Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Teacher Self-Doubt

(Coupe du Doubte by Victor Brauner 1946)

The first principal I ever worked under, a man I thoroughly respect, once told me that he wanted educators on his staff who doubted themselves.  Why?  Rather than being full of themselves, entertaining notions such as, I know the absolute best way to approach X or Y, or Everything I do is great, he wanted people who were in a constant state of readjustment.  I understand and value that perspective, and no one likes to be around a know-it-all, right?  These days, though, for me, a little doubt can go a long, long way.

The funny thing with something like self-doubt is that it may not be outwardly evident.  I can think of many examples where someone’s self-doubt had morphed into an outward manifestation of seeming over-confidence or bossyness or snobbery.  All the while, the individual was processing a truckload of self-doubt and insecurity, internally.  It may manifest itself outwardly in myriad ways, but adolescents can smell it the way vultures smells carrion.  It is confusing: the supposed authority shot through with self-doubt and insecurity.  Students, sitting in class, “eat the air, promise-crammed. You cannot feed capons so” (Hamlet 3.2.84-6).

The promise, for students, is some degree of advancement.  The air, promise-crammed, for the English teacher, is that electric connection or ignition.  It is that moment when we step out of the driver’s seat and students gain control of the discourse, take it out for a drive.  It is when discussions of the text, activities and small group interactions, writing prompts, inspire deep connections which students would not have anticipated.  What happens, though, when doubt is lurking, and it rears its ugly head enough to seep through the room like a heavy mist?  What happens when students, promising students, lose faith or begin with no faith at all, in the teacher?  While a little self-doubt is good, self-corrective even, its presence can overwhelm at a moment’s notice.

Last week, when trying to understand why a student repeatedly sleeps in an honors class, I spoke with that individual.  I was given an answer like a slap in the face.  Already given over to self-doubt and a diminished sense of self-worth, the words devastated me.  

Me: “Why don’t you sleep in Mrs. XYZ’s Physics class?”

Student: “Because I respect her.”

It turns out that the entire process of the Socratic method, discussions about American literature, and attempts to help students improve their rhetorical skills through the exhausting process of providing feedback on multiple drafts of analysis essays, garners little to no respect.  Yes, more words were exchanged, civilly I might add.  They cut deeply, too, as none of them were favorable to me or my discipline.  

As an already insecure and slightly introverted person, such comments can come as a devastating blow. (Apologies to Carol Dweck, but when my emotions sag or even plummet based on derisive feedback, I don’t automatically assume it’s a result of my “fixed mindset.”)  Administration can criticize me all they like, and it does not hurt.  Their feedback is corrective and intended to help me improve my practice.  In many ways, administrative feedback is similar to the feedback I provide students on essays.  As a concerned educator, I really do want all students to engage, in some fashion, in my classroom.  “Like” is not what matters, to me.  Students do not have to like me (or even the material we are reading) to engage.  Stinging from the emotional slap, I thought about all the hurdles teachers face in maintaining any sort of dignity or self-confidence in our society.

Putting aside the sting, I actually did consider ways in which I could make my class more engaging for this individual.  Is the class interactive and dynamic enough?  What sort of balance is there between student-centered and teacher-centered practices?  Do students have a voice?  Are there plenty of opportunities to stretch or go beyond the basic curricular expectations?  Do I treat students with dignity and respect?  Do I actually have enough content knowledge?

While it is valuable for me to question my own content knowledge and to want to further that knowledge, that will never be enough for students, parents and colleagues who see the pursuit of literary studies as being secondary, peripheral even, in a world demanding STEM skills.  A room full of advanced students prejudiced toward STEM academics has, at times, been tougher for me to engage and enliven than a class struggling with foundational literacy concerns.  Questioning the value of engaging close readings of poetry and prose, many might simply be trying to rack up an “honors” credit.  Yes, many are able to write a solid essay, with some help, and I am fortunate to have that opportunity.  However, maintaining dignity and self-confidence can be a long-term challenge.  The minute it slips, the wolves are ready.

Of course, this is a sheep in wolves’ clothing, right?  Busy, sometimes half-exhausted, multi-tasking, I have to always remind myself to breathe deeply and remember that things do have a way of working out.  Sure, I should doubt myself.  It is even healthy to doubt the practice of teaching Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Twain, Chopin, Cather, Wright, and others, to ask myself why.  It is equally important, though, to remember the value of art for art’s sake, expression for expression’s sake, the urge of the human condition.  It is important to remember that I am connecting to someone.

As if on cue, the next school day, a former student brought me brownies in gratitude for my having written a college recommendation.  I had forgotten all about it, honestly.  Then I remembered that several seniors, all of whom had passed through my Junior Honors class the previous year, asked for help on their college essays.  A little doubt can go a long way, and it is important to remember the successes.

(The STEM culture’s diminishment of the Humanities should be the topic of another entry.)

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