Since I attended the fantastic Changing the Odds conference put on by The Momentous Institute a couple of weeks ago, the idea for this post has been popping in and out of my mind. Usually when that happens, I jot down notes in my journal, hoping that someting takes shape well enough to produce a post. Not this time, however--no notes, no plan, no real idea of where this may go. So excuse me if it gets away from me. That's because I feel some trepedation about this post; in fact, I'm even reluctant to write it. I easily could come across as a rather pompous jerk in here. But since that probably happens too often anyway, I'm going to go for it.
During the conference many clear themes emerged, but one stands out in how it has resonated since then. Empathy. The concept is simple enough. And in education one would expect loads of it wafting through our schools like enticing bakery smells. Like so many things, however, the theory is simple. The practice is not. So what trips us up? Ego.
Please don't misundersttand. I want to clarify immediately that I'm not calling educators raging narcissists or massive egomaniacs. Are some? Of course. Just as some of anything likely are. However, I truly believe most are not and, in fact, went into the profession becasue they are not--that they have a strong desire to serve others before themselves. But they are human, and humans are very ego-driven creatures. It's part of our deepest survival instincts going back to early humanoid stages, and it remains embedded in our basic make-up. For a simple example, think about the pleasure tied to the serotonin that courses through us when someone favorites a Tweet of likes a Facebook post.
Certainly that's harmless. It's even necessary in some ways. I mean, imagine if you never received any affirmation. The danger comes when the ego trips us on the journey towards fulfillment of our larger mission as educators. What are some of the tell-tale signs? Not listening well, if at all. Closed-mindedness to new ideas. Believing one has all the answers. Negativity and cynicism. Those are the extremes, but they can occur.
The problem can begin in a way that seems harmless. It probably even is...until it runs amok. The emphasis on my. My students, my classes, my curriculum, my lessons--overuse of the pronoun signals a shift in priorities. At the very least, it certainly suggests a teacher-centered--perhaps even dominated--classroom. The slope gradually becomes even more slippery, to the point where the teacher's wants and needs can completely obscure the student experience. When that happens, teachers pile on work without considering the cumulative effect of students' outside lives and don't coordinate major assignments. They may fail to collaborate or to share professionally. Sometimes they become jealous of each other. Meanwhile, their empathy evaporates.
A few weeks ago Grant Wiggins posted a reflection by a veteran teacher who shadowed a student. It's gone viral; and people have reacted as if this were an eye-opening, even shocking revelation that kids' days are exhausting and full of passive listening and being chided, often sarcastically. I've shadowed students many times. Luckily I've worked in healthy schools, so there wasn't much negativity--but I'd feel worn out by lunch. Even if I hadn't done that, I don't think the post would have surprised me. All one really has to do is think about what a typical day must be like for a student in even the best schools. Loads of highlights, for sure; but plenty of regimentation and performance pressure as well. Then throw in all the stuff besides academics. Add the homework.
I think sometimes we become so caught up in our jobs that we easily forget to consider the experience through their eyes. Why does this happen? Well, I don't think there is a single answer to that. Some of it is the same reason such behavior can happen in any area. We all, for example, can probably think of stories of bosses who micromanage and demand complete control. However, I don't think that explains the issue in education. I think a primary explanation is a bit more ironic.
It's because so many teachers care so much and give so, so much of themselves. Simply put, they want the best for their students and believe so passionately in the importance of the work that they can develop a sort of tunnel vision. The focus can become narrow and myopic, the sense of urgency swelling beyond reason. Without realizing it, a teacher can seem to believe, "I have to finish these kids this year"; when our real goal should be helping them grow in ways that insure their learning never ends.
I'm not sparing heads and other administrators from this analysis. Yes, our roles involve considering the larger picture, and we often have more pieces of the puzzle than others. That, however, can just as easily lead to our failing to realize what the daily life of a teacher may be like. I try hard to remember how technology has made the job much more demanding in some ways, particularly when it comes to the type of communication families may expect. Plus there are ongoing changes in curricula and pedagogy. Most are for the better and should be encouraged, but it is demanding.
The balance necessary is a delicate mix. Everyone needs a degree of affirmation; that's natural and even vital to a healthy ego and sense of self. But the ego can be fragile, often tied to our being rather emotional creatures. One point to consider is the source of fulfillment, and that should align with mission. We ned to ask continually, "What's best for kids?" That doesn't necessitate being totally selfless. Actually, it a Zen sort of way, it relates to a saying I shared with a group of new heads recently in a leadership seminar: "Shrink yourselves so that others may grow."* For real educators that's the most nutritious way of feeding one's ego.
*Unfortunately, I cannot recall where I first learned this saying or the root source.