When Teachers Believe Their Work Is Never Enough

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By Angie Miller

During a break at a teacher leadership conference, I stepped out onto the patio to get some fresh air and found a teacher weeping inconsolably.

“I shouldn’t be here,” she confided. “Everybody in there is doing amazing things and making change, and I am just ineffective. I don’t have the time or energy to be that. I can’t be that. This conference isn’t inspiring me; it’s making me feel like a failure.”

I know that feeling well.

I feel it when I watch colleagues grade and hand back papers the next day. They meet with the U.S. Secretary of Education, publish books, and get inducted in the freakin’ National Teacher Hall of Fame. They juggle parenthood and school duties, while training for marathons. They sit on important committees and work successfully with kids in deep, inner-city poverty. They speak eloquently and beautifully. They are poised, confident, strong. They are so much of what I just can’t be.

I, too, am never enough.

There is a Dove commercial where an artist sketches individuals, one based on their self-description and another from someone else’s description. The results are startling. The drawings based on another person’s perception are significantly more flattering than the self-described ones. The implication is loud: we are harder on ourselves than anybody else, physically, personally, and professionally.

Perception is everything, but perception is also skewy. It is an untrustworthy measurement we use to hold ourselves up to the rest of the teaching world that undermines our self-worth. Despite this, there are strategies we can use to battle the demons that make false comparisons between ourselves and the rest of the teaching force.

First, remember that leadership has many different faces. So many factors--our passions, needs, experience, location, etc.— contribute to the making of our individual leadership style. Some educators are inspiring team leaders while others build great bridges between the school and the community. Some effectively lead at the building or district level while others work statewide or even nationally. The person who works at a state level is not a better leader than someone who is a mentor or a teaching coach. There is not a hierarchy of leadership levels.  We need boots-on-the-ground leaders just as much as we need those advocating for us in Washington, D.C.
Second, understand that nobody posts struggles in their highlight reel. Behind every success is hard work, sacrifice, risk, and lots of failure. Olympic swimmers get up before it gets dark, walk to the swimming pool in the cold, and train until their muscles ache before they can stand on that podium. They get tired and record bad times. They doubt themselves and sometimes want to give up. Assume that like athletes, the educators we admire have experienced heartbreak and disappointment too.

Remember that there is a difference between critiquing and attacking yourself. Instead of letting negative thoughts pervade your day and contribute to self-doubt, let them be a conduit for improvement. See failure as feedback, not the world’s confirmation that you are substandard. Use your fears as reflective pathways to problem-solving. Be an honest self-assessor, not a self-loather.

Recognize what you are good at and be unapologetic about it. Every teacher we know  sometimes fears that someone will discover they are not perfect teachers. You are not an imposter. Embrace your strengths with humility and lean into them. Understand that your weaknesses do not indicate incompetence.

Treat yourself with the same forgiveness and kindness you offer to those around you. We would never allow a student to beat up on himself emotionally the way we do to ourselves. Forgive yourself for mistakes and allow yourself time and support for improvement and reflection. Do not ruminate on your struggles; use them as ways to catapult you forward.

When weeping because you feel you are not enough, know that this is the true sign of leadership. Leaders focus on the work without becoming obsessed with their egos and needing constant outside affirmation. Those who are never content are those who always seek improvement. Great leadership doesn’t come from the  abundance of self-confidence; it resides in the quiet moments of reflective vulnerability.

 

Angie Miller is the 2011 New Hampshire Teacher of the Year and a member of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY). She is a TED presenter, a National Geographic Teacher Fellow, a freelance writer and school librarian. Angie can be followed at www.thecontrarianlibrarian and @angieinlibrary.





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