100 Ways to Do It Wrong

Last fall I was asked to mentor a new faculty member. I've been around this place so long that they've finally started asking me to do jobs like this. I was a little hesitant, but I agreed. To be honest it hasn't amounted to all that much work. I have stopped by my mentee's office a few times, we've gone to lunch, and he even asked me for some advice on one occasion. I think I've probably gotten more out of the relationship than he has. Even so, I've got a guilty little confession to make: I'm jealous of my mentee.

Well, maybe not jealous of him per se, but jealous of how easily he's found his footing as a teacher. Whenever I walk across campus I find him on the sidewalk deep in conversation with students. I stop by his office and he's also in there with a student or a colleague. He's always teaching away. What's worse is that he has a clearly developed sense of how he wants to teach, great instincts and no end of innovative ideas.

I mean really. No one should be that good from the start.

I certainly wasn't. I struggled for years and much of that time I really stunk (still do now and then). I would say it took me the better part of my first six years to even begin to develop a sense of what worked for me in the classroom. If I had any virtue during this period, it was only in my constant dissatisfaction with my performance, which was the primary motivator for me to try new things. I just hated failing.

It always amazed me, too, whenever I discovered that some approach I had lurched onto out of desperation turned out to be sound pedagogy. Here I was blindly inventing new approaches, exercises and assignments that had already been invented. More than once after I began to read scholarship on teaching and learning I would shake my head and think, "Wow, they actually have a name for that?"

So I'm a little jealous of my mentee. In another sense, though, I'm not jealous at all. The struggle to understand myself as a teacher may have been filled with failures, but so much in life is that way. Indeed, it is in the failure to find God that Godliness is usually manifested, and it's in the failure to write true sentences or draw true pictures that beautiful things are created. This is no less true for teaching. On some level I never want to succeed at it because stinking it up has been far more valuable to me than getting it right ever could be. If nothing else, it's kept me restless.

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