My day job is working as a High School English Teacher (or at least it was until I very recently found myself unemployed, but as I’m looking to return to the field, I would say that I am and always will be a teacher). As part of trying to be a great teacher I try to always be self-reflective in my craft, and as a person isn’t always the best judge of their own qualities, I ask others for critique as well. So yesterday I asked one of my closest friends/colleagues what my biggest flaw as a teacher was. After several moments of reflection (I’ll be honest it was quite reassuring that he didn’t have a knee-jerk immediate answer to this question) he told me that while I was quite intelligent and deep in my teaching, and while I got along with some students exceptionally well (the high achievers, the bright ones, the honors kids… in other words the nerds) able to push them further than most teachers could because they trusted and respected me, this deep and effective relationship was not something I shared with the middle range or low achieving students. He continued that as such most students didn’t feel comfortable taking their problems to me, that I was shut off from them, and they were in turn shut off from me. That because I didn’t connect with them I couldn’t teach them as well, and had a tendency to ignore them when I saw they weren’t interested in learning what I had to teach them. That one of my greatest flaws was not respecting these students because while they would never come up to the level that I expected from my high achievers, they could still learn from me, and until I accepted this I would never be as great a teacher I as I could be.
I agree with every aspect of his assessment of my teaching flaws…except for that last point. And I’ll get to it in a moment. But first a brief interlude onto why this has some relationship to the New Age spiritual movement.
Possibly on the most quoted passages from a New Age book is the following from Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love: Reflections on A Course in Miracles:
“As I interpret the Course, ‘our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” (Reflections page 190-191)
So what does that mean? It means that we are all “brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous.” But clearly not all in the same way…We are all talented but we all have a different talents that we are meant to bring to the universe. We all have a different individualized mission here that we are meant to fulfill, even if all our missions are leading to same place, each person has a different role fulfill at this time, in this place, during this life. “We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.” And our purpose to bring whatever that gift is to everyone around us. Now it is true some of us have multiple gifts, but not everyone is a Michelangelo who can sculpt, paint fresco, design great architecture, and write poetry. Most of us are more specialized in what gifts are. And it is only by using those gifts, by “[making] manifest the glory of God” in the way that we have been given for this life the we will ever achieve happiness or enlightenment; not mention that it is the only way we can effectively be a catalyst to help others achieve their own happiness or enlightenment. So as cliché an idea as it might seem, a New Age core belief is “To thine own self be true.”
What does this have to do with the comment made about my teaching and its flaws. Well I agree that I don’t get along with the middle to low achieving students. But is this really a flaw in my teaching? In the conversation about my flaws my friend brought up a conversation he had had with a student who had recently come into some personal losses, was very depressed about it, and contemplating a very self-destructive choice of dropping out of our school to go to an easier school nearby. My friend connected well with student, discussed his problems, and got him to work through his difficulties all within the space about half an hour (my friend in addition to being a great teacher would have made a wonderful psychiatrist). I had been watching the whole conversation, having originally come in to ask a quick question but staying to lend moral support (and knowing enough to know that if I left it would be another emotional blow to this student, as if to say ‘I really don’t care about your problems’). After the student had left, feeling much better, I commented to my friend how I admired his skills to counsel students and saying it was a skill I wouldn’t likely be as good at….Back to yesterday’s conversation, my friend said I needed to acquire that skill if I was ever going to be great teacher.
But I don’t think he’s right. I think we both have our niche to fill. His is to be the teacher that students can go to have help to work out his problem. Mine is to be the teacher that the aspiring intellectuals can go to. No teacher can be all things to all people, just as no person can be great in all things. There may be the concept of the Renaissance Man who is an expert in multiple field but for every Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Jefferson with their wide breadth of skills, there is also a Beethoven and Shakespeare with their more one venue greatness. Now you might scoff and think that high achievers always get along with any teacher… which is kind of true, most tend to get along with them… but not every teacher can push them. High achievers tend to be really good at running cost benefit analysis and are very good at doing just doing the bare minimum what is required to get an A or B and nothing more. It takes skill to make them give 100% percent when that effort is rewarded in the grade book with the same “A” that giving 50% would get them. It takes even more skill to make them realize that what they thought was 100% was merely a fraction of what they are capable of. To make them enjoy doing it takes even more skill.
To do all this is a gift I have. And to do this requires cultivating a certain air of that alienates those who deep down are less than thrilled to find out what they are really capable of. To cultivate the counselor in me would be at the expense of being the one to push the high achievers as far as they can… at the expense of the gift and light I was given.
Now a good school needs someone like me, and needs someone like my friend, and needs a lot of other teachers with other skill sets. But to my way of thinking, saying that I don’t get along with all levels of students isn’t a flaw, it’s a recognition of what my personal gifts are.