Saturday, December 13, 2014

Competence and Confidence

What is it about teaching that makes teachers so insecure?  Is it because everyone (including non-educators) has an opinion of how things should be done?  Is it because with a lot of methods we use, sometimes it is hard to see the results directly?  Is it because we fear being judged?  Is it because we can be very isolated?  It is probably a combination of all of these things and many more factors.  The bottom line is that there are lot of teachers out there who think they are doing the wrong things.

Over the last few years, I've talked to a lot of teachers and even the most innovative, dynamic ones have a streak of insecurity.  When I was doing the Bright Ideas Gallery, showcasing some innovative teaching practices, most of the time I had to convince teachers what they were doing was interesting to other teachers and worth sharing.  But in keeping in touch with those teachers now, some of them have abandoned the great things they were doing.

It seems like it is so easy to take the wind out of teachers' sails.  One tough class, one challenging parent, one colleague's off-handed remark, or one uninformed news report, and it all crumbles.  When this happens, we tend to revert to "foolproof" traditional one-size-fits-all methods that "worked" when we were kids but may not fit education today, and we eschew risk-taking, innovation, and personalization. 

I don't like to think of myself as a teacher who needs external validation (if I did, I would have given up on this blog a long time ago, based on the amount of pageviews it gets!), but sometimes, it feels good to get some recognition.  Some of my biggest compliments come to mind.  One came last year, and one came last week.  The one last year was when I was talking to a dad of one of my students.  I think it was around December, and he said how he was telling his coworkers at his office about some of the things we were doing in our class, and they were amazed or disbelieving.  The one last week was when I was at the mall, and I ran into a colleague of mine who would come in for me from time to time when I was away a few years ago.  She introduced me to her husband, and he said, "Oh, you're that guy.  My wife used to tell me about all of the cool things she did in your class.  I wish I had been in your class."  And he told me how he was the squirmy creative kid. 

The thing that stands out about these two situations is that the remarks came from people outside of education. I don't tend to talk about my work with non-educators (and barely even with educators) because I don't do a good job of explaining the things we are trying to achieve these days. So for these two people to take an interest, remember, and positively remark without solicitation is very gratifying.  They really understood what I am trying to do.  Though we can't rely on positive feedback from outside to fuel our confidence, it probably does help.  Yes, these kinds of encounters are gratifying in the same way that negative encounters can be destructive, but if we really believe in what we are doing, then we should be able to work through al situations staying true to our vision. 

I think the reason why I try so many things in my class, even though I know a lot of my ideas are going to fail, is that I know at least one out of four of my ideas is going to work in a big way for some or all of my students.  Someone might say, "That means that three out of four ideas are going to fail.  Why not shorten the odds and just stick with the things that work?"  And the answer is because that's the part I don't know: which idea is going to work with this class or each individual at this time.  What is tried and true last year could be a dismal flop this time.  What works for chatty kids might not work for introverted kids. Etc. 

So I'm not trying to be innovative just to keep things interesting; I'm trying to be innovative to give all of my students the best possible chance at learning.  And the chance of success far outweighs the risk of (my personal) failure.