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