I am lucky to teach on a middle school multi-disciplinary team with some of the most talented and exciting teachers I have ever met. One of them, Erica Speaks (who often comments here as “Last Teacher Standing”), has been my frequent sounding board and occasional Devil’s Advocate for many years. I’ve asked her to write a guest post for Scripted Spontaneity, so make her feel welcome.
I have no idea first hand, but I’ve heard it said that when an anorexic looks in the mirror, regardless of reality they still see an overweight person reflected back. I’ve been told this is a fairly accurate metaphor for how I view my own accomplishments. Ever since toddlerhood, I’ve always had a razor sharp self-critical eye.
There’s a line in the poem “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann that reads:
“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
This is most certainly also true for teachers. If you want to stretch and grow, you aspire to learn from those like the great Mr. Paul Cancellieri here. If you want to feel good about yourself, well… I’ll bet you know who to compare yourself with on your staff.
When you want to get a fair assessment of how you measure up, you look to peers who are similar to you. Paul and I are the same age. We’ve taught almost the exact same number of years. We both hold National Board Certification and advanced degrees. However, teaching next to Paul’s shining example can sometimes feel like standing next to the fun house mirror that makes one look two feet tall.
It’s important to note that I fully own this as internal. Paul does not make me feel small or insignificant. On the contrary, I’ve found few people who are better at finding the positive energy in my ideas and efforts. My perception of myself, how I see myself reflected back, is what sometimes comes up short. And to me, not to him.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this concept: how my perceptions of other people make me perceive myself. It’s as if they are holding up reflective surfaces that bend and distort my image according to their own strengths and weaknesses. A teacher’s unruly class returning from lunch reminds me that I am good at managing a group of thirty-two thirteen-year-olds. A peer’s organized desk whispers to me that I often can’t find the surface of mine.
Two weeks ago, a student teacher started her internship with me. It was the week after our heavily emphasized standardized tests and three weeks from the end of the school, so it’s an interesting time to start an internship. In fact, her very first day resulted in the meeting that brought mild-mannered Mr. Cancellieri to his rare frustration point.
Just her presence in my classroom forces me to see myself through her young, naive, doe-eyed new teacher’s perspective. Well, maybe not her perspective, per se. In reality, she’s been nothing but complementary. However, reflected back in her quiet, shy demeanor, is the weight of what I perceive the first-year teacher me would think of the eleven-year veteran teacher me.
Yes, I have been met with professional success. I have thank you notes from parents, formal evaluations from supervisors , and hundreds of informal interactions with students that each point to why I’d even have a student teacher placed with me now, bringing with her the hefty obligation to help shape who she will be as an educator.
However, I also know in my heart: I’m more jaded now. I’m less patient. The reality of mandates and lack of funding seem more insurmountable today. I have lost some of that “change-the-world” idealism I used to hold dear. Novice me would be both impressed with and disappointed in veteran me.
I know it is more valuable to compare one’s achievements with one’s own goals, rather than comparing one’s achievements with other peoples’. However, isn’t it ever healthy for those same goals to come from looking at others around us? Isn’t one of the very goals of a PLN to set the bar higher for yourself by learning from and seeing what others are accomplishing?
You, too, must be one who also strives for pedagogical excellence in part by reading about what other educators are doing, as evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this. What factors do you allow into your psyche to shape how you perceive yourself as an educator? Maybe it’s just my over-critical perception again, but how do you strike a balance between learning from those who are exemplary teachers, and feeling like you’re just not doing enough by comparison?