Humility

[People] who lack humility (or have lost it) cannot come to the people, cannot be their partners in naming the world … Dialogue cannot exist without humility.  Paulo Freire

What does it mean to teach with humility?  I think more than anything it means to ensure that we approach our students knowing that teaching begins with them, not with us. Thus, humble teachers start by trying to understand their students.

The classroom, as I’ve written previously, can tempt us to power trip. It feels good to be in control, and it feels good to win.  If teachers aren’t careful, they can take advantage of their experience, education, and superior communication skills and overpower children.  An articulate, educated teacher, can defeat a child during a classroom discussion in the same way an adult basketball coach can defeat a child during a basketball practice.  And just as a too-enthusiastic, overpowering coach can deflate the enthusiasm of children playing sports, so too a too-enthusiastic, overpowering teacher can deflate the enthusiasm of children learning.

When we approach students with humility, we resist this temptation.  Furthermore, we look to our students with a genuine desire to learn from them.  How great it must feel for children to know that they taught their teacher something.  We love to teach, love to share ideas, whether we are in kindergarten or graduate school. Teachers  do a lot to engender students’ enthusiasm just by being humble enough to learn from them.

Humility, too, means that we ask questions, good questions, real questions, that we don’t know the answer to, and then we listen for our students’ answers.  When we approach teaching with humility, we see the classroom as a place designed to empower students to find their voice, not a place where our voice reins supreme.

Eric Liu, has written a wonderful book about people who mentor us, the Guiding Lights of our lives.  In the book he offers a beautiful summary of the importance of humility in teachers:

We have this notion of the great teacher as the Great Communicator. But the most powerful teachers aren’t those who speak, perform, and orate with the most dazzle and force. They are those who listen with full-body intensity, and customize. Teaching is not one-size-fits-all; it’s one-size-fits-one. So before we transmit a single thing, we must tune in to the unique and ever-fluctuating frequency of every learner: his particular mix of temperament, skills, intelligence, and motivation. This means, as teachers, putting aside our own egos and preconceptions about what makes this particular lesson so important . . . It means letting go of the idea of control.

To silence our self-interests so that children can learn sounds easy in theory, but it is not  so easy in practice.  And yet humility is essential.  If we want our children to learn, we must, in turn, enter the classroom as learners too. Ultimately, of course, that is best for for our students.  And for us.

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  • Tracey McGrath

    Thank you Jim for this thought provoking post. As I get ready to begin graduate school again in pursuit if an Administrative degree, this post has given me a lot to think about with regards to my practices and presence in the classroom as both a teacher and a mentor. As an adult student, this rings so true, I personal learn best from my professional colleagues who are open to conversation and ideas not from those who feel that they know all and have become, in many ways overpowering. I can see in my students and in the classrooms that I visit when they feel as though they don’t have a voice they often shut down or become more frustrated. It is easy, especially in difficult situations, to think that we have the ultimate control, but students who leave classrooms where they feel they are part of the learning process are the ones who find the most success. This is a lesson that I would like to teach to the teachers I work with in order to help them be better teachers and learners.

  • Lynn

    I struggled with this for the first few years of teaching – I didn’t realize it at the time. I started to gradually learn about humility in the classroom when I had children of my own, especially after the first one started school. My filter for all things became, “would I want my child’s teacher to do the things I am doing – say the things I am saying?” Now, as a coach, I often wonder if I am too harsh – especially on newer teachers – because my filter for identifying good teaching remains with my own beautiful children.

  • Jim Knight

    Tracey and Lynn, thanks for your comments. What strikes me is that what I have found is that, ironically, the more power we give to students, the more they give back to us. And that kind of power, power based on respect, is much meaningful and authentic than the power that comes from control

  • Jim Knight

    And I suppose Lynn, what you’re pointing out is that we need to bring the same humility to teachers when we approach them as coaches.

  • ASims

    Thanks for your insight on humility. This reminded me of the book by Robert Greenleaf, “Servant Leader” . In many ways, the description sound like leadership with integrity and commitment to the mission and the students engaged in achieving it. I admire this newfound humility lesson-to leave ego at the door and come to leadership with humility. I think it will make for better classrooms, workplaces, and an increased sense of team and morale.