Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Several years ago I went to New York for a week-long conference at Columbia University. I was really excited, but also a little nervous because I was going by myself and I wasn’t sure how I’d spend all the off-time. “Surely I’ll meet other people to have dinner with,” I thought. “I can’t be the only person going by myself.”

Well, I was. Or at least it felt that way. Somehow when we formed smaller groups, the people I was with didn’t exude the Southern charm I’m used to. My comments about our projects were met with silence or sometimes covert glances and raised eyebrows. My questions about local school acronyms were ignored. When I called to take one of them up on a dinner invite, it seemed she was staying in that night instead.

I spent the better part of the week wracking my brain trying to figure out how I’d offended these people, what I must have said in the beginning to turn them off. Later, a friend of mine suggested it was probably my Southern accent – they just assumed any idea I had was the equivalent of a trailer park tattoo since most likely their only exposure to Southerners was as reality show purveyors of moonshine.

Perhaps something like this has happened to you – people pass judgment on you and you then spend an inordinate amount of time wondering what you’ve done wrong. The episode in NY made me feel insecure and unsure of myself, but why is that? Why didn’t I just blow it off and stay confident of the strength of my ideas? A great book I’m reading right now explains my reaction to this whole episode. Carol Dweck has written “Mindset”, about fixed and growth mindsets, and one tiny section caught my eye because it rang so true for me.

Women, she says, are used to being fed positive feedback as children. Generally, girls are treated somewhat gingerly by teachers, parents, and each other. “You’re so helpful!” we hear, or “I think your dress is pretty.” Boys, on the other hand, are often treated rougher and told to “buck up” and not cry. They easily call each other “slob” and “moron.” Girls, on the other hand, don’t call each other names (at least within hearing distance).

The result is that boys learn early on to brush off others’ opinions of them because so often they’re done in a teasing manner. Girls, however, learn to trust other people’s estimates of them. So much of what we hear is positive or at least very likely true (we hope), that we end up very vulnerable to other’s opinions. As Dreck says, girls think “Gee, everyone’s so nice to me; if they criticize me, it must be true.”

What’s the lesson here? It’s certainly not for girls to begin calling each other names in an effort to grow tougher skin. But perhaps when we’re faced with unfounded negative comments we can take a page from the boys’ playbook and practice some positive self-talk. In New York, I should have re-centered myself, been a bit more assertive about my ideas, and perhaps even asked what they felt I’d done wrong. At the very least, I shouldn’t have let it discolor my week the way it did.

Half the battle is simply being aware of the social patterns that impact our perceptions. The other half is in our response.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Identity Crisis

How does a teacher early in her career decide who she’s going to be? My first year I had grand ideas of changing the world, but quickly learned it took all of my time just to keep my head above water. I kept telling myself, “It’s ok. I’m only a first year teacher.” And later, “It’s alright, this is only my second year.” But by the third year, I was really beginning to doubt myself, and definitely by the fourth year I was pretty sure I was irreparably damaging the tiny souls in my care. “What’s wrong with me?” I’d silently scream to myself. “It’s already my fourth year and I still don’t know what I’m doing!”

Fortunately, sometime during that fourth year, an experienced teacher at a county-level meeting reassured me this was completely normal. No one else had bothered to explain that self-doubt comes with the job. Instead, when I looked around me I saw what appeared to be confident, organized, experienced teachers who never doubted their next steps and always had their plans ready for next week. Granted, their plans involved basal texts and grammar worksheets, but at least they left on time on Fridays and could joke around with the principal. “Maybe I should just be the kind of teacher who pulls the same Leprechaun file out for March each year,” I thought. “Just go ahead and buy the polyester pantsuit and a pack of red pens."

After recently talking with young teacher also caught in the 4th-year slump, I’m beginning to think this is a natural stage creative teachers must go through. Perhaps it’s an identity crisis, a search for your true self, which occurs when you realize that it’s not easy to become the larger-than-life teacher you’d set out to be when you were a wide-eyed undergrad. You wonder: if that remarkable teacher you intended to become hasn’t arrived yet, maybe it won’t ever happen, and instead you should begin to look around to find another model to settle for.

I’m not sure what brought me out of that slump – it’s been too many years ago to remember the details – but I do think it might have had to do with a change of scenery. I moved schools and separated from my more traditional teammate. I also joined some county-level committees that gave me a wider perspective, but more importantly allowed me to see even experienced teachers were still struggling to nail down this profession. And probably most importantly, I found an unofficial mentor, a neighboring teacher who was ten times more creative than me. Sherry gave me someone to emulate and motivated me to become more than who I was. She served as my “mentor text” and reaffirmed my budding beliefs in student choice and active learning that had almost gotten squashed during my earlier years.

Perhaps you’re a new teacher hitting that identity slump, wondering if you’ll ever be the teacher you’d aspired to. Or maybe you have passed that rough patch and feel fully vested in the identity you’ve carved out for yourself in this difficult profession. In either case, reach out to each other. Lord knows we all need support.