imperfect offering

R- As I tuned in the car to MPBN one day last Summer, I was listening to a social scientist by the name of Richard Matthew talking about his work in the Congo and some pretty interesting stories and perspectives. As he spoke, he referenced a friend of his by the name of James Orbinski who referred to humanitarian work as an imperfect offering: “There’s never enough resources to help, and sometimes you do the wrong thing and sometimes you don’t understand things fully. But you still have to do something.” That really resonated with me as an educator.

If you’re now expecting me to find a connection between humanitarian work in the Congo and teaching in America, don’t hold your breath. But I would argue that there is a profound correlation between teaching in America and the idea of an “imperfect offering”. Good teaching to me has the following components:

  • Integrity. Honesty and consistency of character is either at the forefront of who you are as a teacher or you shouldn’t be in the profession. Students and colleagues see what you do. You are either a reflection of the better world we all want this to be or you’re something less. There’s only one road to follow here.
  • Pedagogy. If what you practice and do is not founded in research, exploration, study and observation, don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re doing okay. There is a reason there has been so much research and academic reflection on good practice. You’re equally kidding yourself if you think that your undergraduate and even graduate studies successfully check off this component for you. It’s the year-to-year learning through reading and discovery that allows you to teach with authority. The key is to not follow every tenet like a lemming, but rather to know “why” you do what you do. If the answer isn’t reflected in foundational pedagogy, you’re building your house on sand.
  • Originality. There are so many great lines out there, and I don’t even know who to attribute most of them to, but I’ll use an appropriate one here: “Be the best ‘you’ that you can be.” Look through history, look even through your own past. The people who made great contributions to you, your life, none of them were trying to be someone they weren’t. I think the great transition for teachers is morphing from 1) learning what to do and when, 2) knowing what to do and when without having to think about it, 3) incorporating #2 into their own unique style and presence. I believe anyone can be a great teacher. But only Steve Smith could ever have been Steve Smith. Only Jean Nelson could ever have been Jean Nelson. Only Dennis Cox could ever have been Dennis Cox. Get the point?
  • Empathy. Again, if you don’t possess this to a high degree, you’re in the wrong profession. Get out of your own self while in the classroom and get into the minds and psyches of your students. Individually, how are they doing? What do they need? Where are they coming from? Your “agenda” as a teacher is barely worth the paper your lesson plan is typed on until you incorporate this one component into your teaching. After doing so, you are an incredibly invaluable link to your students and their future. They need assistance from caring, empathetic people in their lives. One could argue that teaching with “tough love” is equally important. I would argue in response that tough love is still love, and tough love still requires empathy. The opposite of empathy, to me, is actually apathy. If you complete your day of teaching, and you don’t know how your kids were doing as people that day, you really missed the target and I question your true value to your school and to your students.
  • Consistency. This to me is the toughest one. We aren’t robots, we’re actual people with good days and bad days. Having to be consistent with our expectations, how we treat people, how we deliver our curriculum, how we keep kids first. I know as a statement of fact that this is a great, great challenge. But the degree to which we accomplish this facet is the degree to which we build trust in our students. And the degree our students trust us is the degree to which we can make an impact on them, academically and personally/interpersonally.

Good teaching does not however include being perfect, because it isn’t possible. There’s never enough resources, sometimes you do the wrong thing and sometimes you don’t understand things fully. My first few years of teaching I would come home every day and beat myself up over how I didn’t successfully carry out one or more of my goals as I tried to be a good teacher. 30+ years later that’s been reduced to only 1 time every week or two 😉 But here is where the great yet simple quote from Fleetwood Mac singer Lindsey Buckingham comes in: “If you’re any good at all, you know you can be better.” An imperfect offering is not accompanied by a shrug of the shoulders. It’s accompanied instead by self reflection and the final, most important component of great teaching: Perseverance. In the history of mankind, there has never been a “perfect” musical performance. By anybody. That hasn’t stopped any of us from trying. I hope every colleague reading this blog post enjoys a wonderful school year of their own imperfect offering and all it entails while practicing that never ending journey of becoming a great teacher.

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