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Slice of Life: Embarrassment

It was the first day of class, and we talked about embarrassment.

Not in the “share your most embarrassing moment” get-to-know/team-building exercise way. One of the most embarrassing moments of my teaching was when I went to school with two different shoes on. And as you can see in the picture at the right, they were really different. But after laughing about it with  my students—and getting teased a bit from my colleagues—everything turned out okay. The world didn’t end and now it’s the story I tell when someone asks us to “share our most embarrassing moment.”

But that’s not the embarrassment we talked about yesterday. The embarrassment we talked about is more powerful and pernicious, permeating our practice, often without us even realizing it. 

My colleague Brian Kelley and I are co-facilitating a new class for the PA Writing & Literature Project this week. TeachShift!—our title for the course—centers on teacher inquiry, and how to help teachers grow their own professional practice.  The course grew out of the many conversations Brian and I have had about how the writing project has helped us not only by connecting us with other teachers, face-to-face, but also by introducing us to mentors like Graves, Murray, and the continuing legacy of educators who have become the north stars of our teaching lives (Can you have multiple north stars? I’m going to say yes.).

It’s not often we talk seriously about embarrassment as teachers, but we should. This is the point that Tom Newkirk makes in his soon-to-be-published book Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of LearningIn fact, in class yesterday we read a preview from this book. Newkirk writes:

It seems to me that embarrassment (or fear thereof) is one of those big facts of learning—or not learning—and that it deserves attention. It interferes, inhibits, forces misjudgments. I have seen it shut down Vygotsky’s famous zone of proximal development into nothing—any risk, any uncertainty closes down student effort. And embarrassment doesn’t even need an audience: no one needs to watch us struggle with an eighth-grade algebra problem. We perform for ourselves, often the harshest of audiences.

One of the goals for the course is to help teachers take more agency in their practice—that professional development doesn’t have to be something done to teachers by administrators, that teachers can take responsibility over their own growth. After all, there is so much out there these days between Twitter and Facebook and PD books, conferences, webinars. How can we help teachers not only tap into all that there is but do so in a way that is sustainable? I love what Newkirk had to say about Nancie Atwell when he observed her classroom, “It didn’t seem magical, just really good at every point… it was her attention to small and lasting improvements that drove her practice for thirty years, right up to the end.”

But what I’ve come to discover about professional growth is that we can’t really talk about growing—about those “small and lasting changes”—if we don’t also talk about embarrassment.

Any time we change something in our practice—even if it’s just 5%, as Newkirk has recommended in The Teacher You Want to be—we take a risk. And in taking that risk, we open ourselves to the possibility of failure, of embarrassing ourselves.

I wonder how much this fear of embarrassment limits teachers—whether that fear comes from how we’ll look in front of administrators, parents, colleagues or kids. How much does this fear even debilitate, stunt us? My dear friend and colleague Kate Flowers and I talked about Newkirk’s work a few months ago, and thinking aloud, she said to me, “I wonder if it’s not embarrassment that holds teachers back. I think it might be shame.”

Shame.

And if it is shame, then imagine how much higher the stakes become. To try new things knowing that they might fail? To put ourselves, our work, out there into the world—whether it’s in the faculty room or online for the world to see? It’s scary. It makes us vulnerable. But as Kylene Beers often reminds us, we can’t get to best practice without starting with next practice—and by definition, next practices are going to be messy, exposing our insecurities plainly for all our colleagues, and students, to see.

The longer I teach and live, the more convinced I am in the following two truths.

First, narrative is the most powerful way we have to make meaning. Narrative helps us make sense of the world, others, ourselves. We organize our days, our lives, in beginnings, middles, and ends. We forget lists of facts and dates, but we don’t forget stories of people living those facts and dates. Our minds, as Newkirk again reminds us, are made for stories.

Speaking of narrative, here’s the second truth. Teachers aren’t in charge of their own narratives. Teachers aren’t very good at telling their own stories. Instead, the narrative about teachers and education—our successes but also, and more often, our struggles—are increasingly controlled by entities outside the classroom: parents, news outlets, bloggers, school boards, testing companies, politicians. As teachers, all we want to do—and understandably so—is shut our doors and teach our kids. And many times, that works.

But if we don’t tell our stories, others will do it for us.

One point that came up in our class on Monday was that teachers often don’t share their stories because it doesn’t feel right. We put our kids, and our kids’ stories, first. That’s how we’re built. We celebrate our students’ achievements and sometimes underestimate how much we did to make those achievements possible.

As teachers, we also know that whenever something good happens in our classrooms, there were a lot of variables that went into it.  Unlike the sound bytes you’ll read in the news, we know that teaching is a complex process, part art, part craft. Sometimes it’s the combination of kids on that particular day and at that particular time: who’s absent, who got up on the wrong side of the bed, who forgot their lunch money and can’t focus.

But sometimes, it’s also the result of some other, hard-to-pin-down element—some combination of good fortune, luck, serendipity, stars aligning just so, perhaps something in the water. And we know this because sometimes a lesson can be spectacular one class period and fall spectacularly flat the next one. We know there’s something else at work. So we’re hesitant to own our success, and even more hesitant to claim ownership of that success by telling the story of how it happened. “Who am I to tell others how to do something? How will I know if it will work for them?” one participant said yesterday.

But I also think there’s something else at stake: What if I embarrass myself?

As I drove home at the end of the day, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much the teachers in the class had to offer to other educators. In that room, among that handful teachers, were decades of experience and wisdom and love for kids.

