Thursday, May 8, 2014

Warts and All

I'm back on the blog! A project that I allude to within has kept me from writing much for the past two months, but the time has now come to clean out the cognitive cobwebs. This week: Feeling paranoid? Insecure? Surveilled? Want to run for cover? Join the club--and then get over yourself. 

For me, only one goal in my life will ever serve as real, legitimate evidence that I have become a fully self-actualized human being: when I get to the psychological place where a friend can pop over unexpectedly and I do not care about whether my house is clean. Like my mother and her mother before her, I engage in relentless self-criticism when something like that happens, regardless of my actual domesticity skill level.

Once, when my kids were little, I picked up my elder son from a friend’s house after a sleepover. That home was a veritable hellhole—not dirty per se, mind you, but debris was strewn everywhere. Tots’ toys, parental paper trails, the ravaged remains of household pet tomfoolery—a total nightmare. That mother did not apologize for the mess—I don’t even know if she noticed it. I did not judge her at all; in fact, I was pea-green with envy. She wasn’t a bad housekeeper or a bad mother: she just didn’t mind anyone seeing her life as it was. I envied her as I have perhaps envied no other woman. I have been trying to reach her level of don’t-give-a-damn ever since, with mixed results.

I am not the only woman with this problem. Frankly, I think most of us are plagued by similar stupidity surrounding the impressions of ourselves that we try to instill in others. If I had a nickel for every time a friend apologized to me for the state of her household, I could finally buy that beach house. What’s at the bottom of this self-flagellation, of course, is the desire to meet expectations according to anachronistic societal definitions of womanhood. The older I get, the stupider this all seems to me, but that does not make any of it any easier to shake off. Even more worrisome for me is the way this same type of insecurity plays out among teachers.

Teachers, on the whole, resist transparency. Regardless of whether someone observes us for an actual evaluation or for something completely innocuous and non-threatening, most teachers express a high level of anxiety when anyone watches us do our jobs. We want to give the impression that our classroom “house” is clean (No instructional messes here!), that our classroom “offspring” are tidy and well behaved (No profanity-spouting house-arrest anklet-wearers here!), and that our work “husbands” adore us (My bosses think I’m great!). I’ve been there. And it’s a load of crap. We teach human beings, and neither they nor learning are clean. I see now that the better I teach, the messier it is (literally and figuratively), and the more transparency I have with others—and especially with myself—the better job I do and the less anxious I am.

Ultimately, trying to live up to ridiculous expectations of oneself is torturous, much more torturous than dealing with the reality of who one is and what one is trying to accomplish. My house will never be completely clean for longer than five minutes. I want my husband and children and the kids’ pets to live here with me, and messiness is the price I pay for that. 

In my classroom, I want the full spectrum of students to be with me, too, and I want to be continually learning and to be experimental. All of that means that I will always deal with behavior problems, lessons gone horribly haywire, and the occasional anxiety attack where I look less than Martha-Stewart cool. To make any of that tidier means narrowing the student populations I teach, narrowing the instructional chances I take, and narrowing my worldview regarding what teaching and learning are. Unacceptable. So I need to get real—and cut myself some slack.

“Getting real” takes many forms. I have long been an advocate of teachers videotaping our instruction to help ourselves improve. Since I underwent the National Board Certification process nearly a decade ago, I have seen the benefit of watching my classes on tape and changing my ways as a result. This work is incredibly painful not only because no one looks or sounds on tape the way one thinks one should but also because one starts to see the classroom in a very different way. One cannot ignore the disengaged student. One cannot ignore how much one’s relentless yapping keeps the actual students from saying anything. One cannot ignore anything. It’s all right there on tape. 

Videotape can alert a teacher to instructional problems, sometimes soothe perceptions of inadequacy, and nearly always send a girl packing for Weight Watchers camp, but it will most definitely help one to get real. (For more on this topic, see my friend, Jim Knight's new book, Focus on Teaching. Jim can get you started.)

Inviting others into the classroom is another key way of getting real. I tell my administrators when I am doing something new or cool or dreadful and ask them to come and give me honest feedback on it. I volunteer to work with others on projects that involve co-teaching or being observed more often. Not only have observations become less nerve-wracking for me, but also I now have a collaborative spirit that was nearly impossible to have when my greatest sense of relief during the school day came with shutting my door. 

Inviting others in not only helps me to get real; it helps my leaders to get real as well. I am showing them real lessons, not dog-and-pony show performances. They need to see the real deal if I expect them to be equipped to help me. Note: Teachers so often complain that administrators don’t understand the classroom reality we deal with, but then we do everything we can to mask that reality when they visit. Someone explain this to me.

Cutting oneself some slack is the tricky part of all of this. The self-scrutiny of watching oneself on video can reach unhealthy proportions. I have been involved in a years-long writing program implementation that has resulted in nearly 1.5 terabytes of classroom footage of me. After viewing literally hours of that footage for days at a stretch, I need to stop for a few weeks. I just can’t take it. (Movie stars who starve themselves and subject their bodies to plastic surgery? I don't like it, but I get it. Try watching yourself on film for long stretches and tell me you don't want a little Botox.)

A similarly destructive self-consciousness also comes with the observations of others. Observers have agendas, and sometimes their agendas involve focusing on parts of the lesson that are not the point or that are a reflection of their attitude toward me as a person (either positively or negatively), and those types of feedback are toxic. I am now better at putting those comments aside, but it is never easy. The work is worth it, though, for both me and my students. I take chances. I expose myself.  I let people in. Who cares if I have vacuumed, metaphorically speaking? Nobody who values me or what I do cares about that; they care about the real work.

I have only ever had one retirement fantasy: I dream that, one bright shining day, my whole house will be clean, and I will be able to sit and enjoy it all day long. This fantasy may very well come true. When my husband (whom I have ironically named The Cleaner in a separate post on this blog) is the only mess-maker in my daily life, I may be able to have the place relatively organized, and maybe I will run the vacuum more often. (OK, let’s be honest: he will run the vacuum more often. I don’t vacuum.) 

But at the end of that day, I don’t know how happy I will actually be about that. That cleanliness means that my kids are no longer home, that my kids’ pets are with that great veterinarian in the sky, and that I will not be going to school anymore to instructionally love on America’s children. That may, for lack of a better word, suck. 

So give me my dog hair and my dirty dishes and my discipline problems and my sometimes-crappy lessons and my thousands of noisy teenagers. I love that mess, and that mess is real.

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