At the start of this semester, I made a goal of meeting with each student one-on-one. I believe in the power of check-ins and I wanted to make sure my students felt known. I could tell you all about Anderson and Garrison’s research showing the importance of students having a good relationship with their classmates and their professors. This felt especially true during the pandemic, when so many students are feeling isolated and lonely.
I managed to schedule meetings with all of my students in five of my courses. However, I didn’t meet one-on-one with any student in the remaining two courses I teach.
I could point to the meetings I had held with professors who were teaching virtual and hybrid courses for the first time ever. Or I could point out my tenure review process, writing a book, or doing professional development with K-12 teachers. But yesterday, I had the overwhelming sense that I had failed. I felt like I wasn’t enough. I felt like I should have done more. My mind started racing to the moments I chose to go running or lift weights at 4 pm. I could have met with two students. Or that time I spent two hours putting together a Lego set with my son or last Thursday and Friday night when I could have had video conferences with students but instead I watched the final season of Schitt’s Creek with my daughter. And, yes, we bawled our eyes out.
As I talk with other educators, I realize that I am not alone. So many of us are feeling the nagging sense that we should have done more. Our lessons could have been better. Our assignments could have been just a little more precise. We could have checked in more often with the student who didn’t turn in any work. Meanwhile, for many teachers, this pandemic has made so many amazing master teachers feel like first year teachers all over again.
However, years ago, when I was a new teacher, my mentor Brad teacher gave me wonderful advice. He said, “John, you need to show yourself the same kind of grace that you show your students. What would you think if a student turned in work everyday with no mistakes?”
“I’d think they needed a bigger challenge,” I answered.
“Exactly. If you’re making mistakes, chances are you’re learning. You’re taking on new challenges,” he said. “The biggest issue is what happens if you don’t notice any mistakes. That’s the moment things have grown stagnant.”
It has me thinking about the things I allow from students. I accept late work. I expect imperfections. I expect students to miss at least one of their goals. I need to allow the same thing for myself. Yesterday, I was ready to contact every remaining student in a mad dash to make sure they all had a one-on-one conference. But, actually, no. I’m going to be okay with imperfection.
This is an idea I explored in my most recent video:
This Has Been a Hard Semester
Teaching is hard and exhausting. Right now, the air is colder and the light is more scarce. It’s perfectly fine to do less. One of the best pieces of advice I got as a new teacher was hardly a piece of advice. It was an affirmation from my principal who said, “John, don’t chase perfection. You are enough. You’ve done enough. It’s not perfect but it’s good honest work. Now go home.”
I remember telling her that I had one more pile to grade and one more thing to do and she said, “My fear for you is that if you chase perfection, you’ll do amazing work but you’ll never find joy in the work you do.”
It’s easy at the end of the semester to think we need to sprint through the finish line. Add one more big accomplishment. Have one more amazing experience. But what if we approached this time as an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve done? Or better yet, what if we used this time to reflect on what we believe and what we value? Or maybe we could just reflect on who we love and why the people in our lives are what matter most? This year has been hard. Really hard. We’re all experiencing some level of grief and trauma. The other day, as I was grading papers, I was in a funk and I couldn’t pinpoint why until I realized it was simple. I miss my extended family. I’m sad that I won’t be able to hug my parents or having a pint with my twin brother or geek out on writing with my sister. Yes, I’ll have a wonderful Christmas with my wife and my kids but that doesn’t take away the sadness I feel about missing my family.
Some folks have faced far greater trauma. They’ve lost loved ones to Covid-19. Others have faced huge economic hardships. They’ve had spouses who lost jobs or they’ve faced RIFs and cuts in their own jobs. Regardless of the severity, we’ve all faced trauma in various ways. Some of it is in the little things, like the lack of a hug or the fact that you can’t go on a real date with your spouse or you can’t hear live music or you can’t worship together in person in a place of faith. You can’t go to a coffee shop with a friend.
This year has been a marathon and every person at the end of a marathon gets a medal. It doesn’t matter if you walked part of it. I mean, you might have crawled through part of it. You might have stumbled and had a few friends carry you through mile fifteen but you made it. People love to rip on participation trophies but I think we all deserve one this year.
At the end of the semester, my hope is that teachers can define success as faithfulness rather than big tangible results. This might sounds like I’m suggesting we have lower standards for ourselves. However, there’s a paradoxical reality here. When we give ourselves the permission to be imperfect, we our more likely to enjoy our work and engage relationally with our students. We are more likely to take creative risks because failed experiments are simply a part of the process.
My hope is that you realize that you are enough. You’ve done enough. I made a thank you video a few weeks ago:
I made a mistake on that video. I misspelled innovation because my keyboard has a sticky v-key (and a sticky h-key) and it’s impossible to get to the Apple Store and make an appointment. Four people pointed out the mistake. Three people were gracious. One person lambasted me and asked, “What kind of message does it send to the community when a thought leader and an expert can’t even spell correctly?”
My answer is this. I’m not an expert or a thought leader. I’m an educator. I’m a professor who didn’t meet with every student. I have lessons that fail miserably. I have assignments where my feedback could be better. And, yes, I have an occasional video with a typo. What message does that send? I’m hoping the message is that I am imperfect and I’m still on this journey of accepting those imperfections.
As educators, we often see memes about how teachers are superheroes. I’ve never liked that metaphor. I’d rather be Clark Kent than Superman. It’s why I made this video a few years back with my friend, Trevor Muir.
When I look at the teacher movies, the articles, and the heartwarming stories about “going the extra mile,” it can fuel a sense of insecurity. I can begin to feel like I haven’t done enough. Culturally, there’s an implied message that we need to do something BIG. We need to finish that big project. We need to reach every kid. We need to do more. And I get it. Artificial goalposts (like the end of a semester) can spur us out of complacency and give us the permission to do something epic. And yet, I wonder if the epic life isn’t always BIG. What if it’s small? What if it’s humble? What if it’s so common that we miss just how amazing it actually is?
Last week, I put together a Lego set with Micah. It’s the Millennium Falcon. I want to redesign it to be the Millennial Falcon, complete with avocado toast, a record player, and other millennial things. I binge-watched Schitt’s Creek and Kim’s Convenience with Brenna. I played catch with Joel. I nagged my kids about chores. I double-checked their Canvas dashboards to see if they were doing their work. I took the dogs for a walk. I stayed up way too late with the love of my life just talking together about real stuff until she and I finally realized it was past midnight. I had the coolest final night of class with my social studies pedagogy group. I graded papers. I put together slide presentations. I led a distance learning workshop for teachers who were even more tired than me.
None of these were earth-shattering moments but all together, they were epic.
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