I Lie About My Teaching

It's hard to get a true sense of what a classroom is really like—especially from the adult who runs it.
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I liked Devon. We were all first and second-year teachers in that seminar—peers, in theory—but my colleague Devon struck me as a cut above. I’d gripe about a classroom problem, and without judgment or rebuke, he’d outline a thoughtful, inventive solution, as if my blundering incompetence was perhaps a matter of personal taste, and he didn’t wish to impose his own sensibilities. When it fell upon us each to share a four-minute video of our teaching, I looked forward to Devon’s. I expected a model classroom, his students as pious and well-behaved as churchgoers.

Instead, the first half of Devon’s four-minute clip showed him fiddling with an overhead projector; in the second half, he was trotting blandly through homework corrections. The kids rocked side to side, listless. For all his genuine wisdom, Devon looked a little green, a little lost.

He looked, in short, like me.

Teachers self-promote. In that, we’re no different than everyone else: proudly framing our breakthroughs, hiding our blunders in locked drawers, forever perfecting our oral résumés. This isn’t all bad. My colleagues probably have more to learn from my good habits (like the way I use pair work) than my bad ones (like my sloppy system of homework corrections), so I might as well share what’s useful. In an often-frustrating profession, we’re nourished by tales of triumph. A little positivity is healthy.

But sometimes, the classrooms we describe bear little resemblance to the classrooms where we actually teach, and that gap serves no one.

Any honest discussion between teachers must begin with the understanding that each of us mingles the good with the bad. One student may experience the epiphany of a lifetime, while her neighbor drifts quietly off to sleep. In the classroom, it’s never pure gold or pure tin; we’re all muddled alloys.

I taught once alongside a first-year teacher, Lauren, who didn’t grasp this. As a result, she compared herself unfavorably to everyone else. Every Friday, when we adjourned to the bar down the street, she’d decry her own flaws, meticulously documenting her mistakes for us, castigating herself to no end. The kids liked her. The teachers liked her. From what I’d seen, she taught as well as any first-year could. But she saw her own shortcomings too vividly and couldn’t help reporting them to anyone who’d listen.

She was fired three months into the year. You talk enough dirt about yourself and people will start to believe it.

Omission is the nature of storytelling; describing a complex space—like a classroom—requires a certain amount of simplification. Most of us prefer to leave out the failures, the mishaps, the wrong turns. Some, perhaps as a defensive posture, do the opposite: Instead of overlooking their flaws and miscues, they dwell on them, as Lauren did. The result is that two classes, equally well taught, may come across like wine and vinegar, depending on how their stories are told.

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Ben Orlin is a high school teacher and tutor in Oakland, California. He contributes regularly to Math with Bad Drawings.

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