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Can’t Need It, Gotta Want It

By Dave Stuart Jr.

We all got into teaching because we hoped our work would make an impact; we envisioned seeing the grown man in the supermarket who would walk up to us and say, “Hi Mr. Stuart — remember me? Here is my wife; these are my children. They are all well-fed and flourishing thanks to the things you taught me. I'll never forget X day when you taught me Y lesson; thank you so much.”

My message today is simple. We cannot afford to need this kind of recognition, or any kind of recognition. When we need to be the teacher winning the award or writing the book or getting the tear-stained gratitude letter from the former student, we're in dangerous territory. The external scorecard is a minefield — an avoidable but popular one. Too many teachers needlessly brutalize themselves by needing recognition or affirmation for their work. Too many teachers feel they have no autonomy in their work because they enslave themselves to externalism. In their need for recognition, they inevitably get demolished by anti-recognition. When that kid you think you made an impact on says he hates your class, you're reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes on the floor — if you need his affirmation.

But Dave, you say. Dave. Isn't apathy the only alternative to what you're describing?

No. I would say that we need to care more about our kids than the externalistic person can, and we can only do so by wanting the results and being careless about the affirmation. The affirmation, after all, isn't about the kids — it's about us. It's us saying, “I've got this insatiable need for affirmation, and I need my students or my principal to fulfill it.” I'm dumbfounded by how many teachers fool themselves into thinking they love their students when actually they love the way their students make them feel.

The first step is to realize that you probably need positive feedback from your kids too much; you've probably, at some point, shifted into what psychologists call an “external locus of identity”; you've forgotten that you are not your job.

The second step is to take that nastiness off. This is internal work.

And the final step is, instead of needing the affirmation, we need to want the results. I didn't teach Caleb hoping he'd one day call me (see the end of this post), but I certainly taught Caleb hoping his life would turn out well and that my English Language Arts class would help.

Sometimes people misunderstand me, believing I advocate for caring less about our students when I call for detaching our self-worth from our work. But it's exactly the opposite — I'm telling you that the only way to care enough is by detaching your self-worth; I'm saying that you don't really care, cleanly, until you've rid yourself of needing affirmation and filled yourself up with the drive to harvest the fruits that affirmation points to. That's where the truly courageous teachers live and do their work.



7 Responses to Can’t Need It, Gotta Want It

  1. D Thomas April 25, 2016 at 11:18 am #

    I love this post! So true!

  2. Sherri Priestman April 25, 2016 at 12:09 pm #

    I am going to post this article on my refrigerator in my little Singapore apartment, so that every morning I will be reminded that my goal is to leave my ego in the apartment and to seek humbly to learn from my colleagues and to teach and to learn from my students. We can’t be in this for the accolades, because even for the very best, most exceptional of us, they will be few and far behind.Thanks, Dave!

    • davestuartjr April 26, 2016 at 7:31 am #

      Sherri, I can picture your fridge, and your classroom. I need to know how to follow the whole journey — blog, Facebook page, what-have-you. Email me and let me know when you know!

  3. feramisco April 25, 2016 at 2:50 pm #

    Wow. This post is insanely accurate, and insanely simple at the same time. And why is it that the simple things in life seem to be the most complex?!

    I co-lead a bible study on Sunday afternoons and we’re walking through a study on James. Yesterday’s study focused on meekness and humility in the gaining and applying of our wisdom. It is only when we die to self that we can truly live as we ought.

    I see this in my own teaching career as well. Over the last few years, I’ve been on a journey of redefining what it is I do, asking myself why I do this, and then changing/adapting to better meet the needs of my students, not my ego.

    I do still fail (a lot) but I can see where I’m going in a much clearer way without my fat head blocking my view.

    Thank you for all that you do and have done. It’s been a pleasure following your work, and I hope someday we can actually meet.

    God bless,


    • davestuartjr April 26, 2016 at 7:31 am #

      Kevin, thank you so much, my friend. 🙂 I hope we can meet too. Perhaps at an NCTE someday?

  4. Gary Collins April 26, 2016 at 1:34 pm #

    Read your blog post. Ten minutes later – read David Brooks’ article “Getting to Zero” on the NY Times website. Could not help but note the connection. Check it out.

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