an argument on a controversial claim? When was the last time I wrote an argument on a controversial claim from start to finish with evidence and works cited and clear organization? Am I asking students to write a poem? When was the last time I attempted to channel human experience into figurative language?
Being real about our struggles is a powerful teaching tool. And more importantly, we need to talk about it. Dr. Huber tapped into that on opening day: confession is good for the soul. Admit that we don’t always have our act together. Make that admission into a testimony. Our stories will connect us more tightly to one another when we share them with our students. Sharing the story of your own attempts to learn something, or hey, actually writing and mathing with your students (what a concept!) and letting them see you struggle will be the biggest (and most long lasting) lesson they will learn all year. Be the thing you teach. Show students how it’s done by doing it with them, and sometimes failing. Show them that too.