Flat-lining

One of the goals I had when I first began blogging on teaching and learning was to be more open about my struggles in the classroom.  Or let's not mince words: my failures in the classroom.

All too often in higher education, we don't want to talk about our failures.  Even for a tenured full professor, it's risky.  There is an emotional component to owning  one's failures before colleagues, some of whom can be unkind, quick to judge or anxious to tell you how you should have done it.  So, fearful of rebuke, you hold back and find ways to ascribe your failure to factors beyond your control.


In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer acknowledges the grip that fear has on educators.  He writes,
It is all around us and so it permeates our senses and our way of being. It has become such a societal norm that we don’t even realize it’s there.  To notice fear would mean we would need to face it. To admit that fear exists would be to admit that we are doing it wrong.  And this is what I believe. I believe we are doing it wrong. When fear rules our education system, we need to set aside our pride, and look into its face.
I agree with Palmer.  Even so, it has not been easy to own a course I taught last spring.  I worked my rear end off trying to reach a room full of 18-year olds and singularly and definitively had them hand me said rear end right back.  I've been trying to shrug this off for the past two months with the usual rationalizations: maybe it was just one of those bad classes that crop once in a while. Maybe it was a room full of ill-prepared students (I mean, they really were a challenge).  Or maybe I could blame it on events in my personal life?  My mother--widowed only last fall--was diagnosed with dementia in January and it fell to me to sell her home, take over her finances and move her into a memory care unit.

Then two weeks ago the spring course evals showed up and--sure enough--the students in my problematic course were in total agreement. I was the worst professor they had ever had.  Here, let's look right into its face. 



I'm freakin' flat-lining across the bottom.  In 25 years of teaching I've had great evals, I've had okay evals, but I've never had any so resoundingly terrible.  What has surprised me is how seeing these numbers has zapped my confidence and even made me a little gun shy about stepping back into a classroom next fall.  Yeah, I know this is nonsense, but fear by its very nature isn't rational.  Consequently, as Palmer put it, you have to set aside your pride and own it.  

So here goes: yeah, I bombed, I screwed up, I failed in epic fashion. And now I know what that feels like.

Many years ago I had a chance to ask a question to a wonderful and successful writer (and I had hopes of becoming one myself back then).  At a summer workshop there were about fifteen of us sitting in a semicircle and each of us had an opportunity to ask this woman a question about her work, her approach to writing, art, literature, whatever.  I was so impressed by her and I wanted to ask a really good question, one that went to the heart of my struggles with writing.

Then all of a sudden it was my turn, but I had yet to figure out what I really wanted to ask.  Still, I had to ask something, so I just blurted out, "How do you beat the fear?" She stared at me for a long time, maybe seven or eight seconds. Then she smiled and said, "You don't beat fear. You use it."

I always liked her answer, but I'm unsure how I am going to use this. 


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