The other day, I came across some advice* from writer Alan Moore in which he argues that writers ought to read not only great books but also terrible ones. Here's what he said:
As a prospective writer, I would urge you to not only read good books. Read terrible books as well, because they can be more inspiring than the good books.
If you are inspired by a good book, there’s always the danger of plagiarism, of doing something that is too much like that good book. Whereas, a genuinely helpful reaction to a piece of work that you’re reading is, ‘[My goodness], I could write this [stuff]!’ That is immensely liberating — to find somebody who is published who is doing much much worse than you.
And by analyzing why they are doing so badly, this will immensely help your own style. You’ll find out all of the mistakes not to make. ‘Why did this story offend me so much?’ Analyze that. Find out why you didn’t like it. Find out all of the examples of clumsiness or bad thinking that spoiled the story for you.
That will probably be a lot more helpful to your career as a writer.
To me, Moore's advice is super apropos to teachers. Just as Moore advises writers to read terrible books, so, too, should teachers observe average teachers.
But notice — notice! — the way in which he says to do it.
- He's not saying, “Go and do this so that you can feel cocky or self-righteous.”
- He is saying, “Go and do this so that you can analyze what exactly is ineffective in the person's work.”
What you're after, then, is clarity. And you're after some confidence that you're not as bad as this job can sometimes make you feel like you are.
I want to press in hard here on a warning, then. The LAST THING that you want in this job is to become arrogant or self-righteous. These states warp the soul. They make you less.
The job, when rightly approached, has a built-in humbling feature. I'm not talking about demeaning yourself when I say “humbling;” I'm talking about taking yourself less seriously. Teaching can do that, so well. It can help you see yourself as this tiny but grateful thread in the grand tapestry of each student's life.
But sometimes, when you keep struggling day after day with that ONE student or that ONE class period, you can start to think, “Gosh, I'm UNIQUELY lousy at this.” This is where I think it's helpful to watch someone else who is not the best teacher in the school. Don't try to find the allegedly WORST teacher — I don't think that necessarily helps. But also, steer clear of the folks who are allegedly the BEST. (After all, those “best” folks get observed plenty, anyways.)
And when you go, do it with honor for the person. Yes, you are going to privately notice in the observation some areas that are not as great as the things you do. But look, too, for areas of strength. Look for glimmers of beauty. Look for routines or procedures that are really smart. And share those with the person after you're done observing. Encourage them, just as you would want to be encouraged.
What I hope you take from observing average teachers — what I have taken away, many times — is greater clarity, greater confidence, and greater inspiration for the work tomorrow holds.
P.S. For those of you who are writers, this may interest you. It's because of bad PD books that I felt confident enough to write my two most recent books: The Will to Learn and These 6 Things. I did not believe I was writing the best books about teaching ever, but I did feel very confident that I was not writing things that were like some of the drivel I've read during my years as a teacher. I knew that I could make books that provided clarity and encouragement and ways of thinking and doing teaching that are transformative. I knew my books would be earnest instead of trite, collegial rather than pompous. And so, I set out to write them.
And really, I owe a good deal of this to those terrible PD books I've read over the years.
*Thank you to Austin Kleon for this connection!