Monday, September 15, 2014

Sense of Purpose, Open to Change, & Willing to Make Mistakes: Three Qualities

We've all been told that we should, for a job interview, always be ready to talk about our strengths. Indeed, I'm always pushing students to name, claim, and sustain their efficacy, their persistence, their positive attitudes - the strengths that will serve them well.  But this is one of those kinds of questions I'm loathe to answer myself because I imagine someone saying, "Um, no, that's not your strength." The dreaded "imposter syndrome" rears its head whenever I name my talents or strengths. One other reason naming discrete strengths is tough is that, as I think about mine, I have trouble distinguishing one from the other. They bleed into each other. They are mutually constitutive, building off of each other, necessary preconditions as well as outcomes of each other. So with that caveat (excuse? disclaimer?), I give you what popped into my mind when posed with today's prompt: Name three strengths you have as an educator. 

Sense of Purpose: Corny as it sounds, I do want to make a positive difference in peoples' lives. Sure, I want to help folks find a sense of mastery and to get closer to achieving their own goals. But I also want to demonstrate that learning can be pleasurable. I want folks to experience how working through confusion toward clarity feels good. And just as important,  I want students to experience the power of community to solve problems, gain knowledge, and grow as individuals. I infuse as many class activities with kapwa, the Filipino value for community, the South African philosophy of ubuntu that is captured in the quote, "A person is a person through other people." That spirit of in lak'ech that Luis Valdez expresses in his poem "Pensamiento Serpentino." That's my purpose. That's what's behind why I teach the way I teach. The love of learning and the value for community inform how I select the material to teach reading, writing, and thinking skills. 

Open to Change: I like think that I'm an open to taking risks - with trying out new material, changing my approach, and embracing technology (hopefully wisely!). I don't think there has ever been a class I've ever taught the same or a writing project I've assigned that doesn't change each and every time I assign it. That's because I'm open to the feedback I get from students and willing to make alterations accordingly. I'm also someone who is a professional development junkie, always looking out for new exercises and approaches to achieve my purpose. I am continually reflecting and tweaking my craft to be the best educator I can be, even if that means making mistakes. Lots of mistakes. 

Willing to Make Mistakes: I embrace errors. I know from my own experience that I have to make mistakes if I'm to master a new skill. I tied a lot of knots before I could figure out how to tie my own shoes. Indeed, tying those knots were a necessary step to becoming a master. And that process - messing up on the way toward mastery - is a recurring pattern for me: as a student, big brother, son, husband, and as a counselor oh-so-many-years-ago. I made tons mistakes and took many missteps, but all those mistakes helped me grow - when i had the right attitude. Took me awhile to accept that. And now, I intentionally bring that attitude with me to the classroom - expecting student to make mistake, creating an environment that thinks of errors as jumping off points for big lessons. When students are on the verge of learning a new concept or gaining proficiency with a new skill, mistakes have to happen.  

Looking over my words, I see I need to tighten up what I mean by each strength. I want to clarify what I mean and ground each strength with actual experiences that demonstrate those strengths. At the same time, I want to state each one simply and precisely. Almost like a mission statement. One thing for sure, if I can't name my own strengths, it'll be hard to intentionally improve upon them. It's like Henry Kissinger said: "If you don't know where you are going, every goal will get you nowhere."