The modular teaching I try and facilitate asks students for constant reflection and the dreaded criticism that accompanies such reflection. If I am honest it asks reflection of me as the teacher as well.
There is a similar aspect to writing. When I finish a project, I regularly experience a feeling of euphoria. I’m a genius! The next morning, after a cursory read to solidify my newfound intellectual status, the feelings of euphoria are beaten back. And quickly. A despair sets camp in my heart, and in my brain, and I realize how worthless I am, and I should stop writing immediately to save everyone the embarrassment of having covered for me all these years.
Reflection points to failure often. It is the truth behind criticism. Without an honest and a critical eye towards improvement, it is difficult to improve. I can’t just pat myself on the back and say, good enough is good enough. I need to prove myself to my colleagues, to my students, to myself.
So goes teaching reflection. Wow, today was a great class! I nailed it. I am getting better at explaining concepts while being that dancing bear in the front of the classroom who keeps students entertained enough to follow the concepts I am breaking down. Then I get back quizzes or essays and I realize what an utter failure I am. Entire elements and whole chapters stay forgotten, and that thing I explained so precisely, while spinning plates in the air standing on one foot, was never mentioned.
The thing is that in both examples there is little failure. Both writing and teaching engage in a process. Learning is a process. Both failure and success exist within the boundaries of process, but we tend to fixate on failure.
Students often fixate on grades. It’s the process that matters though. The problems with the above examples aren’t the self-critical realizations of failure. That’s part of the process. The problems are the pronouns. The pronoun I wormed its way into the first two paragraphs more than twenty times. It’s fine. We can use that pronoun again, even in academic writing, you may be saying to yourself. You bet, but that’s not the problem. Teaching isn’t about what we need from students. Teaching isn’t about how we feel. Teaching is about facilitating the process of learning in a class room setting. The Socratic seminar is a template for teaching that’s been around since, well, Socrates at least. Guiding discussion so that critical self-discovery happens with our students is certainly a process, and it is difficult, but it is not a reflection of us as much as it is our students. We should accept that they, our students, are on a path of discovery, that they are in the middle of process, and that they deserve the time it takes to reach potential. In the very same way we teachers adjust and readjust our expectations, our students exist in this exploratory space where the idea of failure really shouldn’t be the point. The grade isn’t the point. The process of learning, and the fact that we all continue to do it no matter what the activity, should be our focus in education.
Edit: It is the next morning now, and I am a day late already for the submission deadline of this post. This piece of brilliant, late-night writing is terrible. I have failed myself, my colleagues, and my students. What am I trying to say? Why can’t I be more succinct? Why do I, after all these years, complicate such simple ideas and mash them together all the while expecting my students to engage in organized and controlled writing. Writing is messy. If we are honest with ourselves teaching is always messy – this truth may showcase success instead of failure. If we facilitate a focus of process over product then we all succeed because of . . . pronouns? I’ve lost the thread here. I am such a failure, and it feels great! I, just as you, as does everybody (that’s an all-inclusive indefinite pronoun) exist and thrive in the middle of process!