First Person

A Teacher's Pursuit of Imperfection

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I became a teacher 15 years ago. Subtracting the years I was a stay-at-home dad, I have taught over 2,000 days. Not one of them was perfect.

There were moments of magic, joy, laughter, and plenty of love. But there were always imperfections.

There were times I lost my temper. Lessons where I did too much of the talking. Mornings when I couldn't find the damn math sheets I had just copied, and had all 25 kids scurrying around the room like little treasure hunters to help me look in increasingly unlikely places—under the beanbags, maybe?—for that misplaced stack of pages.

Fifteen years since I started, I have stopped seeking that elusive perfect day of teaching when I would get everything just right: the smooth pacing, the masterful sequence of questions, the firm yet forgiving demeanor of a carved saint.

The mistakes are part of the joy. The sloppiness is part of the humanity. A classroom should be a messy, vibrant place where the unexpected is woven into the fabric of each day, where slips, stumbles, and blunders abound—along with moments of grace and the unpredictable brilliance of children.

A Model of Imperfection

Our students pay more attention to the qualities we model—patience, persistence, and compassion, for example—than the words we speak.

We also need to model imperfection. We need to teach the lesson that it's OK to try something hard that you've never done before, even if you fall flat on your face. That there is no shame in botching your first attempt as long as you try a second time, and a third, until you mostly figure it out.

We have to be willing to say the four "statements that lead to wisdom" from Louise Penny's Chief Inspector Armand Gamache book series: "I was wrong. I'm sorry. I don't know. I need help."

I don't agree with the line, "Never let them see you sweat." Teaching is incredibly hard and complicated work. Sometimes it's OK to show the struggle.

Of all Lin-Manuel Miranda's brilliant lyrics in "Hamilton," I most love the lines to "Dear Theodosia." Burr and Hamilton sing these words to their newborn children, but they could be a teacher's song to our students.

"I'll do whatever it takes
I'll make a million mistakes
I'll make the world safe and sound for you…"

Even the best teachers make a million mistakes. As 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling once said, "I have reached the point where I'm more afraid of mediocrity than I am of making a mistake."

The Courage to Admit Our Flaws

If we focus all our efforts on looking good, it's impossible to truly become good.

We can teach to the test so we look competent when the results come out, without ever teaching our students the abilities that matter most—like creativity, courage, and compassion. We can execute flawless lessons on the two days a year we know we'll be observed, yet teach mediocre lessons on the many days when no one is there to witness our work.

Who are we when no one is watching? When there is no applause to greet our triumphs, no stern frowns to cast gloom on our failures?

When we constantly show the world a version of ourselves that has it all together and never makes mistakes, we can start to believe that distortion. It gets harder to see ourselves and our imperfections clearly.

Our flaws are often the flip sides of our virtues. If we lose the ability to see our flaws, we won't be able to see our virtues, either.

The best lessons I teach often have the most mistakes. Those lessons tend to be the most complicated and ambitious, the ideas born at 4 a.m. when I wake up with a burning desire to try out a new idea.

Building skyscrapers out of straws and testing their stability with a blow dryer. Elaborate games on the playground to simulate a food chain, the kids chasing and fleeing one another as they scream in delight.

Those experimental lessons are full of flops and blunders, but they're full of excitement and new learning, too. That doesn't happen when I just stick to the easy, comfortable stuff I've taught before.

We Make the Path by Walking

Our students sometimes put us on a pedestal. I idealized various teachers when I was growing up, from the gorgeous Ms. Wood in 5th grade, who made my year by showing up at my birthday party at the skating rink, to my high school Asian Studies teacher who introduced me to religions and cultures I knew nothing about.

But the people who have taught me the most weren't only guides in my journey toward adulthood. They were also fellow travelers, willing to share their own questions, struggles, and flaws. The mentoring went both ways. We taught and learned from one another, sometimes stumbling in our journey along the path but always figuring out the next step to take.

When we show our students that we're imperfect, it lets them know that their imperfections are OK, too. They can mess up on a math problem, struggle to sound out hard words, or lose their temper, and we'll still care about them just as deeply.

We'll expect them to do better next time—to correct their mistakes, to become stronger readers, to learn how to calm down when they're angry. But we'll walk the path alongside them, every step and every stumble.

The children we teach need to know that they can be imperfect and still be wonderful. In fact, they can be wonderful because they're imperfect—because that's what it means to be fully human.

Leonard Cohen's song "Anthem" has it right:

"Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in."

That's how the light gets in.

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