My mom used to get so frustrated with me.
She lived long enough to see me through ten years of teaching high school, four years of grad school, and the first two years of my college teaching career. In all that time I only rarely volunteered any of my accomplishments. This is the way I’ve always been. People tell me I’m hard to get to know, and I don’t disagree with them. It’s an unholy combination of Midwestern stoicism, introversion, and social anxiety that causes me to play my cards close to the vest. It is, as much as anything, my overriding belief that there’s nothing about me that’s worth getting worked up about. I try to keep my head down and do my thing. There’s nothing remarkable about me.
But my mom, like most moms, wasn’t so easily convinced of that.
When she was alive I’d mention any recognition or awards I got only in passing, or I’d let Wife of Monty take care of that once she was on the scene. I just didn’t – and don’t – see the fuss. But my mom would good-naturedly scold me once she’d learn about the teaching award or the publication or the grant and tell me that I need to be prouder of my accomplishments and publicize them. I’ve tried to do better with that, partially to honor her memory, but also because Wife of Monty constantly reminds me that people want to hear about these things and celebrate them with me. I don’t get it – and I’m not sure I agree – but I know when to yield to an unstoppable force.
So it was in that spirit that I turned to Facebook this afternoon to relate a conversation I had with one of my students. At the end of class I shooed people out of the room citing a meeting I had to run to across campus. One of my students said she didn’t want to keep me, but asked if we could walk and talk. Never one to turn down the chance to feel like an actor in an Aaron Sorkin show, I obviously and immediately agreed.
It was a good talk (and walk). She said she admired and respected the way I teach, the way class is structured, the way I facilitate discussion. She asked if it was possible to teach high school that way because it didn’t look anything like what she experienced. I assured her it was, that it takes time, but that’s true of anything worth doing in the classroom and that it took me five years to really feel like I knew what I was doing. She expressed anxiety at not becoming the teacher she wants to be, of not being good enough, of not living up to her own expectations for herself. She ended the conversation by saying, “Help me teach the way you teach.”
It’s one of the best compliments I’ve received in my professional career. My goal of course is to help my students find their own teaching voice, but I understand the desire to walk in the footsteps of the people who have come before us. I owe an undeniable debt to some of my own teachers, so it would be silly of me to downplay the sense of pride that I could be one of those teachers to someone else.
So I turned, as we do these days, to Facebook. I shared the quote, but because old habits die hard and I didn’t want to be seen as bragging, I undercut the story with a self-deprecating comment at the end – something about someone wanting an extension on the final project. I hit “Post” and immediately felt remorse. Here this student had come to me with honest concerns, paid me a genuine compliment, and I chose to diminish it with sarcasm. It didn’t matter that she wouldn’t see the comment; it just felt disrespectful to the student and the honesty of the moment.
To course-correct, I edited the post to air some of what I’m writing now in abbreviated form. I ended by admitting that even though I’m sarcastic by default, I feel immensely lucky to have the chance to do what I’m doing with my life. What followed was a string of comments from current and former students telling me how much they appreciate my teaching. And I started to feel worse.
Let me stress this: From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate each and every one of those compliments. Any teacher will tell you that in a career where there isn’t a lot of instant gratification, that kind of feedback keeps us going.
But I deleted the entire post anyway.
It suddenly felt like I was fishing for compliments, that the edit I made to show love and respect for my profession had suddenly made it all about self-promotion – that I was being disingenuous in my gratitude, all to hear more about me me me. Obliterating the entire exchange seemed like the best thing to do.
If you left a compliment for me earlier, remember: It’s not you, it’s me. I don’t know how to take compliments, and the act of sharing them feels like I’m begging for more. And this is something of a problem, my refusal to really be able to enjoy praise because I’m constantly filtering it through the consequences of sharing it with anyone else.
I know this doesn’t make any sense. I love hearing teacher stories – successes and catastrophes alike, as well as the accolades my colleagues receive from their students – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. But as soon as I open my mouth about my own teaching, the voice in the back of my head groans, “Great. Not this guy again.” For some reason the stuff I enjoy hearing from other people turns into a big existential crisis on a personal level.
And it shouldn’t be this way, for any of us. We’re inarguably at a time when it’s more vital than ever for teachers to share the ways in which they seem to be making a difference. The profession is under attack from all directions – politicians, the media, the wealthy – and the last thing we should do is double down on the destruction by attacking ourselves from within. We should celebrate our successes and share the ways in which we grow from our failures instead of modestly (and figuratively) scuffing the toe of our shoe in the dirt and mumbling, “Aw, shucks,” when something goes our way. I shy away from self-promotion (sez the guy writing the blog), but who else will promote our profession if not us?
And that’s the tension: balancing my natural inclination to just shut up and do my job with the feeling that I should do more to share good news about the profession and my role in it. So I’m curious: For those in the audience who teach, how do you handle this issue? Do you struggle with anything similar, or is this just my own anxious navel-gazing? What do you do when you get recognition for your work? And should all of us do more?
Love and Rockets – Self-titled (1989)