dealing with professional whiplash

Today’s Morning Pages prompt comes to you courtesy of Beth and Krissa. They’ve thrown down the gauntlet in challenging us to consider whether or not we’re willing to take risks as teachers in the classroom, even knowing that our most earnest efforts could result in our falling flat on our faces–in other words, to fail in public and be proud of it.

My immediate reaction to their prompt is super articulate: “Whoa.” These are such important questions for all teachers to consider and re-visit throughout their careers. I’m glad that my students are taking them to heart already. (Sidebar: This is a not so subtle invitation to read their blogs.) I’m not kidding when I say that I experience these questions as a teacher to this very day, despite being in the teaching business for almost 3 decades.

I think that if you really care about your teaching and your students, you owe it to yourself and to them to keep growing as a teacher. Growth requires risk. It requires falling. It requires you to put your most vulnerable self out there, even though you know that by doing so, you’re critiquing the teacher-as-expert image that is perpetuated in our profession.

And, look, let’s be honest. Some students (and parents and colleagues) just aren’t okay with that. It hurts when you get thoughtless or mean-spirited feedback, and that, I fear, is the modus operandi in our culture overall these days when the seemingly effortless capacity to comment is achieved at the click of a button.

Damaging feedback is enough to give you professional whiplash: the pain from the injury is very real, but since doctors don’t prescribe those white cervical collars much any more, it’s invisible to others. From personal experience with physical whiplash, I know that your body carries the pain, it requires physical therapy, and movement is essential to restoring flexibility. Movement is incredibly non-intuitive, though. All you want to do is protect yourself from more pain, so your tendency is to lock up and resolve to never move your neck again. You contemplate getting some of those sunglasses that cyclists wear with the tiny mirrors attached to the frame so you can see what’s coming and never get caught from behind again.

To extend the analogy to teaching (and I’m addressing myself here, too, by the way), professional whiplash sucks. You stuck your neck out, and you got rear-ended. As was the case for me a couple of years ago, a batch of bad course evaluations can cause you to temporarily lose your nerve for teaching. You want to strap on the cervical collar to ensure self-protection by playing it safe in the classroom. Stick to the textbook. Teach “objectively” (as if). Abandon innovation so nobody gets hurt.

We’ve been talking in CO301D a lot this semester about positioning ourselves as allies to our students, but who are our allies as teachers? Who will, gently, help us limber up our teaching muscles and regain the flexibility to fail forward so that we can continue to deepen our practice?

My best allies have been my teaching colleagues (I’m SO lucky in this regard), my colleague-friends in the professional organizations I belong to like National Writing Project, supportive students (I’ve learned to find the smiling students in my classroom), and sometimes even the books I’m reading. I’ve always loved Vera John-Steiner’s concept of books as “distant teachers.” I annotate the heck out of the books I read, and the following questions by researcher-storyteller Brene Brown have helped to restore my nerve to a large extent. They’re relevant in teaching and any other context your care about. I’ve had them on my desk ever since I read one of her books, either The Gifts of Imperfection or Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.

The note is faded, but the questions make it well-worth the eye strain to make them out:

  • Are you showing up?
  • Are you taking risks?
  • Are you letting yourself by seen?
  • Are you engaged?
  • Are you paying attention?
  • Are you listening?

As a teacher, failing is inevitable, but these questions remind me that we have agency around how we frame failing and in determining what direction we decide to fall.

 

 

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