I picked up the book The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown, fully intent on breaking my cycle of perfectionism, preferably by the end of spring break. I bought it on a Friday. Plenty of time to read, meditate, pray over, analyze, diagnose, and fix the problem. (It’s important at this point to admit that I’m a sarcastic little snark. That was Exhibit A.) So I did read. I did meditate. I did pray over. I did analyze. And I did diagnose. And that’s as far as I got.
In my counseling session –heck yeah I go to counseling – the week of spring break, I bragged to my counselor about how I was going to conquer this book to help catapult my progress in the search for my anti-perfectionist self, so in my pursuit, I was wholly and completely focused on my personal life roles – mom, wife, sister, daughter, friend. And when my counselor said that she was glad that I was hopping into the written discussion of Brene Brown, she said it would be good to read about the power of shame and fear. PSSSSHT! I don’t have shame. I had shame. I spent years in counseling to rid myself of shame, but I don’t presently have shame. And other than the fear of losing a loved one or failing as a mom, I don’t really battle fear. But yeah, thanks, counselor. And thanks Brene. I’ll get right on that.
I was 36 pages into the book. That’s all it took. Honestly, I don’t even know what she wrote that triggered it, but I felt the whisper of God say, “Make a list. Write them down.” So I wrote the following at the top of the back page of the book: I’M ASHAMED. And then I got really real with myself. My list looked like this:
I’m ashamed of using fear tactics and threats instead of motivation
I’m ashamed of spending more time on TEKS than kids
I’m ashamed of how I let performance trump people
And then I wrote: I’M AFRAID. Followed by:
I’m afraid that I’ve missed some element of literature or writing that they need to know before March 29
I’m afraid that I have inadvertently (or purposefully) berated a child
I’m afraid that my kids who fail the standardized test will spiral into a pattern of life-long failure
I’m afraid that not every student will like me
I’m afraid that I have missed an opportunity to encourage or inspire a child
I’m afraid that I have pushed some kids way too far
I’m afraid that there are kids that haven’t been pushed enough
I’m afraid that God has shown me an opportunity to love or help or minister and my back’s been turned to the whiteboard
I’m afraid that I haven’t done enough
It’s important that you know where I’m coming from. This is my 19th year of teaching. I have seen five different versions of standardized testing in reading and writing, each one harder than the last. But I have never known pressures and fears like I know now. I am ready to walk out. I want to leave my profession and go work for my church because at least there I can do God’s work. (Again, you have to read into the snark.)
Don’t get me wrong; I want to do God’s work in the classroom. But when do you suggest that I do that? I have a PLC and a morning duty and six weeks’ worth of lesson plans requiring essential questions and TEKS and differentiated instructions for my ELPs and my SpEd and my G/T. I have copies to make and essays to grade and tests to create and tutoring sessions to run. And don’t forget about the countless hours of standardized test administration CE that I get to attend every. Single. Year. So yes, in the 50 minutes a day that I see my babies, I would love to love on them, but I have not. I have failed again this year.
One of my best friends is an administrator at Central Office and, more importantly, my core course boss. In August I told her that I would just be loving on kids this year and the rest would come. She was not too convinced that “the rest would come.” But what I have come to realize is that her disbelief wasn’t really about my new approach to teaching. She just didn’t believe that I could put my results-driven self to the wayside and just love on kids. She knew me better than I knew myself. I am pretty sure that I loved on kids from August 26 to about September 10th. That is when I received their first writing samples and their Lexile levels. And then it was on. I didn’t have time to love on kids when they’re in a freshman English class reading at a third grade level, when they’re writing an entire paper without on period, when they’re unable to navigate through a dictionary/thesaurus combo. Yeah, I definitely needed God. And so did they. But more so in a “Dear God, please strike them with a lightning bolt of knowledge so that we can close the gaps from the last five years” kind of way.
Many people who go into the field of education have similar personality traits: outgoing, eager to help, kindhearted, perfectionist. People who go into teaching rarely say, “I want to make a difference by sharing the Pythagorean Theorem with as many people as I can.” People who go into teaching want to inspire and ignite and love on kids. But then we walk into the classroom with expectations beyond anything one human being can accomplish and we fail. We fail every single day. And it’s so hard.
Everything that I listed in my fear and shame confession is actually true. I do miss opportunities every day. I do inadvertently hurt kids. There are kids who sit in my classroom for 180 days and won’t pass the standardized test. There are kids who hate English more when they leave my class than they do when they enter. I fail. And I’m ashamed.
So my default – most everyone’s default, according to Brene Brown – is to push the truth off into a “we don’t talk about it” corner. Teachers and administrators do not talk about how incredibly hard it is to get our results back at the end of the year and see that we have kids who didn’t pass the standardized test. It’s maddening. These kids don’t fail because their teacher didn’t try, but man, do we put it on ourselves and wear that shame and failure like a cloak. We wear it, but we don’t talk about it. In 19 years, I have never had a frank conversation in a PLC or a staff development or a break-out session about how much this job hurts. And holy mother of education, it hurts.
And this is the part where I transition from problem to solution. Except that I don’t have one; I just want to talk about it. I want my fellow teachers to know that, if they’re feeling anything like I’m feeling, they’re not alone. Failing to provide kids with all of the love and knowledge and inspiration that they need is heartbreaking. And the failure and the shame are getting to me.