Friday, March 9, 2018

Confessions of An Imperfect Educator: The Dangers of Pedagogical Face Tuning

I spend a lot of time on social media following and connecting with educators from around the planet who both inspire and challenge me. Both my personal and professional lives have been made infinitely better by these connections. And, most importantly, this learning has made me a better practitioner for both the student and adult learners I work with.

And yet…

It’s easy to come away from these connections feeling inadequate, because most of what people share with their professional (and, notably, public) learning networks is their BEST work. By the time we see the shareable product, the kinks have been worked out. The messy imperfections have been removed, and while the bumps in the road leading up to instructional success may be mentioned, they are rarely left in the spotlight. I think of this as pedagogical face-tuning: the final product is the real thing, but… let’s be honest, it’s had a little work done.

And listen, I get it. We all want to put our best foot forward, especially when we’re doing it in front of a global audience. Plus, I understand the value in sharing the final iteration of a product in the hopes that those who use it might avoid the beta tester’s pitfalls. I totally understand the urge to polish and edit to perfection before sharing something with the world, even if deep down, I know perfection is both unrealistic and unattainable.

But, lately, I’ve had more and more conversations with educators who don’t feel like their work is good enough to share with their PLNs. AND THESE PEOPLE ARE DOING AWESOME WORK! But they’re fearful of how it will hold up when sitting next to the perfection they see online. That said, there’s been plenty written about the myth of the “perfect lives” we all project on social media, and about the emotional toll this takes on people who compare their own lives to what they see on their Instagram feeds. We’re all so used to filtering our experiences before posting them, that the unfiltered versions now feel somehow inferior. And here’s the thing, I think this applies to our professional lives too. But I’ve got a newsflash for y’all: no one’s professional life is as perfect as what they share online. Every social media “rockstar” you encounter has bad days. Every educational hero you aspire to be like, fails. Hard. Behind every screen name and avatar lurks a real person, who has flaws - just like you.

All of which has got me thinking about the value in sharing the things I’ve done wrong. Or at least some of those things, because sharing them all might use up the entire internet! So, it’s in that spirit that I’ve decided to share a of examples that continue to haunt me to this day:

Confession 1: The Literary Research Project

Back when I was a middle school English teacher I created what I called the Literary Research Project. And man was I proud of it. Essentially, this was a year long exploration in which students selected a theme around which to base their independent reading that school year. The theme could be something like “works by the same author” or “books featuring female protagonists” or “mysteries” etc. Before embarking on their epic study of this type of literature, my students developed a hypothesis about what they would find. For example, they might theorize that all fantasy books are really a metaphor for problems faced by people in our society. Or they might set out to prove that all books set in the American South were created to help readers face their own prejudices. Then they used text evidence from all the books they read, (their literary sample), to prove or disprove their hypothesis. Their final product was a research paper.

So far, nothing about this feels heinous to me… but here’s where current me looks back at past me and shakes her head. As part of this project I required students to:
  • Only read books on their reading level (as assigned by AR).
  • Complete copious amounts of notecards as a way to document and be held accountable for their reading.
Oy. Honestly, that’s painful to type out. But, obviously, if I were back in the classroom now I’d do things differently. NOW I know that levels like those provided by AR, Lexile or Fountas and Pinnell are meant to be tools to help TEACHERS select texts, not students. Now, I’d forget the reading level requirement altogether and let independent reading be just that, independent. AND I’d focus more on having conversations with kids about books and how they connect us, than on holding them accountable for that reading. I’d work harder to make reading something my students looked forward to and that they saw as serving a greater purpose in their lives, beyond just jumping through teacher created hoops. And I surely would not make them fill out note cards.

Confession 2: Library Fines
When I first became a school librarian, I landed at a school where collecting fines was part of the culture. And the lengths we went to in order to collect those fines makes me ashamed now. From preventing kids from checking out books because they owed .35 cents, to volunteering to be a ticket taker at school dances, so I could refuse entry to kids who had lost a book, we took library fines seriously. And I regret every last minute of it. It took me too long to realize that:
  • the feeling in the pit of my stomach every time I kept a child from having a book because they’d lost one or turned it in late, was right.
  • I didn’t work for the IRS.
  • my job was to put books IN kids’ hands, not prevent them from having them.
  • there are ways to teach responsibility without veering away from my core mission.
What’s more, I WAS ONCE A POOR KID WHO COULD NOT PAY LIBRARY FINES WHEN I WAS IN SCHOOL. I should have known better, but, for awhile at least, I did not.

