This is the Life

24 Sep

Manhattan from Fulton Street - photo by MAG

It has been said that “the truth will set you free,” and I believe it, but traveling toward freedom is hard work.

My job involves giving a lot of feedback, and it’s not always an easy task because sometimes I have to tell students things that I know they don’t want to hear. I work hard to make sure that my feedback is both honest and kind, but it’s difficult to balance the two. One of the techniques I use to balance the process is to encourage my students to give me feedback as well. Encouraging honest feedback is risky because it means that I have to be willing to hear someone else’s honest opinion about my performance, and understand that the feedback is shaped by outside influences – some of which I can control, and some that I can’t.

The problem is that I’m cognizant of the fact that while my intentions are good, the results often fall short and because I care about how my choices and actions affect others, I beat myself up for all of the mistakes I think I make.

My decided lack of organization has often been the target for this self-flagellation, but a moment of truth taught me some important lessons that have helped reshape the way I approach this “problem.”

I’m an “absent minded professor” type of person who stacks books and magazines near the places where I think I’ll read them [even though I have plenty of bookcases in which to store them], who has an unnatural obsession with office supplies [I hopefully buy and use them – for the first two weeks of every term], and who once misplaced the quizzes for an Art History class somewhere between the copier and the classroom [which were a total distance of one long hallway away from one another]. My mother tells me that it’s a genetic inheritance from my grandmother, who was a brilliant woman who could knit, read, and sew – all at the same time – but who once had to spend the first day of a two-week vacation shopping for clothing for my grandfather, their three daughters, and herself because the luggage she’d so carefully packed had been left neatly stacked in the hallway of their home – instead of being loaded into the trunk of their car.

Until my mother told me the story about my grandmother, I’d always chalked up my “failures” to laziness and lack of attention to detail.  This may be because I have always used the measure of what I think “other people” are doing [and how they’re obviously doing it better than I am] to motivate myself to make necessary changes.

Unfortunately, the process of “motivating” myself has been brutal.

One of my shortcomings, as a teacher, has been my inconsistency in responding to student emails. About a year ago, I received some comments on evaluations in which students mentioned that they wished I’d be more consistent about answering email. The comments weren’t unkind [in fact, they were actually quite funny]. Logically, I recognized that the problem was, in part, due to the volume of email I was receiving and the lack of time I had to respond to it while trying to balance all of my other responsibilities, but because I was already frustrated by my own inability to manage it, I immediately chalked it up to my inability to organize. And I read the feedback as yet another indication of my failings as both a teacher – and as a human being.

For the next couple of terms, I tried very hard to make myself be consistent, and when I couldn’t do it perfectly, I chastised myself for failing, yet again, to do what I thought most other people were easily managing. It became a vicious cycle of “failure” followed by harsh criticism, which eventually forced it’s way out of my head and into my classroom.

I began starting each term with a preemptory apology for being so bad at email, and assuring students that I was working hard to overcome my lack of organization. I encouraged them to email me as frequently as necessary to remind me of what they needed, and assured them that I didn’t mind the multiple reminders. As the term progressed, I found myself offering apologies for not meeting my own [unreasonable] standards for everything from grading to classroom discussions. Most of the time, students had no idea what I was talking about because they thought the class was going well, and were confident about what they were learning. I, on the other hand, could see that failing to answer their emails meant I was also failing in every other aspect of educating them, and I wanted to shame myself into turning things around and providing them with the education they were paying for – and that they deserved.

The message that was constantly running through my head was, “If you’re so smart, why are you so incredibly lazy, Ms.-Know-it-All?” And no matter how I tried, I couldn’t see how to stop the cycle except to continue heaping on the criticism until I got my act together and fixed the problem.

One afternoon, after a misunderstanding about due dates had caused me to miss an important deadline and given me a bad professional scare, I shared part of the experience with a class in the hope that they would learn from my mistake and not make the same one as they moved toward their careers. Later, as I was beating myself up for monopolizing valuable class time that could have been used to review grammar and punctuation rules, I opened my email and found a very candid message from one of my wonderful students [I’ve edited the message a bit to maintain the student’s privacy].

Good afternoon Ms. G.,

I just want to say that I appreciate you as a instructor, and I really do appreciate you sharing with us what you shared on Tuesday. I know that it’s not your style to take frustrations out on others, but there are some people who would do just that. Instead, you did what most level-headed mature people would do and that is accepted the responsibility for your mistake, learned from it, and moved on.

That is the one thing that people appreciate about you most, other than your genuine nature, is that you own it; regardless of whatever the mistake is you’re honest, you apologize for it, and you don’t try to make any excuses for it. I don’t think that it’s anyone here at [school] that questions your commitment and adoration for the students at this school, but on Tuesday I truly believe that you solidified it.

I’ve been in your class for almost a year and it’s one thing that you do that I wish you wouldn’t do, however; that is you constantly confess how unorganized you are. Please take this out of love and not a put down, but you really should stop that because what you do is continue to reiterate how unorganized you are and that doesn’t do anything to better your situation it only keeps you bound to being unorganized because you continue to reinforce that issue over yourself, and what you will do is continue to be what you hear yourself say.

