On Screwing Up

Or, Why Good Teachers Aren’t Know-It-Alls

Photo by Seema Miah on Unsplash

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Samuel Beckett’s words (from the novella Worstward Ho) are an arch rallying cry for MFA types.

They have never set well with me. Blame a lifetime of planting the flag of my self-worth in the quicksand of perfectionism. Blame Puritan-Prussian heritage (my DNA is halfway to being a ladder). Blame having heard the message too late.

Blame apportioned, a problem remains. Perfectionism is permissible (if inadvisable) for an individual; it is unacceptable in teaching.

Not many days ago, I logged onto Zoom and began my presentation on Culturally Responsive Teaching for the Le Sallay Academy Blended Learning Conference. That it was my first time logging onto Zoom in a while should have given me pause.

Deep breath, off to a start.

We can’t hear you well, the moderator piped.

Jamming on my oversize headphones, I tried to smile and continued.

A pop-up obscured my presentation, something about recording, blah blah. Impatient to be rid of it, I clicked the X in the top right corner and found myself staring at a static screen.

My panicked brain registered, logged out.

My immediate impulse: crawl under the table and call it a day.

Instead, I scrabbled through the emails, found the link, logged back in, found myself flipping through tabs trying to restore my presentation, rictus grin on my face, tried to make light: As we can see, there is always the possibility of technical issues.

Photo by Compare Fibre on Unsplash

Broadly speaking, I’d rather be right than happy. Being right makes me happy.

Perhaps one of the reasons I came to teaching only after a substantial career in journalism was that my younger self needed to control the outcome. I can massage a piece of writing to perfection.

Standing in a classroom, or delivering a presentation, opens up all kinds of variables, exciting new ways to screw up.

There is a deep part of me that will always be appalled by this; counterbalancing, a part that knows learning is more important than knowledge — and that the only honest way to communicate this to students is to model it.

It isn’t enough to say, you can learn from mistakes; teachers need to demonstrate it.

Psychologist Carol Dweck coined the now-familiar terms growth mindset and fixed mindset. Writing for the Harvard Review, she notes: “Individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies, and input from others) have a growth mindset….  they worry less about looking smart and put more energy into learning.”

They worry less about looking smart.

This is where the teacher tug-o’-war starts: the educator desire to want to model excellence and expertise versus the student need to see curiosity and willingness to screw up.

Because we do, oh we do.

You can’t learn what you already know, I tell my classes. Existing expertise may gratify the ego, but it doesn’t grow the intellect.

Adjuring students to take intellectual risks and accept failures as part of the learning process is a cop-out though. Everyone who has spent time around young mammals knows they are fiercely imitative. To have any chance of inspiring imitation, teachers need to show, not tell; act, not instruct.

This is borne out by research: MacDonnell Mesler et al. (2021) found that teachers with growth mindsets had a “positive and statistically significant association with the development of their students’ growth mindsets.”

How does a teacher demonstrate a growth mindset? Only by admitting to imperfect knowledge, making mistakes and learning from them, getting out of their comfort zone and engaging with difficulties.

Students are quick to sniff out inauthentic attitudes. As much as I’d love to be able to convince them it’s not just fine but important to screw up occasionally, that message will ring false if unaccompanied by the grace and humility to make and acknowledge errors. To overcome my reluctance, I challenge myself to do the following.

Make space for student expertise

A friend who knows me very well once remarked, half in jest, that I’d make a good cult leader. He knows how much I love to be right and persuade others of my rightness. Hence, it is a serious discipline to shut myself down (multiple times a day) and make space for student expertise. They know things I don’t, lots and lots of things.

Instead of always telling them what I know (ah, Sinai!) I make a practice of asking what they know. This throws up surprises (another thing perfectionists hate) and sends us on tangents. It is crucial; students need agency, need to know that what they know is valuable and integral to what they are learning.

Adopt a ‘learn with’ not ‘teach to’ approach

Reframing the educational encounter as a mutual learning experience creates opportunities for teachers and students alike. Though it is easy to fall back on the egotistical attitude of I’m the teacher, listen to me, this is precisely how not to inspire a growth mindset. Teaching to implies the teacher is omniscient; depending on the student, this obvious nonsense will discourage, annoy or spur indifference. (Why should I be intellectually adventurous and honest if my teacher isn’t?)

A learn with approach emphasizes that learning is ongoing for everyone, and that no matter how much a person knows about a subject, there is always more to discover.

Screw up and own it

One of the most valuable phrases in a teacher’s repertoire is, I was wrong.

It is also one of the hardest things (for me) to say.

Professional pride, ego, perfectionism all get in the way of admitting mistakes, but it is unutterably important that students have positive models for screwing up and owning it.

Teachers have to be willing to make and acknowledge mistakes to model the next, crucial step: learning from that mistake.

Acknowledging an error opens the door to correcting it; refusing to do so keeps students and teachers locked in false, precarious attitudes of expertise that hinder personal and collaborative learning.

***

Would I prefer to be a flawless, infinitely knowledgeable teacher? Of course.

Would that make me a better educator? Absolutely not.

Resisting perfectionism and owning errors will always be a struggle, but my students will ultimately benefit, and that’s what matters.