The educator I am now would never do those things. But that’s the thing about learning, isn’t it? [Insert Maya Angelou reference here.] We do the best we can until we know better. Then we do better. There’s no shame in being where you are. The shame is in refusing to grow and move beyond that place. I know better now. And I do better now. And that’s due in large part to the network of educators who continually force me to look inward and up my game.

What would have happened, I wonder, had I shared these imperfect practices, publicly, when I was in the midst of them? I don’t know what the worst case scenario is. Maybe I’d have been criticized or trolled. But I think the most likely outcome is that someone out there would have questioned why I was doing things the way I was. And those questions probably would have caused me to make better choices for kids a lot sooner. To me, that reward is worth the risk. But maybe even beyond that, other educators might have felt okay about sharing the stuff they’re unsure of too.

So to all those teachers and librarians who are hesitant about sharing that thing that you’re proud of, but don’t think is good enough yet: from one imperfect educator to another, I hope you decide to share sooner rather than later. In the end, none of us need a network full of pedagogically face-tuned examples of Pinterest worthy lessons, replete with chevron borders and cute fonts. (Even though I do love me some chevron prints and cute fonts!) I want a network full of educators who are willing to share their journeys with me, warts and all. Because we learn more from falling down than we do from standing still. And because falling down is so much easier when your friends are there to help you get up.


  1. Excellent blog. Thanks for sharing, warts and all. This is something we all can reflect on as sharing the process is as valuable as the tweaking that comes with it.

  2. Thanks so much for your words of truth and encouragement. I struggle daily with feelings of inadequacy as I try my best to manage two libraries (K-5 and 6-12) together with two sets of students and faculty with very different wants and needs. I voraciously read posts from my heroes (like you) and grasp on to shreds of evidence that they are indeed human, even as they accomplish amazing things! Your words are just what I needed to read!

    1. This is exactly why I wrote this post. Thank you for all you do!

  3. Thank you for writing this post. I feel better about myself already.

  4. Your blog post is timely and speaks to my heart. I also feel like what you wrote about is exactly why librarians, as well as teachers, should be writers — prolific writers. Writers of our practices, of what we learn, writers of recognizing problems and seeking resolutions, writers of positivity as well as negativity, and writers so that we know we are not alone in this imperfect world of information. Thank you for writing this blog and thank you for candidly confessing about what haunts you — we all should take turns in this practice.

  5. This is one of the most honest and insightful pieces I’ve ever read. I was beginning to think I was mediocre at best. Thank you!

  6. I love this! Its so true. We all struggle and are imperfect. Every day I strive to do better than before.

  7. I truly love your post! It is so important to remember that we are all 'practicing' the art of teaching. Sometimes, many people don't share perhaps because we think it is not of value. I often hear "I am just a teacher." We all have something to share that can help someone or inspire someone. Thank you for a wonderful post I hope it encourages more of us to share our journeys and our work!

    I am very curious though, why would not teach students how to take notes for a research paper?

  8. I was hesitating to share my first infographic. It's probably lame I thought, it's been done before. So thanks for writing this, it is good to know that we are not alone. Reflecting on our work and seeing the good, bad, and ugly informs our growth as educators and as humans. Thank you for this post.

  9. Whew! Thank you Jennifer for sharing this! I have been teaching for 25 years, done many different things and stepped up to many challenges in my teaching career, but becoming a Teacher Librarian 6 months ago is the most challenging, exhilarating, frightening thing I have done so far. The coursework is intense and the teaching days are wild and crazy mixed with sublime. I made my fair share of mistakes in the first month or so... and count myself lucky if I get through a day now without anything too major. I keep telling myself my job is to uplift and encourage kids - after all, there's no grade for coming to the library! Thanks for the honesty and vulnerability - it helps to know there are real people at the other end of the internet!

  10. Amen. Thank you for this refreshing reminder that we are all learners all the time and that means sometimes we will fall on our face and there is nothing wrong with that. You show the strength and value in reflection and that is really when we can move forward!

  11. I love this! I am an aspiring librarian, on my way to my first job interview in a few days at a local HS! I know they are serious about fines there and won't let kids purchase prom tickets until they are paid. My question is: what should I do instead? I saw one idea about paying off fines with reading minutes. For HS, how do you encourage responsibility and returning books, but not have fines. Thank you!