It never fails – sign up to teach or speak on some subject related to self-discovery or personal development, and BAM some person or circumstance shows up in your life to challenge you and remind you that you still have much to learn on the subject. It keeps a teacher humble – and humility’s a good thing.

I was teaching on 4 different topics this week (business writing, effective listening, creative writing for self-discovery, and emotional & social intelligence). Needless to say, I got lots of lessons. (It’s a bit of a relief that Monday’s session on community-building got canceled – I need a break from the lessons!)

The biggest lesson came on Monday, just before launching into 4 crazy-full days of teaching. It was a lesson I needed to learn not only about emotional intelligence but about my identity as a teacher.

In the middle of madly prepping for my classes (after traveling for a week and not getting much advance work done), I received the evaluations students had submitted after the business writing class I’d taught throughout the summer. The evaluations were worse than any I’d ever received before. Several students were not happy. One student didn’t think he/she learned anything new, at least one felt my marking system left something to be desired, some were annoyed that they were forced to take a writing course as part of the HR certificate, and one didn’t like my teaching style.

In the mix were some glowingly positive ones, but of course, the insecure part of my mind focused solely on the negative. And that’s when the gremlins began to dance in my head, taunting me with put-downs.

“You’re too wishy-washy with your marking system. You try too hard to be liked. You’re not really teaching them what they need to learn for the program they’re in. Someone else would do a better job. You’re failing… no, scratch that… you ARE a failure. Just WHY are you teaching? You’re not cut out for this.” And then there were the more friendly gremlins who weren’t putting me down, but were SURE I was in the wrong place. “You shouldn’t be teaching business writing. Your heart is in creative writing and you’re bringing too much of that into a business writing class. Why waste your time encouraging innovative thinking when most of your students just want to be handed a formula for getting top marks without really internalizing any of the learning?”

Only minutes into the gremlin dance (thankfully), the teacher part of my brain said, “Hey – wait a minute! Aren’t you teaching a class in emotional intelligence later this week? And aren’t you planning to tell people that they can choose the way they interpret and internalize situations and stories and can actually shift the pathways their brains take after something negative happens to them? And what about that story of Jill Bolte Taylor that you intend to share, about how she learned (after a stroke) that her brain was capable of over-riding the negative stories her left brain makes up when there are gaps in the data?”

Gulp. It’s true. I have a choice. I am not a victim of these negative stories playing in my brain.

And so I did what I planned to teach my students – asked a series of questions about what had just happened to reveal whatever truth I needed to take from it.

What are a few different ways I can interpret this story? 1. I’m a failure at teaching in general. 2. I didn’t do as well as I could have in this particular class. 3. I wasn’t an ideal match for some of the students in the class. 4. These students have emerged from an education system in which they are taught to think mostly with their logical left brains and search for formulas and empirical facts and I pushed them out of that comfort zone into a more ambiguous, creative, right-brained way of thinking and working. 5. There is already some negative energy at play in this group that has nothing to do with me and they are, unfortunately, feeding off each other and making it worse. (A version of the story that was corroborated by an email from the administrator.) 6. There is too much pressure (internally and externally) on these students to get high grades and so they’re taking that out on the teacher. 7. The fact that a few students engaged well with the learning and emerged stronger writers with greater interest in writing than they’d had before was enough. I don’t have to reach every student. 8. These students (all of them – whether they responded positively or negatively) were put into my life to help me learn some important things about who I am and how I teach and if I let them be my teachers, I will be wiser for it.

How do these various interpretations make me feel? 1. Disappointed in myself. 2. Sad that I wasn’t able to connect with more students. 3. Sorry for the students who would rather learn by rote than open their minds to innovation. 4. Frustrated with an education system that seems to be failing its students. 5. Angry at some of the students. 6. Happy for the small group of students who really shone under my tutelage. 7. Grateful for the role they all played as my teachers. 8. Determined to continue to grow as a teacher.

What options do I have about how I will respond to these interpretations?  1. Take the negative stuff personally and quit teaching. 2. Quit teaching this particular class. 3. Look for more opportunities to teach creative writing rather than business writing so I can connect with the kinds of students who value what I have to offer. 4. Adjust the way I’m teaching so that it fits better into left-brain thinking patterns. 5. Not change a thing and hope that future students “get” me better. 6. Learn a few lessons from this and adjust a few things I do (like how I communicate what elements they’re losing marks on). 7. Take pride in the fact that I connected so well with some of the students and had a genuine impact.

Huh. Go figure! Suddenly the negative story had much less power over me.

“Take THAT gremlins! You can slink back into your corners now!”

Trying my best to be emotionally intelligent, I internalized those things that felt like important learnings, I whispered a prayer of gratitude for the way the students had served as my teachers, and I went back to preparing for the sessions I would teach this week.

The very next day I started a brand new session of the same business writing class with a new group of students. Yes, I was a little nervous going in (the gremlins still managed to whisper from their corners), but I knew that I could do this with confidence. If I put everything I could into it, made adjustments where they were necessary, trusted my intuitive sense of what the students need, and had enough confidence to teach the way I believe students need to be taught rather than the way the system seems to demand, I could succeed (even if I still get a few negative evaluations at the end of the session).

A few days later, just to make extra value out of the learning, I shared this story with the students of my emotional & social intelligence workshop. Because I believe a teacher is best when she demonstrates that she too is still a learner along the path. And I watched with delight as nearly every student had at least one a-ha moments about the choices they make every day.

At the end of the day yesterday, two students approached me, trying to figure out how they could sign up for future classes I’m teaching, including the business writing class (that I have a third session of starting in a few weeks). Because they “like how I teach”.

That’s good enough for me!

I once heard this Hasidic tale: “We need a coat with two pockets. In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold. We need a coat with two pockets to remind us who we are.” Knowing, teaching, and learning under the grace of great things will come from teachers who own such a coat and who wear it to class every day. – Parker Palmer

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