Teaching Profession Opinion

Great Teachers: Perfectly Imperfect

By David Ginsburg — July 16, 2011 2 min read
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Ronald was six when he noticed his father had black grease around his mouth after working on a car. A few days later at school, Ronald tried to emulate his dad by coloring the area around his own mouth black. When the teacher (who I’ll call Mrs. Davis) discovered what Ronald had done, she promptly instructed the rest of the class to close their eyes, and rushed Ronald to the front of the room. She then told the class to open their eyes and, after everyone had a good laugh at Ronald’s expense, she ordered Ronald to go clean his face.

Ronald is retired now following a successful career as an attorney, and enjoying time with his family including several grandchildren. And yet even now, memories of those few mortifying moments in Mrs. Davis’ classroom bring Ronald back to the humiliation he felt over 65 years ago. Humiliation caused not by an innocent little boy’s attempt to emulate his dad, but by his teacher’s response to it.

As a junior in high school, Scott experienced similar humiliation when his teacher (who I’ll call Mr. Allen) called him “an idiot” after Scott made a mistake at the wheel during driver’s ed class. Scott is around 50 now and, like Ronald, has achieved success both personally and professionally. Yet also like Ronald, he has strong memories of an upsetting incident that took place in school decades ago.

But unlike Ronald, for Scott these memories are positive. That’s because, whereas Mrs. Davis never acknowledged or atoned for her mistake, Mr. Allen told Scott the next day that what he said was wrong, and apologized to Scott for it. As a result, Scott has never had lingering bad feelings from Mr. Allen’s original comment, and has always admired Mr. Allen.

Ronald’s and Scott’s experiences remind us of the huge--and lasting--impact we as educators have on children, and the importance of doing our best to make sure that impact is positive. But let’s be realistic: 30 kids with 30 personalities, and one teacher who just happens to be human. Who among us isn’t going to make mistakes? And not just misquoting an author or forgetting a formula from time to time. No, we’re talking big-time screw-ups that have the potential to hurt kids. Really hurt kids, as in Mrs. Davis’ case with Ronald and Mr. Allen’s case with Scott. (And in my case when I inexplicably made fun of a self-conscious student’s new braces.)

The point, then, isn’t that we should hold ourselves to a standard of perfection in our interactions with students. But we should hold ourselves to perfection when it comes to owning our imperfections and their impact on students.

Does this mean that being willing and able to recognize your mistakes and apologize to students for them guarantees you greatness as a teacher? Of course not. But in his book, Star Teachers, Martin Haberman says that being unwilling or unable to do those things certainly prevents greatness. I agree... and I bet Ronald would too.

Image by Mersant, provided by Dreamstime license

The opinions expressed in Coach G’s Teaching Tips are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.