Ego: a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance.
One of the most consistent criticisms I have heard about teachers is when they show any kind of ego. Often this is for good reason – it is easy for issues of the ego to interfere with many aspects of daily business for a teacher… and honestly, for any employee in general. We are taught to put our egos aside for the duration of our workday because ego often distracts from the goals of any collective.
Anyone remember the first time they enforced a rule with a student and got that back-talk? When I enforced a rule the first time as a student teacher, I was surprised by the powerful resistance I received from the student. I was annoyed at Joseph for blurting out in class, and I sharply addressed him and told him to cut it out.
I shouldn’t be trying to be popular – I was there to do a job.
I’m a witty person, even if I do say so myself. Or rather, I consider myself to be. So when the student resisted, I reflexively deflected with a witty comeback. It felt good. Students laughed. The student laughed too and even relented, but I could sense the defiance as he complied. When he pretended nothing had happened and inevitably offended again the next day, I was less confident with my procedures. He knew my moves. He would be prepared and bolster himself for my counterattack. I would no longer have the advantage of surprise. It was the worst thing I could have done for my credibility. I shouldn’t be trying to be popular – I was there to do a job.
As a wiser teacher, I – along with the rest of you internet warriors, probably – know what I did wrong. I made the issue of discipline about me. He was not coming up against a system of regulations in place for his education – he was against me. I knew it, and he knew it. Even my wittiness, while solving the problem in the short-term, was destructive. It perpetuated the notion that this was me making him do things, me wanting him to be quiet, and that if he resisted or shot back, he would be shooting back at me. My cleverness revealed my investment. My ego and his were on the line. And who am I? I’m some adult. Why should he care?
From that moment, I made a conscious change. Rules are facts of life. So I treated them like it. Correction came with no emotion, no anger, no annoyance. My classroom policy became like gravity: even if you disagreed or didn’t know how it worked, you still knew how to prepare for it. There was no mercy, no leniency. It stopped being about me. Every day was a new day with no record. A new chance to succeed. It came to be about us maneuvering together in this world – finding out its rules in order to win.
Stories like this tend to tell the teacher that ego has no place in the classroom or the workforce. It may sound like I’m spreading that lesson now. I believe the opposite, however. I believe there has to be ego. It just needs to be placed correctly.
The message was clear – enforcing discipline was a routine, but teaching them was my life.
I’ve stated already that correction came with no emotion. This doesn’t mean I turned into a Terminator every time Joseph got riled up. Instead, whatever emotion I was feeling prior to the incident would perpetuate. I would correct someone mid-sentence, enforce, and move back to my lesson. On the rare occasion that I had to remove a student, I silently texted an advisor and made sure to greet the student the next day. The message was clear – enforcing discipline was a routine, but teaching them was my life.
Here is where ego belongs – in your work. I show my lessons to my students like I’ve just invented sliced bread. “Today’s a really good one, guys!” I show my excitement when they engage, and I pull out all the stops when I help with their work. My ego is in what I do. Most importantly, we’re on the same side. Model pride as a motivator, not as a weakness.
That’s where your emotion belongs, fellow teachers. Not with your peers, not with your administration, and not in your classroom management. Ego belongs in your teaching. Be proud of your work. Be proud of your students. Show the path to their success, not the blueprint of their failure. They know how they fail – they have other people to tell them, more than we probably assume. How is a student going to trust you in any way if they think you’re going to drop them at the first sign of imperfection? They don’t need more of those people in their lives.
Ego should be about pushing for success, not fearing failure.