Five years ago, I was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year.
The months and years following are a time in my life I now refer to as my “crisis of ego.”
I try to be kind to myself. I spent the year being told I was pretty special. I mean, seriously, the year ended with me standing in the Oval Office being thanked by President Obama for my work. My head wasn’t exactly small before, but I imagine for much of this time I was pretty unbearable.
This crisis was compounded because, for quite a few people and groups out there, I was this new shiny toy. I was a teacher with legit union credentials (serving for many years on the executive council of my local and helping to found a statewide group to increase engagement of newer teachers), but also willing to say that the tenure system is kinda dumb and that alternative licensure doesn’t make someone the devil.
In a matter of weeks, a voice I was still working on developing was handed a whole bunch of megaphones. Stuff I wrote was shared and promoted and encouraged. More than that, I had people with a whole lot more power and experience and connections than I, often telling me that I was getting it right.
It’s a powerful thing, an irresistibly powerful thing, hearing that you understand something that other people don’t. Especially as someone relatively early in my career, it was something I really needed to hear. Especially because it played into this narrative I had that schools were fucking up and teachers, especially older teachers, were the problem. I accepted so much of it as truth without question.
I felt important. I felt like I held answers. I felt like an authority on a good many things about teaching. My god, I must have been insufferable.
Admitting That I Didn’t Know Everything Wasn’t Easy
It fell apart, eventually, slowly. Admitting I didn’t know everything was hard. Admitting that things I had been rather loud and obnoxious about were misguided was a little like admitting one of my own tattoos is stupid (they are not).
During that time, I had mentors who were and are wonderful, who pushed for and appreciated nuance, who counseled me in ways that took into account that I was more than a political asset.
But there were too many others. There was a reformy group that pushed me to run for my local union presidency a year after I joined the district. I had no interest and told them repeatedly. They kept pushing. Eventually, they pushed me away. So far as I know, they still do good work and a great many of them care about kids and schools with a depth I rarely see. But I’m not sure they really care about teachers. I’m not sure they ever cared about me so much as they cared about the shield I was for them, about the name recognition I had.
There were some uniony people too, who loved it when I said, “Public schools, yay! Teachers, yay!” but who told me to stay quiet when I talked too much about race, because it would “distract from the conversation.” There were even more who simply stopped supporting me in any public way once it was clear I would be speaking my own mind.
The Cycle Repeats, Or Not
I see this happening, again and again. New teachers, or new teacher voices, hop onto the scene. They write or speak or promote in a way that turns heads. They are honest, they are powerful. Then, there’s a little scramble to see who will claim them.
Big loud voices show up, they grasp whatever message that new voice has that can be used to further their goals. Maybe it’s pro-school choice, or anti-. Maybe it’s a pedagogical link, or someone who will speak for or against the union. That teacher gets a lot of praise, a lot of push. It may not even be a conscious thing that people are doing, this recruiting, but it certainly happens.
A lot of teachers handle that a lot better than I did. Some handle it worse. Again, it is tremendously powerful to be told that you understand something that others don’t, that you get it.
So, some advice then, some wisdom I’ve learned the hard way, for any teacher out there looking to be heard, looking to bring their work outside of their classroom:
- Make connections with people because of who they are and what they do, not what you think they can do for you. Change is constant, especially when you’re talking about nonprofit, political and labor organizations. Instead, look for people whose work you love, whose outlook on the world empowers or challenges or teaches you in an important way.
- Don’t write or speak for clicks. Every shitty thing I’ve ever written or said was done when I was trying to please someone else.
- You don’t need to be an expert on everything. As a pretty standard-issue, mediocre white male, this took me way too long to learn. I was often asked to speak or write or comment about something I didn’t know that much about. I’d kinda shrug my shoulders, fire up the Google machine, and act as if I did. It was, umm, bad.
- You are an expert on you. Some of the very best things I’ve written happened after I stopped trying to speak for everyone and, instead, worked to share my own experience and perceptions. A good many of the views I held during my “Special Mr. Ego” phase have not changed, but I have worked to understand why others may feel differently, and especially to understand that there are tremendously kick-ass teachers (and administrators and advocates and writers) out there who go about their work in an almost entirely different way than I do. The most powerful education conversation I can imagine is one where we are all out there championing all of the things we feel are right and wonderful and transformative about the work we do without seeking to make the point that others are doing it wrong.
That same crisis of ego I had in my writing happened in my classroom, though teenagers let you get away with that shit a lot less than adults do. In that same way, I have stopped teaching to make other people happy, stopped listening to the voices that only told me I always get everything right. I’ve learned, again and again, that I must be honest in my instruction, meaning that I better have a damn good reason for everything I’m doing and must work exclusively to help my students learn. I’ve cut back on the flashy stuff, the performance of learning without the depth of real knowledge.
I do not pretend that I have fixed my ego problem. Mine is overly-healthy, yet somehow coupled with a pretty low self-perception. I’m headed into my 14th year of teaching, a year full of challenges and victories and big-ole heart-splitting failures behind me, and another ahead. I don’t really belong to any groups anymore, but I know my voice is my own. I’m maybe more confident now than ever that I’m pretty darn good at this, and confident I could get better if I keep listening to new voices who may very well show me I have it all wrong.