It’s OK to be “less-than”: When professional humility is helpful

As you may have read on my “About” page, I am finishing up six years at my college’s tenure and promotion committee, and preparing to start a position next year as a faculty development director. So I have read countless faculty portfolios, observed numerous classrooms, and discussed pedagogy with scores of colleagues. I am now reading lots of stuff on teaching practices, attending webinars, and thinking about how to share state-of-the-art with my colleagues (and faithful readers).

I have discovered that there are lots of teachers who are better than me. There are lots of scholars who are better than me. Of course, I always had a sense of this, but the past six years have made the realization more, well, “real,” concrete and humbling.

But it has also been an invaluable learning experience that will help me be more effective as a teacher and researcher. Nicola Winstanley from Humber College shares a similar sentiment, as well as good advice on how to make “self-doubt” work for you, in Faculty Focus.


What Can We Learn from Self Doubt?

by Nicola Winstanley, Humber College

March 17, 2014

I would like to be able say of my teaching: this is clearly good; this is clearly not good. I would like to be able to think: I always do things right. I would like to be certain.

I would like to watch exemplary teachers and think: I do that! That’s me! I know exactly what I’m doing! Look how great this class is—mine is just as engaging.

Certainty is comfortable, after all—a soft cushion to sink into and relax.

But I don’t think those things. Instead observation magnifies my self-doubt, self-questioning, constant anxiety. Is this right? Is this good enough? The feeling I get in my stomach immediately after the intense transaction of the class itself is over: I’m not sure.

Observing Exemplary Teachers
As part of my professional development, I observed two classes. They were great classes—the students were learning; the teachers clearly liked the students; the students were engaged; the teachers were prepared. I could see the correctness of the structure, methods, and atmosphere. First-year students worked together to understand a Browning poem and, despite its complexity, recognized and named pathetic fallacy, enjambment, and misogyny. I was impressed. I could see their learning; it was clear, concrete. And, it felt good to be in the classroom. Comfortable.

Except that …

It felt terrible.

[resolve the cliffhanger after the break!]

The more certain I was that these classes were good and right, the more doubtful I became about my own classes. This was not general anxiety. I could see myself in many of the positive things I observed, and was grateful and encouraged by that; but deep anxieties were invoked in me around a single aspect of each class—in the first, the teacher’s expertise, in the second, the teacher’s self-awareness.

Observation 1: Expertise
It seemed to me the teaching I witnessed in the first class was a realization of two metaphors, images that arose naturally from the class process:

The teacher’s expertise is a stone foundation on which the students’ knowledge and understanding is built.

The teacher’s expertise is a rope that weaves in and out of the learning to make a net that keeps everything together. It pulls back in the students who begin to drift away.

Both of these metaphors suggest security, but more importantly, its corollary, trust.

And here is my worry: Do my students trust me in this way?

And worse: Do I trust myself?

Observation 2: Self-Awareness
It is one thing to be aware of one’s own subjectivity, and the impossibility of perfect understanding of the other, of the impossibility of objectivity in a world, school, or classroom marked by a multitude of diversities.

It is another thing entirely to try to overcome the inevitability of subjectivity, to try and put one’s own feelings aside, and be open to multiple perspectives at once, without judging.

The second teacher I observed did that—except for a single moment in which she drew attention to her own bias, so that her students could recognize it for what it was, and not mistake it for an absolute and objective truth.

Am I as self-aware?

Am I fair? Am I truly empathetic? Do I always seek to understand and not impose my beliefs on my students?

These questions are frightening to me. Destabilizing.

I hope that I don’t impose my beliefs on my students; but I’m not sure.

And I’m not sure how it works. What about authenticity? What about modeling? What about morality?

That Creeping Self Doubt
All of this introspection and contemplation leads me to question further. To get to the real the heart of it all, the thing that bothers me most: What’s good about my self doubt?

Shouldn’t I believe in myself? Be confident? Shouldn’t I trust that I know what to do and how to do it? Don’t my students depend on it?


And no. (There it is again.)

Certainty is comfortable, restful, and stabilizing for my students and me. But it is also sleepy and sluggish. Sometimes worse: arrogant and inflexible.

And to be honest, for me, it is often an impossible state. I just don’t work that way. I’m just not certain about my teaching, even about myself—at least, not as often as people may think.

But here’s what I’ve learned: my self-doubt is sometimes painful and scary, but it is also a source of my energy, engagement, and growth because it leads me to questions I can try to answer and answers I can try to change.

Observing others gave me a deeper feeling of insecurity about my teaching, but I have also formulated clear questions that I can work toward answering: Do I have and demonstrate expertise? How will I increase it? How will I use it to support my students and engender their trust? Do I truly honor my students’ backgrounds and beliefs? How will I do that in a framework that is both ethical and authentic?

And the question I have begun to approach here: What’s good about my self doubt?

Nicola Winstanley is a full-time faculty member in the media studies and information technology department at Humber College, a polytechnic in Toronto, Ontario

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