When I first started teaching, I wanted to be a combination of all the movie and television teachers I’d seen over the years. I wanted to be noble and inspirational like Sidney Poitier in To Sir With Love. I wanted the steely determination of Jaime Escalante in Stand and Deliver. I wanted the combined toughness of Joe Clark in Lean on Me and Debbie Allen of Fame. I wanted the unconventionality of Michelle Phiffer in Dangerous Minds. And, I wanted the lovable, goofy sense of humor of Gabe Kaplan in Welcome Back Carter. I thought the combination would make me a master teacher.
So I went to work each day trying to shape myself into the image of my ideal teacher. I planned quirky lessons in the name of being innovative. I created unreasonable requirements in the name of being tough. Because I taught high school and looked younger than most of my students, I dressed like an old school marm – sensible heals, skirts that came almost to my ankles, frumpy blouses, and glasses. My sister started calling me Miss Crabtree.
I wanted to make a difference so I threw myself into my teaching. I applied all the theories I had learned in my methods classes. I wrote lesson plans every day and spent every weekend grading papers. I faithfully followed the curriculum. I posted and enforced classroom rules. I created elaborate differentiated lessons designed to tap into each student’s learning style and multiple intelligences. I used technology. I collaborated with my colleagues. I applied cooperative instruction, inquiry-based learning, multiculturalism -- you name it. In short, I tried to become my idea of the perfect teacher.
Soon however, I realized that there was a stark difference between my ideal classroom and the one I was actually running. That assignment I spent hours planning fell flat. That really cool strategy I couldn’t wait to try failed to engage my students. At first, I thought it was just of matter of accumulating newer strategies, better lessons, different approaches. So I devoted myself to learning as much as I could. I read the “happy teacher” books that made teaching seem so easy. I watched master teachers smoothly handle their students. I developed a great grasp of the facts of teaching and worked harder and harder until I burned myself out. But, my students were still disengaged, bored, and barely learning.
For a while, I even blamed my students. They were lazy. They didn’t care. Their parents were bad parents. Sometimes the blame even came in the form of more acceptable excuses – they were too impacted by poverty, they had really short attention spans because of so much television and social media, this generation just doesn’t have the same values – but the bottom line was that I was not as effective with them as I dreamed I would be.
It took me a long time and a lot of frustration before I understood that the problem wasn’t my students. The problem was my approach to my students. I realized over time that my dreams about the kind of teacher I would be was more about serving my own ego needs than serving my students. I wanted my students to do well because that would mean that I was a good teacher. I wanted them to tearfully thank me at the end of the year and tell me how much I had changed their lives. I wanted to recount stories of the difference I had made in the lives of my students to my awestruck friends at the next dinner party. I wanted my students to grow up, become famous, and thank me in their Nobel Prize acceptance speeches. I wanted someone to make a movie about me. In fact, many of my dreams about teaching weren’t about helping my students at all. They were about me.
Once I came to that very painful (and a little embarrassing) realization, I shifted my focus away from me and my own ideals to my students. I stopped trying to manipulate them to learn and showed them how to learn. I stopped trying to get them to serve my own ego needs and started serving theirs.
The difference was almost immediate and so radical that I never turned back. For the first time in my teaching career, I felt free. In trying to become my idea of a master teacher, I had failed miserably. Once I shed those ideas, focused instead on my students and their needs, and relaxed, I was able to just teach. As a result, over time I become the very kind of teacher I’d always dreamed I would be.
You wouldn’t be able to make a compelling movie about the changes that happened in my classroom. There were days when my lessons soared, and other days when they tanked. There were days when my students loved me and days when I just got on their nerves and vice versa. But by simply focusing on teaching well rather than focusing on becoming the perfect teacher, I found my own teaching style, my own version of mastery, and I promise you that you can to.
Now it is your turn.
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