Dec 26

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.