We all feel pressure to be like someone else. Whether the pressure comes from an external source or from inside ourselves, we are constantly finding models for who we want to be, how we want to be. We rarely ask ourselves who we already are, or how we can become even more ourselves.
Last night, I had the delightful opportunity to address graduating college seniors about to embark on an intense career fraught with pressure: teaching. I want to share that speech with you, not only because I am passionate about teaching (and about stirring up passion in other teachers), but also because I believe the message speaks to most any job, role, or position in life. I’ll spare you the introduction of the “thank yous” and the stories about my own whacky mistakes (I’ve written about them elsewhere on my blog, anyway)… here is the “meat” of the speech:
You Be You
I could easily fill these next few minutes with tips on how to avoid making specific mistakes in your first few years of teaching. Realistically, however, even if you manage to remember what I say, I could never protect you from all of the possible mistakes, and your mistakes will probably be different than mine. Instead, I want to focus on just one suggestion, one that is hopefully simple enough for you to remember, but incredibly relevant to every day of your teaching career. That advice is three words: “You be you.”
A wise friend of mine shared this advice with me early on. She was perceptive enough to realize this important truth just from her student teaching experience. She had spent so much effort trying to be someone else: her own teachers or professors, her cooperating teacher, some fictional ideal from a movie… but it was not until she relaxed into her own style that she began to become confident in herself as a teacher.
There is no one “right way” to teach any more than there is one “right way” to be a person. There is, however, a best way, and that will look different for different teachers. Parker Palmer, the well-known author and teacher advocate, has spent several years asking students to describe their best teacher. Palmer said the descriptions of good teachers varied: “Some lecture nonstop and others speak very little; some stay close to their material and others loose the imagination; some teach with the carrot and others with the stick.” Among all of the different responses, involving different approaches, subject areas, and levels, there was one common thread: The best teachers were those whose “strong sense of personal identity infuse[d] their work.” Palmer points out that we often ask the questions of “what” we teach and “how” we teach it, even occasionally “why” we teach; but rarely do we ask the question of “who” teaches.
I think Palmer would agree, then, with my simple advice: You be you. Because who you are as a person is inseparable from who you are as a teacher.
I can’t know where you are right now. You may be thinking you have no clue who you are at this point. If that’s the case, you probably know yourself better than you think you do. At the other extreme, you may be thinking you know exactly who you are. I know I thought I did when I graduated. If that’s you tonight, you probably have a lot more to learn than you realize you do.
Either way, let me encourage you with this truth: God knows exactly who you are. He knows exactly who He created you to be, as a person, and as a teacher. Psalm 139 tells us he has known us intimately from the time He knit us in our mother’s womb.
The process of discovering who God created you to be can be an incredibly complicated and sometimes painful process, but there is incredible joy at finding each piece. I am indescribably grateful to have had the guidance of a gifted therapist in my own personal journey. He helps me see connections I probably could not recognize on my own. As part of therapy, we have, of course, discussed my childhood. Growing up as the fifth of six kids had its great parts, but it also meant it was easy for needs to get lost, especially if, like me, you were naturally independent and quick at learning to do things yourself. At the end of one counseling session, in what I thought was an unrelated discussion, I described how I love nurturing and supporting my students as they learn to navigate life’s challenges. My counselor pointed out that God had enabled me to provide the exact same nurture for my students that I felt I had missed in my own experience. I felt so loved and honored to be a part of that redemptive strain.
Palmer writes that “teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or for worse.” As he explains from his own experience, “The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are. I will see them through a glass darkly, in the shadows of my unexamined life… When I do not know myself, I cannot know my subject—not at the deepest levels of embodied, personal meaning… Whatever self-knowledge we attain as teachers will serve our students and our scholarship as well.”
When you find the freedom to be you as a teacher, your students will find the same freedom. One of my favorite notes came from a fourth grade girl who struggled significantly in math. She said she wished she could love math as much as I did, but that in other ways she and I were very much the same, especially because we “both make mistakes sometimes.” If that student remembers little else from fourth grade, at least she learned one invaluable life lesson: it’s ok to make mistakes. As Fred Rogers once said, “I think one of the greatest gifts that we can give anybody is the gift of one more honest adult in that person’s life.”
Of course, none of this gives us a blanket excuse for mistakes we make; although I hope it strengthens us to give ourselves grace when we do. It also doesn’t mean we get some kind of pass from fulfilling mandated requirements or that we don’t need to regularly evaluate how well our chosen instructional strategies are delivering content and meeting our specific students’ needs. It also doesn’t mean we ignore our colleagues’ methods or advice. Your colleagues can be one of your greatest resources.
Instead, “you be you” means to continually seek to learn who God created you to be as a person and as a teacher. As you grow in this knowledge, meld insight from all of your resources to create a classroom where your style flourishes in its strengths and seeks to improve upon its weaknesses. When you do this for yourself as a teacher, you will naturally create an environment for your students to do the same.
As I encourage you to “be you” as a teacher, I am as much reminding myself as I am telling you. Finishing up my seventh year of teaching, I feel as though I am just on the cusp of beginning to understand what this actually means. But I can tell you that it feels really, really great. The first few years of teaching can be a time of incredible insecurity. It feels there are so many people watching—because, well, there are! To come to a place of confidence in who I am, in my relationships with students, with parents, and with colleagues, is also a place of great joy.
So, when you hear another classroom laugh at their teachers’ sense of humor, see the seemingly magical way a colleague holds his students’ gaze, or you notice an amazingly creative and artistic display in the hallway, and you wish you could be just like that teacher… just close your eyes for a second, breathe, and remind yourself: You be you. That’s all you can do, but you are the only one who can do it.