The Gifts of Imperfection in the Classroom

My teaching isn’t perfect, my family was not perfect, and, as far a personal development, I have a long way to go. So why am I supposed to pretend otherwise when I step in front of impressionable teenagers who are looking at me to model what it is to be a human in the world?

I don’t know about you, but on the one day my principal steps into my classroom to evaluate me during during fall semester, it is easy enough to trot out a tried-and-true, dog-and-pony-show. Observation days never reflect the real shit-shows that can go down at any moment when a lesson goes south due to…anything: A sleepy, surly class, a projector not working, the copier not working, the internet down, my brain dulled from a baby up all night and not enough sleep…Anything.

Whomever made up the model for evaluating teachers clearly wasn’t anyone familiar with teaching. A students’ progress cannot be measured by a single test, and a teachers’ efficacy in the classroom cannot be measured by two observations a year. Principals are looking for perfection, and perfectionism doesn’t belong in the classroom. Brene Brown describes perfectionism as: “… the 20 lb. shield. It doesn’t protect us from being hurt, it protects us from being seen.” It also prevents us from being human with one another. It prevents us from connecting.

Perfectionism in the classroom prevents students from being able to connect to each other and to their teacher. Not only are teachers trying to keep up an image, but students are desperately trying to fit into a mold that only exists as a social construct. They want to appear cool, attractive, intelligent, and all of the other status markers that are so important when your identity is being formed in the midst of being judged by your peers. Teenagers don’t know that having all of those characteristics is not only unrealistic, it’s not even human.

We are born into imperfect bodies, imperfect families, and imperfect communities…by design. When teachers can’t be safely vulnerable with their students, they give off the impression that to err in any way (in class, in your past, with friends, etc.) is so shameful that we don’t even talk about it. How then can teens make sense of families that have human dysfunction: Alcoholism, neglect, verbal and physical abuse, mental illness? The list goes on and on. We’ll have to hide those too.

I wrote in my last blog about students who hide their trauma in plain sight. How close can those students feel to a teacher who keeps up a front of perfection or cannot reveal any vulnerable event from the teacher’s own past?

I wish I had learned about the power of vulnerability in the classroom at the continuation schools, but it was at a high-achieving high school when I tried out vulnerability and was shocked at the results. Here was a school with parents who were lawyers, doctors, and engineers. Students at this school lacked for nothing and had every privilege afforded to the ultra wealthy….and these kids were falling apart. 

Because my teaching assignment included culture and identity in literature, for the first time in my teaching career, I decided to share my identity and culture with the class. I told them early on about my bipolar dad, my fear of him, and the fact that I wish I had told an adult about it when I was in high school. All of this without details that might trigger students and without a poor-me-look-at-me attitude: Much like I might summarize something for a much younger audience. Combined with specialized ice breakers and prompts designed to bring the class together, I had more students reveal crises and traumas to me than in the last 12 years working with high-trauma populations.

Everyone is looking for connection, Brene Brown tells us. It is as vital as food, water, and shelter. We can’t be connected if we are putting up false images of ourselves. Besides, it’s way more interesting to see how we are similar in our humanity and reach out to each other for help than it is to pretend we are islands of perfection. I referred so many more students for counseling when I gave up the idea that the teacher should be perfect and started modeling for students, in a guided, safe way, that to err is human: Every family, every community, and every person is flawed and we are all working on our humanity–why not do it together?

Contact me at JessieDorinCoaching@gmail.com to have me come to your school to speak about vulnerability and hidden student trauma in the classroom.

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