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Teaching is an art.
I became a teacher because I was inspired by my own great teachers. They helped me experience learning as a process of discovery and transformation. They also showed me that the art of teaching derives from teachers’ ability to work through messiness and see beauty in what many others perceive as imperfection. As a ninth grade humanities teacher, it has been an amazing privilege to devote my life to this art.
Recently, I was named National Teacher of the Year, and it is such an honor. I kicked off my year by visiting Washington, D.C., last week, to meet with policymakers and education advocates. Now, I am preparing to spend a year out of my classroom traveling around the country to speak with others about education.
After the reporter left, I began to doubt myself, feeling embarrassed that things had not gone more smoothly during her visit.
With this honor comes the opportunity and responsibility to share a message that I often teach my students: There is no such thing as the perfect student, classroom or teacher. Instead, we must embrace the messiness inherent in teaching and learning.
One particular instance allowed me to reflect on this lesson. A reporter visited my classroom in the fall, and afterwards told me that she was surprised I let her see that class. That day, students had participated in a collaborative game to review for an upcoming end-of-trimester test on the Haitian Revolution. A few students had difficulty interacting with their peers appropriately. Some called out or made disparaging remarks about the other team.
After the reporter left, I began to doubt myself, feeling embarrassed that things had not gone more smoothly during her visit. I wondered: Should I have invited her to a different class, one that might have posed fewer challenges?
As teachers, we sometimes fall victim to the myth of the perfect classroom, the perfect students, the perfect lesson. We feel the need to perpetuate this myth, to pretend that we have it all figured out. We feel vulnerable without it, worried that we will be identified as frauds or impostors.
Reflecting on the reporter’s visit, I can understand why the messiness of that class could feel uncomfortable, especially to someone who does not know my students. So much of our work in the classroom depends on relationships. And, because I know my students well, I was able to recognize elements of beauty where the reporter saw chaos.
One of the aforementioned students, who is usually absent or completely off-task, stayed in class for the entire period and was actively engaged in the review activity. He had trouble controlling his outbursts, but he cared about what was happening in class and wanted to do well. He was learning. While I didn’t dismiss his behavior, I was careful to note his progress. To me and the other teachers in my room, that classroom is a place where learning happens, in spite of — and sometimes because of — the messiness.
If we do not recognize that learning is happening even as children make mistakes and act out, we don’t recognize the growth of the whole child. Providing a holistic education means fostering a child’s development through examining mistakes, not forbidding them. In order to create a culture where the value of failure is celebrated, educators must be able to openly share our own failures.
Imagine the progress we can make on the journey to educational equity if teachers feel safe opening the doors of all of our classrooms -- even the messy ones -- to visitors.
The reporter’s visit helped me learn a valuable lesson about sharing what is happening inside of my classroom with others. Rather than shying away from inviting visitors in, I now take time to give them context about the class so they can get a more complete picture of who we are and what we’re working on.
Imagine the progress we can make on the journey to educational equity if teachers feel safe opening the doors of all of our classrooms — even the messy ones — to visitors. We must reject the “super teacher” myth and be brave enough to advocate for what we know to be true about learning: Real learning takes time. It is not always linear. And sometimes, the best learning happens when things don’t go perfectly.