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 Learning. In 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.”
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.
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.