Hello, long-lost friends. I’m sure the readership of NPS has been just dying to know what I’ve been up to and where I’ve been all this time (sassy backtalk not needed…). Where have I been… let’s see… getting my ass kicked by a bunch of 12 year olds. Writing this post almost feels like coming up for air, if only because it represents some aspect of “normal” life (you know, people with hobbies and free time kind of life) that I’ve been desperately missing all this time. But anyways, that’s not what I came all the way here to talk about.
Almost any educational expert—or fortune cookie, for that matter—will tell you, the best way to learn is by making mistakes. Our human brains have been evolutionarily designed to analyze our environment and our own actions that might mess that environment up, or make it better. We, the weakest natural predators on the planet, dominated the earth because of our ability to improvise (see John Medina’s Brain Rules for more on this). To learn from our mistakes.
Anyone who has raised children or worked with them for any length of time knows that this presents something of a dilemma. Children are malleable. This can mean two things… 1) They learn faster and better than any adult. The absolute best time to encourage them to learn from their mistakes is when they’re young, because no lesson will take root like one learned as a child. That said, 2) Children are fragile. For any number of reasons, we as a society provide oodles of rules, limits, and structures for kids. Some are for their physical safety, some are to prevent them from doing harm to others. Mostly, we adults just don’t believe them capable of making responsible decisions. We fear the mistakes that they might make, for their and our own sakes.
No place is this more evident than at my school. The school I teach at has a discipline code that rivals military schools. My scholars can earn detentions for having their shirts un-tucked if they’re not careful. They walk the halls in silent, single file lines. During lessons, they are required to sit in SLANT (back straight, hands folded on the desk, legs at 90 degree angles with feet on the floor). No slouching allowed. The more trusting explanation for this is that we try to teach the kids discipline, because discipline learned early will be with a child for life. The more likely explanations are that such behaviors are more convenient for teachers and create a stricter, more regimented learning environment for students.
I don’t know, at this point, if I buy the discipline for discipline’s sake argument. I’m not sure that forcing limits on people teach them to appreciate society’s need for structure. Jury’s out on that one. I certainly do agree that the rules work to my advantage as a teacher. This, however, flies in the face of my own instincts and gobs of psychological and education research which say that children need to be creative and motivated to take ownership of their education. How can they do this, I wonder, if every part of their education is laid upon them like a heavy burden they must carry rather than a thrilling peak they must climb? But because I am held accountable for each one of my student’s successes and failures, I need to guarantee that they do exactly everything I tell them, ALL THE TIME.
I admit it. I am afraid of their mistakes.
While I was taught to question, think critically, and evaluate what I am told, I have no room in my classroom for such antics when it comes to instructions, expectations, or discipline I lay upon my children. Many of my colleagues feel the same way. I am the teacher, you are the student. You do not question, you listen and obey. If I allow my students to question my authority, my effectiveness as an educator is potentially, very seriously compromised. I’m afraid of their mistakes.
This past week, I unwittingly and carelessly made one of the gravest mistakes of my short teaching career. I cursed in front of my students. While this might not seem like such a big deal with all that they’re exposed to between the outside world and television, what I said deeply hurt many of my students. I was also quite angry with them at the time, an emotion that is unwise to let loose in the classroom under any circumstance. The combination proved lethal. After that, there was a palpable shift in the culture of my room. It was clear that my students no longer trusted me or could look at me as the same kind of role model. It wasn’t their mistakes that compromised my authority, it was mine.
So… what to do… be the change I want to see in my students, admit my failings, apologize to a room full of preteens and risk looking vulnerable, or play the hardline authoritarian. I am always right, you have no power to question me, to doubt me, or to indicate that I am at fault. For anything. Ever.
This particular experience of mine expressly highlights the tension, both in education and in society generally, between taking risks and learning from our mistakes and the fear of failure, of being wrong. Kids experience this in their classrooms, refusing to give a wrong answer in front of a room full of their peers, preventing the kind of intellectual exploration we know they need. People in the workplace feel this when they hesitate to bring forward innovative ideas for fear that the idea will be taken and it will flop, or worse, their superiors will claim insubordination and shit-can their asses. Politicians feel this when they get elected with an intent to do good and then end up playing it safe for fear of upsetting the delicate sensibilities of their constituents and being booted from office.
Bold ideas and brave choices fail because we never learned how.
This job, more than any experience in my life, is teaching me one simple thing: how to really, really… suck at something. I should shout it from the rooftops. I AM WRONG. I fail! It hurts, and I am incredibly uncomfortable in confronting it. But I can’t change the facts. I can only learn from them. The real question is how do I teach the value in this to my students, especially when I am put in the delicate situation of being something like the oracle in their lives? Discipline and ownership, structure and creativity… we all need to do a better job of teaching and learning the balance between these things.
I did end up apologizing to them. I told them that I was deeply sorry for compromising their trust and not acting as I tell them we all must. I was selfish and petty. I only hope that through continuous admissions of failure with the greatest amount of grace I can muster, I can teach my students that there is honor in failure as long as you promise to do better tomorrow.