Wednesday, November 27, 2013

On Controlling Teacher Ego

Teaching is a profession that puts one in danger of developing a big, fat ego.

Every time a student comes back to visit, after a semester at college or after a few years, it is a great confidence boost. You think: Well, if this student stopped to see me, I must have mattered. Of course, it could be the student was on his or her way to see another teacher and made eye contact with you and didn't want to be rude. See? There are variables.

The other day, however, a student came to visit and she said, "If it wasn't for you and Mr. K (another English teacher in the school) I would have never have..." I had to disagree. This girl had immense talent and a passion for the written word when she entered our classrooms. The other guy is probably the finest teacher I have ever known, but I think he would agree with me. (He retired, so I didn't get a chance to discuss.) I had to tell her: "No, not really. You were good to begin with. Don't give us the credit for your achievements."

And it is always true. None of my students who have gone on to success in letters or in education or, specifically, in the field of English, owe that success to me. At best, I played a small part. All of those really successful students would have reached great heights with or without me.

If I ever make any remotely profound impact on a kid, it is in making him or her aware of his or her talent. That part is important, and I take it seriously. And it is not easy, because it requires earning the student's respect; if the student does not respect me, he or she won't really care about my perception. That, in itself, is a tall order. Somebody has to be able to see it, after all. Beyond that, sure, I can help, but...

Let's put it this way: Should Ted Williams's high school coach take credit for his 400+ batting average? -- or even for any of his high school players having made it to the majors at all? You can't teach that. It's not cool to watch a guy watch a former player hit a World Series winning home run and sit back on the couch and say, "He owes it all to me..." (Ick. That sentence.)

A million times I have heard teachers brag about how "she said that my ____ class got her ready for college." One class? Yours? Yeah -- okay. (It's funny how every kid becomes an education expert whose perceptions are perfect if credit is being handed out to the teachers; when they are in school, they are "ugh -- these kids..." Two months later, they understand the deep principles of teaching.)

In truth, the best teachers affect students in ways that the students themselves never even perceive. It's sad that many of the showboating pedagogues get the attention -- but that is the way of the world... It's all about style.

Meanwhile, a plain, quiet, hard-working teacher in sixth grade is building a foundation in grammar and style for young essay writers. Who will get the credit when young Sally Writemore wins a Pulitzer -- the sixth grade grammar teacher who ironed out the syntax of her sentences and taught her about phrase economy or the prancing, Keats-loving, chin-rubbing high school English teacher with the cool hair? You got it.

(Okay. I admit it. I kind of, in some ways, am that guy, maybe minus the cool hair...but I have HUMILITY, for Pete's sake.)

I'll tell you one thing. I certainly don't (a phrase some teachers love to use) "shape lives." I find that statement to be nauseatingly egotistical.

Sure, it is nice that they think I had a bigger impact than I did, but...who would I be if I took that kind of credit? The truth is, the best students don't need us much. While a nice note of thanks or a visit is great, we teachers need to be careful not to get too full of ourselves.

It's good to be proud of a noble profession, but we need to keep our egos in check.

No comments:

Post a Comment