Humility isn't one of the highly predictive character strengths I work on with my students, but the older I get, the more I realize its centrality to a life well-lived.
The pursuit of humility, once we properly understand the term, yields better relationships and faster growth. With that said, it makes great sense that we dig into humility in our continuing pursuit of better, saner teaching.
I. Humility: A Proper Understanding
From David Bobb's Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America's Greatest Virtue:
The power promised by humility is power over oneself, in self-government… [But] humility's strength is obscured by the age of arrogance in which we live.
I want to be clear about what this article isn't about:
- It's not about how humility makes you a better person. Though I do believe in the importance of morality, I strive to stay away from moral statements on Teaching the Core. This blog exists to serve as many teachers as possible, and as a result, the controversial field of morality isn't one I seek to explore.
- It's not about how humility will solve all your problems. There are no silver bullets.
With that said, here's what I do claim in this article:
- Humility makes you a better educator. It decreases your stress and frustration (thereby minimizing performance-robbing burnout).
- Humility makes you a saner person. It's a sword in your quest to lead an actual life.
First, three keys to getting humility right in your head.
A. Humility's antithesis is pride
Most folks don't think they are proud because they liken pride to arrogance. When we conceive of pride as arrogance, we miss out because pride becomes something we can check off of our list, saying, “Oh, well, I don't think I'm awesome, so I'm not proud.” (Which is a bit arrogant, actually.)
No — pride isn't arrogance. Pride is self-obsession. It's constantly thinking of ourselves, our needs, our wants, our objectives.
Conceived this way, none of us can escape pride — and that's a good thing. It leave us with a choice: we can either confront the brutal fact of our self-obsession, or we can come to simply accept it as an unchangeable part of who we are and never realize the life-giving power of dealing with it head on. (That's what we call authorial bias.)
From Jim Collins' Good to Great:
You absolutely cannot make a series of good decisions without confronting the brutal facts.
Want to get better at your work and your life? Want to start making decisions that yield breakthroughs? Start playing with the notion that one of your greatest weaknesses may be your pride.
B. False humility is actually pride
Quick readers will have already realized this, but I want to point it out: when we define pride as self-obsession and accept that pride is the opposite of humility, we quickly realize that the most common expression of humility in our culture is actually not humility at all.
It's common in American culture to misconstrue humility into an attitude of inadequacy. A person with false humility will think frequently about themselves and their shortcomings. They treat compliments like attacks to be parried, saying things like, “Oh, I'm not that good,” and, “No, you've got the wrong guy.”
Forgive me for being redundant, but friends, this pride . It's straight-up self-obsession. It's energy spent poorly.
C. True humility
If humility's antithesis is self-obsession, then its definition is self-forgetfulness. Want to be humble? Aim at these objectives:
- Think of yourself less and others more. This stands in contrast to the natural tendency I find in myself, to constantly think of me and rarely think of others (outside of how they affect me, think of me, etc.)
- Consider others better than yourself. Assume that every person you encounter is more logical, more noble, and more sensible than you. This will force you to give them the benefit of the doubt for being like they are and acting as they are.
- Take yourself less seriously. Despite the fact that a human being with a smartphone now has literally all human knowledge at her fingertips and more computing power than the Apollo missions, you're just one of seven billion people on a rock spinning in space. We should expect to experience disrespect in our jobs — people are complicated. We should expect disruptions to our plans, like fire drills and traffic jams. These are natural consequences of us not being omnipotent.
- Defy perfectionism. Perfectionism is bad for you because it makes impossible demands. Every lesson of every day can't go perfectly. Seek excellence while holding reasonable expectations. We are continually becoming the teachers we set out to be.
Full transparency: I struggle with all of the things above. A lot.
II. Humility's Applications
With the time we have left, let's examine several ways that humility makes us better and saner.
When a humble person receives a compliment, they see it for what it is: a gift from the compliment-giver. How does one graciously accept a gift?
“You are very gracious to me; thank you.”
“This means a lot to me. Thank you.”
That is all there is to it. Honor the person for what they have given you. Be no more obsessive about the gift than you ought to be about any gift. Treat compliments like perfume: great for smelling, bad for guzzling .
Handling relational friction
When a humble person perceives tension in a relationship, they don't obsess on the other person's fault in creating the tension: rather, they try to understand several things:
- Where is this coming from?
- How have I played a role in creating this tension?
- What might be the perspective of the other person in this relationship?
I've never experienced a relational problem that I didn't play some role in creating. We always own at least a part of the responsibility in our relationship problems.
Dealing with frustration
Eric Barker, one of my favorite bloggers, recently wrote a great article based on Albert Ellis' How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything . Essentially, Ellis attributes our stress not to external circumstances, but to what we believe about how external circumstances should be. For example, we get angry about traffic jams because we believe traffic jams shouldn't happen. But in reality, traffic jams totally happen all the time. A humble person manages unrealistic expectations.
Improving our educator skills
The humble teacher is able to objectively analyze her performance, be it in classroom management or instructional design or gradebook upkeep. She aggressively seeks to learn from her failures. He keeps close tabs on how he's doing.
Why? It's not out of self-obsession or a burning desire for a high evaluation score. Rather, it's because few things are of greater use to others than the work of a never-finished, always-growing educator.
Serve hard, Teaching the Core family. May humility add exponents to the rate of your professional growth.
1. I owe much of my thinking on humility to “the C. S. Lewis of the 21st century,” Timothy Keller. Full disclosure: he, like Lewis, is a Christian thinker. Also, Dr. Keller would probably give away most of the credit for his thinking on humility, too.
2. Another Keller-ism. If you're a skeptic, his Reason for God is eminently respectful and thoughtful.
3. Barker's article is here. Subscribe to his blog; great stuff.
Just read this to my daughter – 3rd grade – and we had a great chat. Thanks!!
Michelle, that’s awesome! What a 3rd grader to be having thoughtful conversations with Mom about humility. Love it. Makes me excited for Haddie, Laura, and Marlena to get older 🙂
Thank you for this post! The Tim Keller rec. is spot on.
Drew, it’s always a pleasure to meet another person who appreciates Tim Keller. I’ve listened to 100s of hours of his speaking over the years and have benefitted greatly from his excellence as a communicator and thinker as well as his exemplary humility and faith.
Caroline Hatcher says
I appreciate that you “know me so well” when you write these. I spend too much negative energy trying to create the perfect day with no interruptions. I think the “teach bell to bell” mantra can make us all crazy sometimes – I know this whenever my students tell me I need to relax more!
Caroline, thank you so much — I knew there were more likehearted folks out there 🙂
Love your insights! I discovered your blog on a snow day earlier this year and absolutely enjoy your thoughts.
Fian, I’m so glad. Please keep reading 🙂
Shawn Williams says
Thank you! I use Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week with my students. I plan to use your post on humility in lieu of one of the articles when we return from spring break. I especially appreciate your attribution to Timothy Keller for your insights on humility and your recommendation of The Reason for God. Thanks for a thoughtful, honest post.
Shawn, my pleasure — what a humbling thing to be a teacher’s AoW! Also, you and your students have now benefitted from a dear reader who just made me aware of some editing errors in the intro. Better now — thank you again, Shawn!
Andrea Beerwinkle says
I think the idea of humility pairs well with the idea of grit. When you have humility, it is easy to have grit, because you understand that sometimes negative situations will happen and that only option is to keep going.
I hadn’t thought of that, Andrea — very true!
Sean Emerson Santos says
As we renounce pride and seek to humble ourselves by choice and deliverance, humility grows within ourselves and deep within our hearts.
This was helpful and a lot to put into practice. Thank you for sharing. I will work on this.