I’m not saying to you that positive confessions only will help you, of course you have to put action to words, but a good start would certainly be working toward what you want to be, and to stop making that confession about yourself that you’re not organized. You can do it because you whipped [other habits], so I know if you put your mind to it, you will be able to organize your affairs the way that you envision.

Love you, my family is praying for you, and everything will work out for you. Have a good weekend, and I’ll see you on Tuesday.


On the first read through, my face burned with shame. Couldn’t this student see how awful I really was? Didn’t they understand that my admission wasn’t brave or courageous? It was pathetic that I’d gotten to the point where I’d admit having been so irresponsible, and I’d used up valuable class time in order to be incredibly selfish! However, I also knew that I’d done it because I wanted them to learn from my mistake because I love all of them so much and want to see them succeed.

And then, suddenly, it hit me.

The student was right, I had become the message I’d repeated over and over to myself. I couldn’t handle email because I’d told myself I couldn’t, and I’d set up all of the necessary conditions for my own failure. I’d said I was bad at managing it, but then I’d gone and encouraged students to email me more frequently, which had created an even higher volume of mail and made it feel even more unmanageable! But it didn’t have to be this way! I could change!

When I saw D.W. during the next class period, I teared up as I said, “Thank you for your honest feedback. It’s given me the opportunity to change.” The student smiled, and said, “I’m glad I could help.”

Since then, I’ve worked very hard to change my inner monologue. It’s not that I’ve suddenly become an incredibly organized person [that isn’t a realistic expectation], it’s that now I don’t expect myself to be one. I’ve worked hard to figure out what my strengths are and play to those rather than beat myself up for what I perceive as all of my horrible failures. I’ve worked to stop apologizing for what I don’t do, and to start focusing on what it is I do well.

What’s fascinated me about this is that as my inner monologue has been altered, so has my attitude towards the challenges that used to frustrate me. Thinking about what I can do has lead to interesting solutions to some of the things that used to be problems for me [email and grading papers], and that’s led me to address other issues that have been equally problematic [cooking and housekeeping]. I’m not so much better at any of these things than I was before, it’s that my positive approach to the problems has meant that when I try something new and it doesn’t work, I no longer beat myself up about it [much]. Instead, I laugh about the mistake, figure out why it didn’t work, and then head back to the drawing board to try to come up with a new solution for the problem.

If we want things to change, then we must to be the change, and in order to be the change, we have to change our internal dialogue so that it reflects what we want to be, rather than what we are not. Telling the truth about ourselves, so long as it builds our spirits rather than tears them down, is what will set us free to achieve the things we envision.

I feel confident that I can continue working toward achieving my dreams in a more positive manner, but first, I need to respond to some email…


2 Responses to “This is the Life”

  1. acreativeheartforhorses September 25, 2011 at 9:00 pm #

    Ms. G you are an amazing teacher and I enjoy your class more than anyone’s at the school. You need to stop beating yourself up over not being “organized” as you call it. I can’t even remember where I leave some of my things sometimes, so you’re not that bad, and who cares about simple emails that much anyway? They might have said they wanted you to answer your email more, but they only took the first step in contacting you. If I was one of those students and you did not answer me within the time before class, I would ask you about it. Any teacher who has enough time on their hands to do nothing but answer emails is either a bad teacher, or really does not care about their students work enough to take time to go through things like you do. They are the ones I would be angry with, because they must not have cared enough about what was in the emails to make sure you got them.

    I like the way you do things, so don’t change anything. I like your narrative stories and your music to help paint the pictures in our minds. I like that you try to be open with us and we try to be as open with you as we can be. I like that I am comfortable in your class and can voice my own opinions and theories, whilst other classes keep me quiet and reserved. Everyone, in my class particularly, loves going there and loves how the class is run.

    Keep doing what you’re doing Ms. G!


    • Mary September 26, 2011 at 9:16 pm #

      L.D., thank you for your incredibly kind words. I’m so glad that you feel comfortable enough to speak up and let your voice be heard in our class. That makes me *very* happy!

      As far as the “organization” issue goes, I try not to beat myself up – much. It’s not that students were overly critical, they were just voicing an opinion about what they thought needed to be addressed – and I really appreciated the fact that they felt they could trust me enough to *give* such honest feedback!

      As far as the emails go, it *was* a problem because I wasn’t being consistent. That’s the big problem, I think. If I ask students to do something [i.e. have assignments in on time], then I also need to be accountable and meet my end of the bargain. The bigger problem was *me*! When I let my “failure” to answer email become my “failure” as a teacher on the whole, it became a classroom problem. I was incredibly grateful for the student’s email because it knocked me out of a destructive loop, and gave me the opportunity to make changes that have made my life *SO* much better.

      I’m still not “perfect” about answering email, but I can see that that’s only one aspect of my teaching. Does it need improvement? Probably, but I’m doing the best I can by prioritizing what *must* be done [like grading essays!], and what can wait a little longer. It’s all a process, and I feel good about continuing to work toward something better!

      I’m so glad that you are one of my students, and I’m *so* proud of you for starting your own blog! I’m looking forward to reading more of your writing. I hope you enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed mine!

      Ms. G.


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