Monday, September 6, 2010

We are blessed to teach

We are blessed to teach. To stand in front of a group of people - no matter how small or tall - we need to have a clear sense of our topic. We are forced to think more deeply, ask ourselves harder questions, make our knowledge explicit enough so that our audience - no matter how young or old - can understand us.

Recently I was asked to talk about assessment with a group of teachers participating in the VIU Teacher Leadership Program. Blessings, of course, often seem like curses at first. The more I thought about assessment, the more obvious it was that I knew nothing. As Parker Palmer reminds us, it takes a lot of courage to teach. Like so many of our students we are afraid to reveal our vulnerability. Jane Tompkins writes that so often behind the "performance" of teaching lies fear: "Fear of being shown up for what you are: a fraud, stupid, ignorant, a clod, a dolt, a weakling, someone who can't cut the mustard." We are afraid that a "good teacher" is always right. But we're not.

Why do we think we need to know it all? Why do we believe that we must have the "right answer" for everything? Carol Dweck in her must-read book Mindset: the New Psychology of Success argues that there are two mindsets - the fixed mindset that sees every failure as a reflection of self (I am a failure, pitiful, useless) and the growth mindset that sees every failure as a gift, a challenge, an opportunity to learn more. It's easy to see which mindset we need to nourish in learners. Too often, however, our grading system, our focus on intelligence, our praise of talent, of product, of quickness, of easy accomplishment send the message that unless we get it right and know it all, we fail. And when we fail, we are stupid, slow or at best slothful, rather than someone who is simply still learning.

How can we refine our assessment practices to foster a growth mindset? First, I suppose, we need to begin with us. We need to know that "good teachers" know they don't know it all. We need to open our doors and our hearts to learning together because teaching is far too complex for any one of us to get "right". We are so lucky to have so many people to learn with! This month, the teacher-learners in the VIU Teacher Leadership program have promised to share what they've learned on their journey this year as guest bloggers. In listening to their stories and gathering ideas from their experiences, we can begin to shape and reshape our own learning journey. By asking each other questions, by re-examining our practices against new knowledge, new contexts, new students, by working together relentlessly, we might begin to believe that none of us can get it right or know it all. But together we have a chance. We are blessed to teach, I think, but only when we remember that teaching means we are continually learning.

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