October 27, 2017—What are the stories you tell to yourself about your teacher-self? What are the stories others tell about your teacher-self? What are the stories you tell about your teacher-self in public? I’ve been thinking about these questions since reading “Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance. The book was selected by the University of Denver as the summer read for all first-year students and it was featured this fall in the curriculum of first-year seminars as well as several all-campus events. I was asked to lead a book talk which started me thinking about stories and thus the questions that begin this essay. “Hillbilly Elegy” is a deeply personal account of struggling family relationships, shifting personal identity, deteriorating community, and a deep love for Appalachian culture and strength that can arise from adversity. Vance is a story teller who vividly portrays the stories that he told himself about his life; the stories that the wider society tells about “his people”; and the stories he told in public about his upbringing and his home in Appalachia. Each story is fraught with truth and self-deception depending on the time and place of the telling. As I read deeper and deeper into Vance’s book I too was invited into self-reflection about the stories I tell about my teacher-self.
What are the stories you tell to yourself about your teacher-self? This is going to be a hard question because these are often difficult stories to share in public. I often tell a mixture of ego and calling stories. When my ego is in charge of the story I talk to myself about my ability to teach with little preparation and still move students into deeper relationship with the text. These are my “commando teaching” stories as I talk to myself about the thrill of dropping into the classroom instructionally ill-prepared but armed with texts and still able to carry the day. But of course, like most stories told in private there is a high degree of misrepresentation associated with tale. It really doesn’t take much for the ego bubble to burst and the inadequacy of my teaching, at least to myself, becomes transparent. These ego-stories tell the tale of teaching without integrity and fidelity to my call to educate. This leads naturally to the other stories I tell to my teacher-self; teaching is my vocation that I’m drawn back time and time again to this deep impulse to educate others. These are my “inner-truth” stories because they carry a high degree of faithfulness. I turn to these stories, often right before class starts, when I’m unsure and feeling like an imposter who was never meant to teach. A few deep breathes, a quiet moment, and I’m leaning past ego to the wholeness of knowing I’m called to do the work of teaching.
What are the stories others tell about your teacher-self? The narrative about teachers told by society is less than positive; it is widely believed that teachers are failing to adequately educate the students that society has entrusted to their care. These “outsider” stories have the feel of an imposed identity of inadequacy which serves some wider purpose beyond the stated goal of improving the lives of students. They are painful stories because they fail to adequately account for the many stories of teachers sacrificing emotionally, physically, and financially for their students. For me, the more trustworthy stories are told by my students in their end of course evaluations. I find these stories easier to accept, whether they are complementary or critical of my teaching. I think this is perhaps because of the combination of intimacy and distance. I have shared the classroom space with my students and therefore I can see the truth of their comments, even when my ego-self desperately wants to tell a different story; a protective story of false invincibility. Because the end of course evaluations arrive in my email long after the course is finished the rawness of the classroom is tempered by time and thus I’m more open to hearing the truth behind student feedback. The harder stories for me to accept that others tell about my teaching come in the form of rewards, accolades, or praise by a colleague. Perhaps this is because even though these stories of success are the result of teaching inspired by my call to teach I never like to draw attention to these gifts. It is an odd paradox that the ability to teach well is something I enjoy and am willing to share with my students and colleagues and at the same time I would rather keep the outcome private and less evident.
What are the stories you tell about your teacher-self in public? I think these are my best stories because they turn the private knowledge I hold about my teaching into a public presentation that can be critiqued and refined. No teacher really exists in isolation. At a minimum, the teacher performs the act of teaching in the presence of students; no student—no teaching. And at a minimum students provide feedback about the teacher’s effectiveness at the conclusion of the course. In the best case, the teacher tells teaching stories in the presence of colleagues who know both the teacher, the context, and the craft knowledge of teaching. These critical-friends can echo back the stories the teacher tells; a sort of truth-testing for the self. And perhaps most importantly, given my reluctance to accept praise evident in the stories other tell about my teacher-self, it can be extremely helpful to have others name my teaching gifts. For instance, recently I was wrestling with dark moments of doubt about my teaching. In the midst of my angst a colleague named my ability to enter a room of strangers and guide them through a lesson as if we had been best friends since childhood. With those few words I was back home again in my teacher-self.
So I invite you think through the following questions. What are the stories you tell to yourself about your teacher-self? What are the stories others tell about your teacher-self? What are the stories you tell about your teacher-self in public?