To be good at teaching, you need to do a few things well, getting better at them as your career progresses. And then you need to do all the rest of the things just well enough. (The “well enough” things get satisficed — one of the most useful terms I've come across in my research.)
To be great at teaching, you need to keep on doing the stuff it takes to be good, but for a long time. I think that's what it takes — sustained and genuine engagement to the work. You've got to stick to it, digging into both its joys and its challenges. (“Sticking to it,” then, is far more years of experience.) Greatness at teaching is the fruit of consistent, wisely applied effort over the long-term. Helping you and me become great is why I write this blog. I want us discern and master the important things (I count six of them), satisfice the unimportant things, and stick to the work over the long-term.
So here's a key to that “sticking to the work” part. We've got to cultivate in ourselves a humble-boldness.*
On the one hand, we need to be humble enough to realize that we're not omnipotent in the classroom — none of this “I'm not going to let you fail” stuff. We're professionals, not saviors. Humble people rightly sense that they are not the center of the cosmos; they don't try to be in the middle of their students' lives.
Sometimes people confuse self-pity for humility. They're not the same. When we fail at reaching a certain kid or the unit assessment scores come back badly, a humble person doesn't sit there grousing about how bad they are at teaching. Such behavior isn't self-forgetting (as humility is), but is rather self-obsessing (and thus, self-pity is just another form of pride).
To be humble is to live as if you are a servant. A servant's life is about the person served. The good servant is devoid of self-obsession — he doesn't pity himself or pride himself. Rather, he just faithfully shows up and does his work. In this way, it's just as possible to be a servant teacher as it is to be a servant-principal, or painter, or physician.
And yet. And yet! We must cultivate a bold humility. Even though my work is not about me, and even though my students' lives do not revolve around world history (if only!) and the work I ask them to do, and even though there are a million variables that enter my room attached to every child — even though all these things are true, there are still absurd amounts of data that point to the truth that my efforts — and yours! — are shot through with significance. As insane as it is, expansive studies show that student life trajectories can be shifted in brief, less-than-60-minute lessons. The classroom contexts we create matter. Simple moments of genuine connection can be transformative.
Do you see how life-giving it is to approach our work with humble-boldness? On the one hand, when things go poorly despite our best efforts, we can say, “Well, that makes sense — I'm only a servant.” We don't take it personally or get internally destroyed. And on the other hand, we don't give up after a hard day because we know how much long-term flourishing potential lies in every lesson and interaction.
Bold and humble, humble and bold. This internal mixture is critical if we're to stick to the work — really stick to it — for the long-term.
*Thank you to Tim Keller for introducing me to the idea of bold humility.