Introspective Teachers

On Thursday night, in the second of two Democratic Primary Debates, there was a moment that shocked me a little. The handful of moderators at NBC had carefully curated their questions for each of the 49 candidates on stage, and they rightfully probed Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg about a police shooting in his own city of South Bend. Rachel Maddow, one of the moderators, asked why his police force is only 6% black in a city that is 26% black.

The camera was awkwardly close to the mayor as he quipped, “Because I couldn’t get it done.”

I sort of wish he would have stopped there because what came after that was a rehearsed, poorly-delivered monologue on systemic racism coming from a white guy who feels qualified to run for president after being mayor of a city of 100,000 people for a few years. Smooth talking white guys who are thin on substance have hopefully already had their moment in American politics (see Beto…well, and the last 400 years).

The last thing we need is another opinion about politics on the internet, so I’ll try to avoid that. Except to say that Kamala Harris had me erupt out of my seat in a cheer at one point, only to look over at my wife whose wrinkled eyebrows of equal parts jealousy and startle made me apologize, sit back down, and take another sip of the wine I had just coerced from the bottom of the box.

“Too much?” I asked knowingly.

She laughed like she does, making me realize that I just cheered like the Eagles won the Super Bowl.

Sure, I don’t think that Mayor Pete should be seriously considered for the presidency, especially when he isn’t even trusted by black residents of South Bend, but I’ll admit that I was impressed by his candor.

It’s just kind of rare to hear someone in his position say something that seems introspective. We don’t usually hear an admission of failure from people running for president. There is a tricky line that politicians walk where they are trying to appear authentic while also getting rich people to give them the kind of money that will help them win elections. I’m not sure his admission will win him many votes because politicians in this country have been trained to blame others rather than evaluate their own shortcomings.

Maybe we all do that.

This game of posturing and braggadocio isn’t reserved for politicians. The introspection required to notice our failures, the courage it takes to talk about them, and the intelligence required to fix them may be the mark of some of the most successful adults in any field, but we often shy away from these things because they feel like weakness.

I’m convinced introspection, discussion, and iteration should be a daily cycle for teachers. But those things are kind of hard to practice for a lot of us.

A few weeks ago, on the final day of the year, I sat across from my principal at a conference table in a cluttered office space for our annual exit interview.

I had answered the first two questions pretty easily. I told him what I thought went well in the last year at the school, and what I thought we needed to do as a school to improve.

But the personal nature of his final question about my regrets turned in my throat a little before I could manage an answer.

“My regret is the 6 students that didn’t learn.”

In other words, to channel my inner Indiana mayor, I failed to help those students learn. I’m a high school teacher with more than 90 students in my classes, but I was thinking about why these 6 students didn’t access the course successfully.

It had been something I was kicking around in my mind all week. These were students who all liked me well enough, and they even gave me some great compliments on final evaluations, but I simply didn’t see much evidence of change from the first day to the 180th day. Their writing and their reading looked mostly the same. I looked over my conversations with them, my feedback, my interactions, their grades in other classes, or their attendance, and anything else I could learn to try to identify what kind of student I wasn’t reaching.

My first reaction to this was one of self-preservation. I thought about the chronic attendance issues that these students had, or the little effort they had shown, or a million other excuses that served to lessen any of my own blame. I tried to resist that because my job is to get as close to perfect as I can in the classroom and leave all the excuse-making to all of the outsiders who don’t know what they are talking about.

Unfortunately, I don’t always remember that. And some of our colleagues in this profession have gotten better at this game of blame shifting then they have at helping students learn. They sound more like a confused old Joe Biden trying to save face on their own failures. But the messy work of introspection requires that we examine our own practice every day in an effort to eliminate some of our recurring failures. Then, instead of becoming depressed and anxiety-ridden by our flaws, we engage in the necessary and challenging work of getting better.

I wrote down everything I could think of that I tried during the last 10 months to help those 6 students do better in my class. I looked over the extensive notes I took during the year and thought back to individual interactions, conversations with parents, or observations of other teachers. I asked other teachers if they ever think about this in their own classes. I thought about whether I had allowed low expectations on attendance to creep into the way I talked to them. I thought about how I should have used lunches and tutoring more actively. I thought mostly about how I should have noticed all of this before the last few days of school. I thought about what I would do differently next time.

I tried to learn from my failure.

The teacher in me wanted Mayor Pete to give a more detailed answer about his own failure. I wanted him to talk about what he tried, why it didn’t work, and what he will do now. Instead, he shifted too soon to his own attempt at motivation.

Of course, he did. No American is going to vote for the guy who keeps talking about personal deficiencies. Introspection is the kind of thing that saves your marriage or your friendships, but it doesn’t win you elections.

It might be an important part of getting your students to learn though, and that makes it worth exploring.