 

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Deprivation versus Education

Photo by Khalil on Unsplash

On Tuesday, around half-past-nine in the morning, my cat jumped onto the sink. An instant after I turned the tap, the power went out. Cue a three-day saga of landlord, electricians and plumbers clumping past my workspace and accusing glares from Teddy, the cat, as he nosed the unyielding tap.

Serendipitously, my three dry days coincided with reading from George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London with my students.

“It is altogether curious, your first contact with poverty,” Orwell writes. “You thought it would be quite simple; it is extraordinarily complicated. You thought it would be terrible; it is merely squalid and boring. It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first; the shifts that it puts you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.”

Replace ‘poverty’ with ‘no running water’, ‘no electricity’, ‘no food’ or any other noun phrase related to a basic necessity. The principle stands.

To lack something one requires for survival is complicated, squalid, boring, low, crust-wiping. Whatever one’s other resources, the absence, scarcity or precarity of water, food, shelter, warmth, etc. is destructive.

Deprivation makes education harder to attain. Moreover, it robs whatever education one has acquired of its value.

Attention

In the elegiac opening sentence of ‘On Being Ill’ Virginia Woolf writes, “Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

For when the lights of health go down, let’s substitute: when you can’t flush the toilet, or wash your hands.

My first unnerved thought, when I realized the water wasn’t returning at the flick of a fuse-switch, was, oh shit.

Literally. I have had severe IBS for over a decade. Proximity to a clean, functioning, private convenience is high on my list of essentials. Higher, in fact, than food. Food, once consumed, rapidly becomes a problem.

Not having water turned the next three days into a pathetic war of attrition with my internal organs, which I’d rather think of as friends than enemies. Boiled white rice became the meal of choice to minimize digestive demands.

Disarranged eating and hygiene stress combined to drag my mind away from classes. And I’m the teacher.

Imagine how much harder it is for students to cope with scarcity, and the fatal effect on attention.

Intention

Education helps us learn to make good choices. We learn to think critically, plan, weigh options, critique, etc. (ideally, anyway).

Orwell was well-educated and possessor of a rare mind. He argues, “a man who has gone even a week on bread and margarine is not a man any longer, only a belly with a few accessory organs.”

Science bears out this observation: the brain is around 2% of body weight but hoovers up 20% of the body’s glucose-derived energy (Mergenthaler, et al., 2014). Depriving the body of the energy it requires disproportionately affects the brain; an effect for which the body attempts to compensate by purloining glucose from other vital systems. Nevertheless, subpar nutrition takes a crowbar to cognitive functions (Glucose and The Brain: Improving Mental Performance, 2013).

Other forms of deprivation, such as lack of running water, may not have the same immediate physiological implications, but they swiftly cripple good intentions.

Not knowing when the water would be back, I couldn’t plan dinner, much less anything in the more distant future. Clothes and dishes needed washing, cat bowls needed refilling, plants needed watering, but it couldn’t be done nor anticipated. I learned to live in the moment, in the worst possible way.

Interaction

Working from home, my attire tends more towards casual than smart. But there is a huge difference between informal and clean and plan dirty.

I take the ability to be clean, and therefore socially appropriate, for granted; fortunate am I.

Day one was tolerable but by day two the BO was bothering me. The morning of day three there were some unavoidable errands. After slathering on deodorant and shoving my grimy body into clean clothes I skulked out, coat zipped to the chin and masked. During the brief exchanges that followed, I stood as far away as courtesy allowed, marrow curling with self-consciousness.

I need to start donating to clean water projects, I thought. Then thought of all the people who live in places clean water projects don’t touch: places like Spain, the United States or the UK. In developed countries, broad access to running water, hygiene products, etc. masks — and no doubt exacerbates — the trauma of those who cannot access these fundamental resources.

Not being able to wash and groom adequately is uncomfortable on a personal level. I was hyperconscious of my bodily fluids and functions. But it is fatal to the ability to interact with clean human beings on an equal footing.

If I were a student who couldn’t wash, stuck in a roomful of freshly-scrubbed peers, I’d want to crawl under the floorboards. Or maybe I’d act out, to distract from my discomfort. I was fortunate to not have the precise experience as a kid, but I can imagine.

One thing is for sure: my mind would not be on my studies. I’d be counting the minutes till I could flee.

______________________________

Thursday night, the kitchen tap spluttered to life. Borderline delirious, I pulled on the Marigolds and scrubbed the dishes piled in the sink, wiped the counters, refilled the cat bowls. After a long, hot shower I put on clean pajamas, sat on the sofa and stared at the unlit furnace, unsure what to do.

The tiredness that gripped me wasn’t ordinary, end-of-the-week stuff. My energy and volition were sapped, like I’d run a marathon.

The argument of Mani, et al. (2013) that “poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity… because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks” made perfect sense.

Education is wonderful thing. There isn’t much I’d rather do than teach and learn. But deprivation is its undoing.

As a teacher, and an individual, I have a responsibility to work towards a more equitable society where people have the resources they need to benefit from education.

How can educators support a more equitable society? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or Tweet @CilaWarncke