Why “Chipped Teacups”?

Have you stood in front of your students or your faculty with a nagging, creeping sense of dread that one day, you will be discovered as the fraud you so often feel you are? Have you sat down to a parent-teacher conference and hoped to some almighty being that the family in front of you is one of those “cool families” that doesn’t ask too many questions regarding curriculum or pedagogy? 

If so, I welcome you to the tribe of chipped teacups. That dread you feel in front of your students, colleagues, and families is not owing to a lack of effort, intellectual curiosity and capacity, or preparation. Rather, I would argue that your dread emanates from your humanity and your humility. You certainly aren’t in this for the money or the consistent positive reinforcement of the careful and methodical work you do every day to help your students learn. You do it because you love it. And you love it because you value the process of inquiry and the searching and discovering that you know helps transform your students into those humans who will save us all from ourselves. 

And you love it in spite of the lack of respect afforded to educators in these times. Education and educators are under assault, and we should all feel the strain of this conflict. Legislation has been passed in more than 20 states limiting the degree to which teachers can help students understand the effects of structural racism in creating contemporary American society and politics. Education budgets have been slashed for decades, and we are currently seeing a decline in those entering the field of education, from the earliest ages through high school. Added to these dynamics has been a global pandemic that has placed teachers at the frontlines of a health crisis, putting their health and safety at risk to tend to the students in their care. One result of this dynamic has been a large-scale exodus from the teaching profession in the last two years. 

Given the weight of institutional, societal, and familial expectations laid upon you, that dread I referenced at the start of this piece is warranted and, I propose, healthy. We are human, and the degree to which we accept our own humanity likely informs the degree to which we are willing to accept the humanity of our students. 

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I taught in independent schools for more than twenty years. These were great schools filled with educators and administrators who worked hard to enrich the lives of their students. That said, we were also asked to put on airs of confidence and comfort in every aspect of our job. The image we were to put forth to our parents, alumni, and Boards of Trustees was that of a scholar and athlete or artist quietly determined to provide each constituents’ vision of what education should look like each day, each lesson, and each interaction with our students and colleagues. The expectation was to be, in my chosen parlance, and un-chipped teacup. 

Reality was always far more complex than perception. No matter the context or the school, my colleagues and I experienced our own personal, professional, and familial struggles. We were depressed, dealing with dependency or addiction, grappling with marital strife, or the loss of family members; and through it all, we were to enter our classrooms with smiles on our faces, joy in our hearts, and a wealth of knowledge and witticism to share. In reality, we were chipped teacups. 

To be clear, I do not advocate for the over-sharing among teachers or between teachers and students that can so often create the slippery slopes leading to boundary violations. Rather, my call is to embrace and accept our own humanity and that of our colleagues, as this process will help us build empathy for one another and for our students. 

I recently finished William Kent Krueger’s book This Tender Land, an Odyssey-like exploration of a group of orphans making their way through the Midwest in the 1930’s. It was a lovely and heart wrenching story, and I highly recommend it as a work of fiction. One of the characters the orphans encounter on their journey, Sister Eve, has a large scar on her forehead that Odie, the main character, inquires about. She frames her scar, as well as wrinkled skin and other physical imperfections as “cracks” through which God’s light can enter. I would argue that the “chipped” elements of our teacups can serve a similar purpose, creating spaces through which our imperfections show and help our students understand our humanity and capacity for empathy and understanding.

This newsletter is for those of you interested in embracing the messiness of working together in education. I hope to provide a weekly dose of research and practitioner-based information to help you muddle your way through your teaching journey. Let’s embrace our “chips” as opportunities to learn, grow, and develop empathy for our students who bring with them their own imperfections and important histories. I will aim to pass along nuggets of wisdom that I hope will lead to questions, dialog, collegiality (rather than congeniality), and a weekly dose of “you are not in this alone.” See you next Wednesday. All the best.