Teaching, as with so many public service jobs, is full risk in terms of fly-zone conflict. No one wants to be left defenseless, and defensiveness is not a flattering description as Randy Conley once explained in Defensiveness is Killing Your Relationships. We need to have solid reasons for doing what we do (defense), but we don’t have time to think of everything… which can lead to defensiveness. Defense and defensiveness are related, so how do we keep from crossing over from having a solid defense to responding with defensiveness? Randy did a wonderful job explaining defensive dynamics, but how can we keep from going there in the first place?
Professional teaching certifications and recognition typically require teachers to write lengthy explanations (defenses) of what they do and why. An equally interesting component is where we write about what we would do next time. Teachers often spend far too much mental energy beating themselves up when it is much more productive to think about how we could improve. The assumption is that none of us has arrived, but we should all be growing. Not being able to identify an area for growth could count against us in an evaluation. I would argue that the most difficult position to defend is to claim we have no need to improve.
One of the most liberating thoughts is to realize that there are few things in life we could not possibly improve upon. The fact that my neck is often stiff reminds me I could improve on my breathing. Seriously, if I can’t even breathe right, my typos are nothing….nothing. But that doesn’t mean I won’t try to recognize opportunities to improve. I am arguing that growing should be a moment-by-moment discipline of trying to do the right thing. We need to work at being more loving, more effective, more…but #1 is to work on our intent. If we intend (plan, push, move) to do the right thing, who can do better than that in our shoes?
Teachers, are often asked to explain their decisions and words, so it makes sense to plan for that. I keep prolific notes in my grade book so that parents understand and I can recall what every grade means (copy-paste similar comments). I log every phone call and don’t empty my email trash. That way, when I am called to a meeting, I am equipped with a ready defense: a valid reason for my actions. Teachers make tons of explainable mistakes, and most people are not so arrogant that they would deny us that space in our humanity. When we are confident we did our best, there is no need to cross into the dark realms of defensiveness. We did our best. That’s it. We have a valid defense. Sometimes we need time to think and reflect, but if we are continuously striving to do the right thing, the evidence will be there. That should provide us some peace of mind.
One of the best parts about the National Board certification process is becoming a reflective teacher. As I wrote about my experiences, I started to realize that most of the time, deep down, I have good reasons for what I do. When I don’t, the growth process simply means changing gears and striving to do better next time…we all have things we can work on. This is not something to fear, rather, these are growth experiences to embrace. For peace of mind, though, we need to have good intentions. Thinking of how we can improve is part of having good intentions. The opposite can also be true. If we don’t want to make the effort to improve, we can become selfish and defensive. Selfishness is hard to defend.
It is normal to feel defensive when we feel like we are being attacked. But if we have a ready defense, we can confidently redirect conversational bullets and turn the questioning into an arena for building mutual appreciation and respect. Growing is fun; growing together is exciting. Let’s just do this thing together!