Being one of the only girls in the mass of neighborhood kids made me constantly compete with the boys and try to impress them. This led to frequent stupidity and pain.
After seeing George Hamilton play motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel at the movies, all of the boys – and me, the girl they deigned to let join them – decided to build a bike ramp. We wanted to reenact Knievel’s scenes of bike-jumping glory. Craig, who was an Alpha Male before I knew what that meant, decided that he would build the ramp.
He ordered us to scavenge the neighborhood to find the proper materials for his ramp. Only a Craig-approved ramp could showcase his superior bikemanship. And we, who were not Craig, could only exemplify his magnificence by participating with all of our awkward failure.
My bike, a purple girly Schwinn, (a “Sting-Ray for Girls”), came with a flowered basket attached, a floral pattern on the banana seat, and streamers on the handlebars. I stripped it of all feminine affectation in a bid for Craig’s approval. It was still a girly bike, but now looked like it meant business.
Craig built the ramp much higher than I would have. He expertly pedaled toward it, his front tire barely kissing the ramp. The speed propelled him through a perfect and graceful arc. I can still see him suspended in the air, like a bike bird of prey. He landed expertly, his knees bent into natural shock absorbers. He ended with speed to power-drift into a 180-degree grace note.
I was in awe. My brain had only one thought: I want to be that. This thought pushed me toward the ramp, but my tire didn’t kiss the ramp – it mauled it. I realized, a balloon of panic inflating inside my chest, that I was not Craig. My bike dropped out of sky, stopping on what might have been a perfect front-tire wheelie stand, but I couldn’t hold on. Instead, I sailed through the handlebars toward the ground, the force of the fall rubbing my face across the gravel like a pencil eraser.
You’d think I’d learn after something so painful, but it took many trips to the emergency room to repair the damage wrought by all of my biking fiascos. This is what my ego often feels like when it attaches to these ideas of being Super Teacher. It takes lots of ego abrasions for me to let go of this idea of competitive teaching. Or teaching as performance.
And there are plenty of teaching Evel Knievels who have their own movies to induce me into more feeble copycatting. Our culture rewards Super Teachers and makes movies out of them. We worship these people, which isolates them and in a way, distances their experiences from us. As if they have some ability we will never have.
Education affords me an intoxicating mix of idealism and competition, giving me a gateway to prove my worth. And, my ego would say, proving my special Knievel-like superpowers.
I cling to this idea. I cling to my ego and suffer all the time. You’d think I would finally realize this and let go. It’s like a warped reenactment of Jacob and the Angel: “I won’t let you go, Ego, until you bless me.”
Except the ego can’t bless. It just curses me with self-consciousness and self-absorption. It’s only those moments that I truly lose myself that I do anything of any value. When I am completely unselfconscious.
Education is set into hierarchies that ultimately hurt us. In my brief travels as NTOY, I’ve noticed that the schools doing the most interesting work, the most creative, the most relevant and helpful to its students, are those where I can’t tell “who’s the boss.” The teachers engage in the work as much as the students, the administrators as much as the teachers. There is much, much less ego in those places. No one clings to positions and titles. No one performs.
That’s part of what teacher leadership is. We have to see real, everyday examples of people doing great work. That’s why I’m much better off not watching movies, but instead watching the best teachers on my campus. And when I get really brave, I watch videos of my own classroom where I clearly see what is happening and not happening. Where I can ground myself in what’s real, not in the phony reflected shadows of trying to be someone else.
Each of us have our own teaching gifts. We are powerful when we give our talent as a gift rather than a performance. I have to remind myself that teaching is not a competition. It’s more about an attitude for the work that creates an aptitude for the work.
The best teachers are channels. And anyone can do that. You don’t have to be famous or special. The best make themselves available to what mystics call the numinous, and what others call God or the Universe, to animate our work.
And somehow, in a way I can never explain, this creativity, this energy, arrives. But it only arrives through the channel of my willingness to be present and of service. Trying to make teaching into a stunt to dazzle and amaze always causes this energy to leave and me to fall on my face.