One of the activities we had teachers do was to create timelines of their teaching lives. After we posted them on the walls, it was amazing to see the stories that were embedded in those timelines—the peaks and valleys and plateaus. “It’s almost like seeing an EKG,” Brian said to me.

Yes. 

Each of the timelines was the heartbeat of the teacher who created it. And although those heartbeats went up and down, and none were very regular—which might explain why teaching can be so stressful and hard on our spirits—they continued to beat.

Every low point was eventually followed by a higher one. No matter how hard a time might have been, there was a point where we recovered. And as you looked closer at the timelines, you could see why. Timeline after timeline, heartbeat after heartbeat, it was the relationships we had with our students or other teachers and mentors that lifted us.

Those stories need to be told.


slice of lifeThis post is part of the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers, a weekly invitation to share a snapshot of life through writing. To read more or participate, click here.

13 Comments

  1. Thank you for this amazing post, Tricia.

    As my colleagues and I embark on making a major shift in our teaching this coming year (moving to reading/writing workshop), embarrassment is and will be an ongoing issue for all of us. As we start to plan and envision the changes to come, we are already expressing our doubts, our what if’s, and what thens.

    Thank you for the reminder that it will be worth it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s wonderful that you and your team are moving in that direction—and together! I’m sure it will go well, even if there are hiccups, because you’ll working together. 🙂

      Like

  2. carwilc

    Tom Newkirk is one of my favorite thinkers and teachers! I can’t wait to read his newest book. I love how you applied it to your teaching life!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Kathleen Neagle Sokolowski

    This post is a MUST READ for teachers and those who have the charge of offering professional development. I wish I was in this class. I am facilitating a class for teachers on using digital tools right now and shared this with them because so many feel out of their comfort zone. It’s so hard to be new at something or feel inept and there is a risk in sharing what we don’t know. But I feel like, what’s to be gained by acting like I know how to do something I don’t? I’d rather be honest and get help then act like I know things I don’t . I see how embarrassment can shut down learning with my own son. He is 6 and going into first grade but reading is not coming easily. He gets so upset if he forgets a word or has trouble reading something. He can’t take in the fact that it’s okay for it to be hard and he will get better with practice. He feels so ashamed that he doesn’t know how to do it and his shame shuts down the learning process. So hard as a mom and a teacher who loves reading to experience this but I keep on keeping on and telling him what I know about learning (it takes time- different for everyone- gets better the more you practice). Thanks for this post- I loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Kathleen!! I was lucky enough to get a copy (and take multiple copies—I’m a teacher!!) of the first chapter of Tom’s new book. Amazing. Such smart, honest thinking that I hope will spur more of these conversations. I hear you about your son, too. My youngest is also 6, and I can see immediately the moment he gets something wrong – esp in front of his brothers – how embarrassed he is. Makes me really think about what we ask our students to do every day in class.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, and sure! We just had teachers (on big posters) create a graph. X axis is years teaching, Y axis is their “rating” (how well they think did as a teacher). Then they plot their points. We then asked teachers to annotate the graph to explain the peaks, valleys, plateaus (experiences, mentors, circumstances, etc.). After we posted them to the walls, the other teachers in the class went around and left questions, noticings, thoughts using post-it notes. It worked wonderfully! Let me know if you use it and how it works for you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This post made me quite emotional. Telling my story or the story I experience working with my students has in fact been life changing for me. About 6 years ago I wrote a letter to my city about the poverty and need I witnessed in my classroom. It ended up going viral being shared in the media and on social media networks. (the letter is here https://thereisabookforthat.com/that-letter/) Over the next few years, I ended up speaking on various panels, to groups of teacher candidates and to medical students about vulnerable populations and the impact of poverty on children in the classroom. It was very intimidating. I kept saying to my husband – “I don’t know anything. I’m just a teacher in one classroom in one little school.” But I came to realize that our stories come from observing and a willingness to to be honest about what we don’t know. I had a daily front row seat in my classroom everyday. I watched. I bore witness. And then I talked about what I noticed. What I wondered. What I worried about. This gave me confidence to start sharing things on my blog about my learning and thinking as I worked with my students. I talked about assessment, about all things literacy and about hope. I am not any kind of expert on anything but I am a learner and a thinker and an observer. Every time I share, I learn. There is so much power in that. Your post is full of so much wisdom. Thank you, thank you for sharing it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I really love the idea of narrative essays. In Developmental English/Writing, a Narrative essay can be a short writing–a paragraph or two. But Descriptive, Persuasive, and Compare-&-Contrast essays all have that narrative component to them, for students are telling their stories. Critics have called the model essays generated from edited student essays as too regional, idiosyncratic, or controversial. But we aren’t generic beings. Finding the sustainability in composition research by Derek Owens and the You Matter paradigm of Angela Maiers has motivated me to resist criticism–the “Yes, but…” persuasive strategy. Enjoyed your essay–brought back memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Joy Kirr

    The relationships we have with our students… that’s what makes our hearts keep beating! Beautiful post, Tricia!!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Carlee Hanebury

    I see the power of the online network. You have shown me just how important it is to be a part of this online community. I can feel like I’m at a PAWLP class from my own living room! Learning is social and therefore, relationships are an integral part of learning! Thank you, Tricia.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for sharing this information. I too would love to be in this group! Reflection can be hard but it’s a great way to make adjustments in our teaching. The graph of teaching is a great tool, I hope to apply it too.

    Like

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