Teaching Is Imperfectible and You Are Not an Inexhaustible Resource

Now is a good time to get clear about the fundamental nature of our work.


As colleges and universities shift to online instruction during the COVID-19 outbreak, all the great teachers out there are trying to create outstanding virtual learning experiences. First, stop and read this spot-on post by Rebecca Barrett-Fox: “Please Do A Bad Job of Putting Your Class Online.” Then, please come back here and keep reading.

If you do all the things that Barrett-Fox suggests, also know this: You are not in fact doing a bad job. You are doing the right thing. Doing more does not mean that you are doing better or that you are better. This is very important, because the idea that you must compromise can be synonymous with lowering your standards, and that going “above and beyond” signals the extent of your care and professionalism. You are wrong. You are wrong now, and you are wrong under ordinary conditions. Because teaching is imperfectible, and because you are not an inexhaustible resource.

This impulse that you may be feeling–to redesign your course to fix all the old problems and anticipate all the new ones, to adapt to all the circumstances (known and potential), to use all the best tools and give all your time and energy–is probably familiar, even if these current conditions are unusual. At the end of every semester, most college teachers I know immediately launch into planning what they will do next semester to fix this semester’s problems and letdowns. There are the “I’m Putting My Foot Down” solutions: strict no-cell-phone policies, reading quizzes, and required attendance, all sure to eradicate irritating and counterproductive behaviors. Others vow to “Let Me Make This Absolutely Clear”—next time, they will explain, delineate, and elaborate upon every policy, assignment, and procedure to counter misunderstandings, both willful and accidental. Teachers who declare “Never Again” (again and again) engage in ritual creative destruction, burning their course designs to the ground to rebuild the better beautiful thing, often by “Adopting the New Tool.” Whatever the resolution, we set out to fix vexing problems, believing that if we set up the correct rules, explain what we mean and what we want in sufficient detail, deploy the latest pedagogical practice, or anticipate and curtail students’ wily tricks, self-destructive behaviors, and indifference, that “Next Time Will Be Different.”

When I hear these perennial conversations, I’m reminded that teaching is a fundamentally hopeful activity. Education is based on the belief that people can learn, which means that people can change. Students can finish a class knowing more than when they started, they can have new skills and outlooks, they might even know what they still don’t know, and leave with new questions that they are excited to explore. Recent pedagogical advances reinforce this optimism with science-based knowledge, technological innovations, and evidence-based practices. We know What the Best College Teachers Do and How Learning Works and how to Make It Stick. We practice just-in-time instruction, and scaffold a student’s learning, and craft learning objectives that are SMART—specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timely. Most of all, we are expected to “align” learning: to close the loop between what we want students to learn, how we will help them learn it, and to determine to what extent that learning actually happened.

With all these tools and expectations at our disposal, however, I’ve noticed a troublesome trend: the expectation that great teaching doesn’t just optimize learning experiences, but perfects them. These days, many of the best college teachers seem to believe that any difficulties that arise are instructional problems that can ultimately be designed away. This attitude goes well beyond the usual blend of optimism, skill, and fortitude that good teachers bring to their work, semester after semester. Contemporary pedagogy, for all its considerable advantages, has also created the impression that design solutions exist to every conceivable problem, especially if that problem is ensuring that problems do not arise.

It’s a good time to remember that teaching is imperfectible. If this seems like yet another rebuke against perfectionism or a reminder that learning is messy, that’s okay, if it helps. You may find it a relief. (I do.) You might let go of the compulsion to fine-tune every policy to adapt to every fresh or intractable transgression—students will still sometimes arrive late, or multitask, or fail to read. You might even notice that the class you’re trying to fix yet again has actually been good, if not downright excellent. I hope that the idea makes it clear that you are likely a fine teacher doing good work under hard conditions with the best possible tools.

But I also think we need to let go of the idea that teaching is perfectible because it has pernicious and unethical implications. Guided by motivational theories, we may create learning experiences that students are willing to participate in. But great assignments are not incantations that enchant the most recalcitrant student to optimal learning, and motivation can too easily skid into coercion. With the most up-to-date digital tools, students may create presentations that dazzle parents, administrators and the public. But slick products don’t necessarily translate into lasting learning well after the product is complete. SMART goals might make the ends of education clear and achievable, if observable and measurable ends are the only ones that matter.

What matters most right now? What can you do with the time, energy, and skills that you have to give under these circumstances? What would you do now if you accepted that teaching is imperfectible and that you are not an unlimited resource?

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