May 18th, 2010

Lessons: Humility, Acceptance, and a Commitment to Improvement


A new college teacher identifies the previous experience that most helped him when he first started teaching: “But it was in Outward Bound that I learned the most. Probably the single most important lesson was the need for humility. The sheer talent and passion that my peers displayed at times made me wonder if I should just give up. Eventually, however, I came to grips with a guiding philosophy of Outward Bound: Not everyone can be great, but everyone can, and is obliged to, get better. Post-course debriefing sessions were not about patting each other on the back. We were expected to critically evaluate our peers and do something with the feedback we received. It didn’t matter how gifted you were; if you didn’t see room for improvement in your performance, you weren’t qualified to teach anyone. Get better or get out.” (p. 62)

What an interesting formative experience and one with a number of applications to the college classroom. Although surveys often reveal that college teachers rate themselves as being “above average,” I think that’s what we think we ought to be, not what we actually believe we are. We are easily daunted by those superstar teachers—the ones with techniques that always work and students who follow them worshipfully. It takes a certain maturity to accept who you are as a teacher—to know your capabilities and still believe in possibilities.

We can all improve. And we should feel at least some responsibility to do so. I also don’t think we reckon as we should with the fact that teaching skills don’t stay the same, at least not for very long. Either we are improving or the opposite is happening. If you’re doing as you’ve always done (or done for quite some time) what’s changed is how familiar you’ve become with what you do. It’s become like a habit, something you can do without much thought or involvement. You go through the motions and that doesn’t do much for you or for your students, except make you tired and your students bored.

I’m working with a colleague who is an extraordinary writer. I read his material and I feel depressed. Why do I even bother trying to write? I will never be able to write like that. But I write on because I can make my writing better, and when I see improvement I’m energized, renewed, and motivated to keep trying. I think writing and teaching are a lot alike.

Reference: Procino, M. (2010). Walking the walk. Change, 42 (1), 61-2.