The Work in the Work


“I really believe in this, but (as always seems to be the case) I can’t quite figure out how to do it with the kids I have this year. Sigh.”

“I thought I’d planned for everything but I didn’t realize that…”

“I know this should work.  Why doesn’t it work? If I could just make this work everything would go so much better”

“It seemed to work well for everyone except A and G, so I guess I need to go back to the drawing board to figure out what to do differently.”

There you have it- a summary of the accumulated writings of my graduate students over the last 15 years.  The theme? “I tried X and it didn’t work quite right (or for everyone). I failed and need to do better next time.  If only I could figure out X, I could finally get to the work of teaching.”

If only I could figure out X, I could finally get to the work of teaching.

It seems to me that this is so the reality of teaching. Always and everywhere- ideals and reality clash and struggle together and that’s the work- fitting and re-fitting over and over. If I could give my students (and teachers everyone) one gift, it would be an understanding that this struggle isn’t the thing that gets in the way of our work, it is our work.

I think we sometimes believe that we’re not doing the “teaching” thing right when it’s

messy and awkward, but the business of education is, by its nature, messy and awkward because: human beings.  The messy and awkward IS teaching- the attempt to match up our highest ideals and aspirations with the gritty reality of nurturing young, developing human beings.  If we were surgeons, we’d expect mess and unpredictability and a never-ending sense of “what’s the next problem?” but for some reason teachers think we’re supposed to able to anticipate everything, plan for it, and prevent it from going sideways from time to time.- all while maintaining a cool, organized, professional façade.

Personally,  I think that would be bad practice- even if we could do it which of course we can’t.  It would take all of the messy-awkward-learning out of it- for the students and for us. The “whoops- that didn’t work- now what” factor isn’t a sign of dysfunction, it’s evidence that you’re authentically IN the work. If we’re really doing it, we’re grappling with ideas and problems and the messy reality of human development.  And what better what to model for our students what it is to be fully present, real, learning human being that for them to see us grappling, figuring out, “learning out loud” as it were.

That’s the nature of teaching.

So the next time you’re feeling frustrated because you can’t get to the content you want to cover or you can’t figure out how to solve the problem in front of you, please, please, please be gentle with yourself.  It’s not about trying and trying and trying until you get it right. You are getting it right, so long as you’re staying in it with all the authentic presence you have in you.


2 responses to “The Work in the Work

  1. Love it! Reminds me of the Rilke quote: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

  2. Alex, you are so. Freaking. Smart. Seriously- I love your awesome brain. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s