The "Comparisonitis" Cure
In each school where I have taught, there are always plenty of accomplished, masterful, brilliant educators from whom it is a perpetual challenge for our school to choose only one “Teacher of the Year.” After fourteen years, I am still filled with admiration for them, and occasionally a little intimidation too. I am told what these fabulous teachers do and how they do it on a regular basis: how they grade, how much homework they assign, what they do and don’t put up with, what they said, what they did, what color shoes they happen to be wearing. I am told this information either by administrators at faculty meetings, the teachers themselves, by my students who compare me to them, by parents who compare me to them, or by others who indirectly suggest and wonder why I don’t and can’t be, think, or do it like them.
One day one of my seniors offered a witty quip that another teacher had said about turning work in late, and he wondered aloud why I couldn’t adopt the same philosophy.
“Would you please stop comparing me to Mrs. So-and-So?” I replied in what I meant as a good-natured way. “We are different, and you guys are just going to have to accept it!”
“Ha!” he retorted. “Compare you? There is
no comparison. That’s like comparing you to Gandhi. You’re not even in the same league.”
The sting came out of nowhere. After a millisecond of shock at his insult, I masked the inferiority panic mode I was in and quipped with a brilliant, “Well, gee, thanks!”
But his words stuck with me the rest of the day, week, and month. It took me time and building my own strong track record to choose to believe that his insult was his opinion and not a fact. I had to choose to believe a different truth. I get to decide which league I’m in. No one else does.
I am good at what I do, but I don’t have it all figured out. Like all teachers, I have my issues with control, perfectionism, and a few flailing moments of emotional instability and ignorance. I am not the Buddha of adolescent psychology, and I don’t know everything there is to know about the British Romantic poets. I haven’t been a teacher for thirty years. I don’t have a Ph.D. in education.
It may sound selfish, it may sound lazy, but I don’t know the mother’s maiden name of every single one of my students, and I don’t arrive at work every day an hour early. I have stopped bringing back souvenirs from Hawaii for my students and baking them muffins (yes, I actually did that), and I have stopped spending every free waking hour grading compositions and papers (I’ll explain why later.)
Perhaps someday I will do and be all those wonderful things and claim the title of “World’s Most Dedicated Teacher.” But for the moment, I just can’t. And in truth, I won’t. Not now. My sanity won’t allow it.
I have an average to high sense of literacy, flexibility, patience, self-esteem, intelligence, occasional propensity for making my students laugh, creativity, and enthusiasm. I also pride myself on being well-hydrated, and I have always been a pretty good speller.
That is basically all I have to offer—that and fourteen years of fresh, jumbled, tripping, messy experience as an English teacher, which I would not trade for anything. All I have to offer is what I see and feel, and I can sometimes get a little too excited about sharing it. I am absolutely, completely, and unequivocally a seeker.
I don’t think only certain people can understand literature. I think we were all born with a tongue, hands, and eyes and meant to communicate with each other. I believe literature can be a genuine joy for anyone. I have come to relish it about fifteen bazillion times more since I began teaching it. And there are fifteen bazillion things related to the study of English that I don’t and never can know.
In the back of my mind, I often wonder about getting fired, not with a sense of panic but with a sense of logic, because one never knows in this teaching day and age. It could be the fact that I took my students outside, told them to run down the hill, then back up the hill, then write a poem about it. One of their parents is bound to call and complain that I neglected to remember his child has a severe pollen allergy. Or it could be one of my thinly veiled commentaries on a social injustice that does it, or it could be my failure to turn in a form on time.
Whatever it is, I’ve learned that I will be okay. I’ve learned to be okay with who I am as a teacher, and the reason I am okay is that I know I’m constantly striving to do it better. Someday when I am fifty, I will admit that I hope to be a female version of Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society. There, I said it. I want to be that ingenious, that fearless. But right now I’m not quite there, and I know it. This day is all I have.
I don’t claim to know everything about English, and that’s probably the only reason I have survived as a teacher. Because that’s precisely what I can delight in about my job: this state of constant discovery. I learn something new every day, from books, from my students, from discussions, from challenges or insights. I savor reading and writing, and that includes reading the work of my students. I have been both an unwaveringly resolute workaholic and a bona fide slacker. I get overwhelmed, overloaded, distracted, or lazy, and sometimes I just can’t help it.
Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint. You have to pace yourself. Focus on your race, not someone else’s, and focus on defining your own “destination,” whatever or wherever that may be. To paraphrase an African proverb, “She who wants to run fast will run alone. She who wants to run far will run with others.” The best way I’ve overcome my “will I ever be as good as Tallie Teacher down the hall?” is to focus on seeking out the teachers with whom I do connect. The more I dare to reach out, the more teacher friends I make, and the more I spend more time learning from them and laughing with them and trying to be there for them instead of comparing myself to them. We teachers are all in this together, and we all suffer from insecurity and anxiety every now and then; that’s why we have to have each other’s backs. As one of my favorite poets, Nikki Giovanni, once wrote, “We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities.”