Humility Matters

The death of any great idea is when its inventor falls in love with it.

The death of any great student is when they decide they are smarter than all their classmates and therefore have nothing to learn from them.

The death of any great teacher is when they fall in love with the sound of their own voice and stop hearing the voices of the students who would do more than parrot the teacher’s voice back at them.

The death of any great principal is when they think they are the only one who can move the school forward and stops listening to the students, teachers and parents s/he serves.

Humility matters.

The work of teaching and learning is hard. It requires courage on the part of everyone involved to take the kind of risks necessary for real learning to happen. That kind of courage can also create surety that is dangerous. We have to understand it, because it is rampant in schools of all kinds, but we also have to work to combat it when we see it in others and in ourselves.

Real strength, the kind that doesn’t come because one has a title that says “Principal” or “Teacher” or “Honor Roll Student” or even (or perhaps especially) “Education Reformer” requires an almost zen-like state where we move from centered core that is confident enough to listen to dissent and difference.

But humility isn’t just about listening to dissent. It’s about giving up control. It’s about stepping back and letting others do for themselves. It is about letting people own their ideas and create things you would never have thought of. It means knowing enough not to presume that you know every outcome. And it even means, sometimes, giving up things we love doing so that others can do them too.

Sometimes we have to learn those moments the hard way. When I was a young English teacher, I tried to give extensive feedback on every draft of every paper my students wrote. They needed me to do that for them. I was the teacher, and I understood better than anyone else in that classroom what good writing looked like.

Except I wasn’t sleeping, trying to keep up with the paper load.

So I tried peer editing, remembering it from a graduate school class. And then I noticed something – the comments kids made were different than mine, perhaps, but they weren’t worse. In fact, in many cases, the students had insight into each other’s work that I didn’t have. And the kids realized that they could help each other, and that might have been more important than any comma splice that I would have caught. But suddenly, I had to admit that I wasn’t the only expert voice in the room. I couldn’t be that “hero teacher” who would single-handedly teach all the kids to write.

What a wonderful myth to have to give up.

And that taught me another profound lesson about humility. True humility means understanding that one’s personal empowerment can never come at the expense of the empowerment of someone else’s. There’s enough to go around.

9 thoughts on “Humility Matters

  1. Pingback: Humility Matters | My education |

  2. Thank you so much for this one, Chris. As a 30+ year teacher and an “education reformer” this is the most profound lesson I learned as a teacher — and the hardest one to share with others whose identity depends on them being “the smartest in the class” or school.

    We who did well in our narrow “academic” definitions of intelligence deeply believe that the way we do well is the only way to do it. We are supposed to teach this very thing and yet it is this very thing that causes the most learning damage — the unintended arrogance of those that placed well in the educationally lottery and perhaps aren’t anymore as original or inventive as some of the young minds around them.

    I learned my own humility by learning to see more intelligences and abilities and gifts and
    creative possibilities than my own education and especially my teacher training had taught me. I learned it by watching interactions between the children, by waiting for answers, by encouraging guessing and “making mistakes”, by teaching that we only learn by making mistakes and correcting them to our own satisfaction, not some “know-it-all” authority, including me. I learned to admit to and even celebrate my own mistakes, as a chance for my continued learning. I was definitely humbled by their gentleness and generosity in teaching me and tried to return both, to each of them.

    When children had taught me how very little I knew about judging their potentials on my narrow scales and closing them down to those definitions — usually numbers on a page — I learned to actually be a “teacher”. And became deeply grateful for what they then still teach me about learning, which is truly a joyful act done this way together, everyday.

  3. As a classroom teacher, I was humbled when I went into the rooms of colleagues. They had such wonderful ideas to share – even when we were teaching the same units. I loved having conversations with them about what I was seeing in their rooms.

    I’m moving into a new school, in a new position, in a new country. I expect I’ll be humbled by new procedures and philosophies I will encounter. Your post reminds me to look, listen, and ask. Lots.

  4. Pingback: Humility Matters | Cuppa |

  5. I haven’t been on twitter in weeks and checking out your post was a great gift to the start of my day. When you write that you noticed your students had insight into each others work that you didn’t have, I immediately thought of a quote from Katie W Ray that I live by…”adults always learn from children when study is based on noticing. Children notice more than we do. It’s that simple.” Her words and yours help keep us grounded as educators. “Humility matters.” Thank you for this post.

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  8. Whenever I look back and think about the teachers I’ve had, the ones I consider my favorites had one thing in common, they encouraged student empowerment. Each of these teachers had a style all their own, was unique in their approach, and was highly respected and indeed intelligent. However, they were not imposing or intimidating. They all had an almost “magical” way of making us feel like we were just as capable and intelligent, if not more, as they were. At the core of their philosophical framework was a true belief in others’ potential, an honest desire to motivate us to explore, challenge ideas, question theories, and find alternative perspectives. Most importantly, they encouraged us to take risks and not be afraid to make mistakes.

    When I began teaching, I naturally tried to emulate my mentors. I worked extra hard, planned ahead, created my classroom environment, and designed great lessons. I read all the books and tried every trick, but that “magic” was missing. I believed in myself, and I knew I was good. I had all the right moves and all the right words, but I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong. As frustration and doubt began to consume me, it hit me. That “magic” is not about believing in ourselves, but about believing in our students. As a teacher I have learned that is far less important for my students to consider me an “expert” in a given subject or topic, as it is for them to feel confident and empowered to participate in a collective process of learning. I learned to allow myself to step back and let students be the experts. I learned to let my students think for themselves. I learned that the most rewarding days are the ones when a student teaches me something new or shows me how they used something we discussed in class in an entirely different context.

    Yes, teaching and learning require courage, and humility does matter. Whether we are teachers, administrators, or students, we must learn to be self-reflective, critical of our personal beliefs, and open to others’ perspectives and ideas.