We all got into teaching because we hoped our work would make an impact; we envisioned seeing the grown man in the supermarket who would walk up to us and say, “Hi Mr. Stuart — remember me? Here is my wife; these are my children. They are all well-fed and flourishing thanks to the things you taught me. I’ll never forget X day when you taught me Y lesson; thank you so much.”
My message today is simple. We cannot afford to need this kind of recognition, or any kind of recognition. When we need to be the teacher winning the award or writing the book or getting the tear-stained gratitude letter from the former student, we’re in dangerous territory. The external scorecard is a minefield — an avoidable but popular one. Too many teachers needlessly brutalize themselves by needing recognition or affirmation for their work. Too many teachers feel they have no autonomy in their work because they enslave themselves to externalism. In their need for recognition, they inevitably get demolished by anti-recognition. When that kid you think you made an impact on says he hates your class, you’re reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes on the floor — if you need his affirmation.
But Dave, you say. Dave. Isn’t apathy the only alternative to what you’re describing?
No. I would say that we need to care more about our kids than the externalistic person can, and we can only do so by wanting the results and being careless about the affirmation. The affirmation, after all, isn’t about the kids — it’s about us. It’s us saying, “I’ve got this insatiable need for affirmation, and I need my students or my principal to fulfill it.” I’m dumbfounded by how many teachers fool themselves into thinking they love their students when actually they love the way their students make them feel.
The first step is to realize that you probably need positive feedback from your kids too much; you’ve probably, at some point, shifted into what psychologists call an “external locus of identity”; you’ve forgotten that you are not your job.
The second step is to take that nastiness off. This is internal work.
And the final step is, instead of needing the affirmation, we need to want the results. I didn’t teach Caleb hoping he’d one day call me (see the end of this post), but I certainly taught Caleb hoping his life would turn out well and that my English Language Arts class would help.
Sometimes people misunderstand me, believing I advocate for caring less about our students when I call for detaching our self-worth from our work. But it’s exactly the opposite — I’m telling you that the only way to care enough is by detaching your self-worth; I’m saying that you don’t really care, cleanly, until you’ve rid yourself of needing affirmation and filled yourself up with the drive to harvest the fruits that affirmation points to. That’s where the truly courageous teachers live and do their work.