Get Clucky!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Professing Perfection?

To what degree is it the responsibility of a teacher to model exemplarity—professional perfection? This is a question I continue to stew over, both as a teacher and student. In my student life I’ve had two close, mentoring relationships with teachers who were, Mary Poppins style, practically perfect in every way. They have consistently drawn from me some of my better work. And I wonder—as a teacher, should I aspire to be like them?

As a rigorous student, I have always preferred rigorous educators: people who take me and my work seriously, and who put their professional relationship towards me above their interest in me liking them as a person (not that anyone is so invested in me, in particular, but as a teacher I know how much I want my students to like me). I do my best work for this sort of teacher.

But, that said, what’s the endpoint of this logic? When I was student teaching back in the day, my cooperating teacher was by far the best teacher at her school. She was uncompromising in exacting immaculate work from me every day—and every day, she would sit taking notes on my teaching, noting what I could do better the next day (sometimes she would sit outside the classroom, eavesdropping, so that she could observe without students knowing she was there).

She did not expect more from me than she did from herself, and I continue to be proud of the teaching I did under her supervision. But I slept four hours a night for months, and had night sweats when I did sleep.

It was only in retrospect that I gave myself permission to realize that her zeal was perhaps a little…unhealthy. And I realized that I could still do work I could be proud of without making myself miserable.

But now, I have gone and chosen a committee member who has much the same relationship to work. Three books in, he’s currently working on three more. He’s fantastic, but he is not very happy. He makes the professional success he’s had seem profoundly not worth it.

I am zealot enough myself to appreciate that the goal of “being the best you can be” is accomplished or not everyday. As a student, it’s important to have role models who are not satisfied without meeting that goal; who show you that when you cut yourself slack, you cut yourself off from your best work.

But given that perfection can’t be achieved, and that “your best” is, at best, an asymptotic goal to shoot for—when is it a teachers job to say, “good enough!”

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