Posted by Liz Prather on Tuesday, 11/03/2015
In my early years of teaching, I thought I had to know all the answers. If a student asked about some arcane grammatical question, I would divert the query by saying: “Well, how do you think subjunctive tense changes indicative verbs?” I could justify it as higher order re-directing all I wanted, but honestly I just didn’t want to say, “Uh, I have no clue.” Now I’m ancient and worn out and perfectly willing to admit I don’t know jack. In fact, increasingly, I am less and less sure about anything.
Young teachers often feel that to maintain control in their classrooms, they must project an image of Gandalf the White, but that stance can be, at worst, dangerous and in the very least, disingenuous. What you might gain by momentarily averting exposure, you will lose in the long run by the students’ awareness you lack credibility.
To any teacher suffering from Sheldon Cooper disease, I would like to offer the model of brokenness. Spiritual circles of all stripes are big on boasting in weaknesses for the purposes of humility and godliness, but brokenness in teachers can become a means to forge relationships with students for whom school, education, and intellectualism is a daunting, alienating space.
Several years ago, I had a class of struggling learners. During our time together, I discovered that every student in my classroom was related to someone who was currently serving time in prison, but not one student had any member of their family who had been to college. In this power-vacuum, I stood as The Teacher, the historical symbol of correction and rightness, among students who had very little interest or investment in symbols or power, or any of that noise. How would it have profited me to establish correctness and control as the bridge over which they had to walk to be successful in my classroom? When I laid out my own difficulties with writing, all of them perked up. I attempted to use my own humanity as a way to forge a relationship of mutual struggle with them. In the words of teacher Nanci Atwell, when I took the top of my head off and showed them the back-tracks, failures, foibles, and misunderstandings, they were more willing to buy in to the class, and I was in a better position to help them become successful readers and writers.
I am not a good speller. It used to bother me when I misspelled a word on the board and a student pointed it out and then followed up their discovery with, “And you call yourself an English teacher!” Which I followed up with, "How am I supposed to know how to spell all 1,025,109.8 words in the English language?!" I also have horrible handwriting. Going quasi-paperless last year was a god-send for me because I typed in my comments on student writing in a shared Google doc. But I’ve spent 18-years chicken-scratching in the margins of student papers, and invariably, some kid suggests perhaps I’m not a real teacher since I can barely write a sentence in legible penmanship.
Now, when that happens, I just roll my eyes and say, “I, too, am a mortal,” which generally elicits a chuckle, and we go on our merry way. But the remarks still smart a bit. It doesn't feel good when people point out our weaknesses. Especially when you really have tried to overcome them. I use these moments to reflect on how it must feel when I make corrections in my students' work, and I vow again to deliver instruction with encouragement, awareness, and grace.
There are a couple of benefits to showing students your cracks – wait, …. I mean, showing them your flaws and struggles as a learner. One, it helps them understand that learning never stops. No one knows everything, and there's always something new to learn. The winner in the learning game is the curious. Two, its helps them understand they can question me, challenge me, and that I too am responsible for marshalling evidence and supporting my claims in an argument. Third, it’s good to show vulnerability, so students can feel comfortable admitting their own weaknesses and fears. Fourth, it helps students become more vocal and independent when they don’t have to rely on me as The Oracle to speak from the mountain.
It can be dangerous to elevate yourself to the position of the Great and Powerful Oz in your classroom. However, by admitting you are human, fallible, and sometimes even broken, you make it okay for your students to learn from their own stumbles and troubles and gaffes.